The topic of Stephanie Sonntag’s well-researched dissertation is the so-called Fensterbild (window view) by the Leiden fijnschilders, a formula that was developed by Gerrit Dou at the end of the 1640s and persisted in popularity into the eighteenth century. The typical format shows a window with one or two figures in the foreground and a view of an interior farther back. In a sequence of four chapters, Sonntag examines the form and content of the Fensterbild. The meticulous analyses in the first three chapters lead to the main idea, plausibly presented through a cultural-historical approach, in the fourth: the manner in which Dou and his followers stage their window scenes resembles the stage setting of Dutch theatre.
The Fensterbild was already understood by Jacob Burckhardt as an autonomous genre, but Sonntag offers a more precise definition. Described in Dou’s time as a depiction “in een venster”, the format is dominated by a painted window of natural stone, the frame of which matches the edges of the picture. As in earlier window-like compositions (such as Rembrandt’s Girl at the Window, 1645, Dulwich Picture Gallery), one or two figures turn towards the beholder and look out of the picture. But the Fensterbild is different from these earlier compositions in that it also presents an interior scene in the background. Critical for the Fensterbild is the mutual connection of a view in and the act of looking out.
Sonntag provides a statistical analysis of around 400 paintings by 80 different Dutch painters, with an appendix of several tables and graphs. Her research indicates that the Fensterbild was always small in format, and was widely disseminated. Forty-four examples by Gerrit Dou alone are recorded (his earliest dated Fensterbild is The Grocery Shop, 1647, Louvre), and the type found its greatest reception in his immediate context, treated most frequently by Frans van Mieris the Elder and Dominicus van Tol, but also by Gabriel Metsu, Caspar Netscher, Pieter Cornelisz. van Slingelandt, Godfried Schalcken and Matthijs Naiveu. Later the Fensterbild became a specialty of certain painters, such as Adriaen van der Werff and Willem van Mieris, while declining in popularity elsewhere. It is striking that Dou’s difficult and detailed rendering is seldom equaled by his followers.
In the first chapter, elements of the Fensterbild are discussed in the context of contemporary art literature, primarily Philips Angel’s Lof der schilder-konst. The motif of the window always involves elegant architecture with stone relief sculpture, which did not actually exist in Dutch homes of the seventeenth century. This fictive setting derives from several models, especially the classical round arches found in Leiden civil architecture and in contemporary stage sets, which Sonntag describes in greater detail in the fourth section. The decorative, imposing windows, traditionally connoting dignity and grandeur, stand in strong contrast to the simple, often sturdy genre figures within. Rather than suggesting the true location of a genre scene, they function as a dignifying frame that points self-reflectively to the preciousness of fine painting highly prized by collectors.
As noted earlier by Eric Jan Sluijter (De Lof der schilderkunst […], 1993), Philips Angel also asserts that costliness is visible in the intricate still life displayed illusionistically on the window ledge with a refined rendering of light and shadow. Decorative opulence and illusion are played up further in the sculpted relief below. As Sonntag explains, the relief, often showing François Duquesnoy’s Bacchanal of Putti, was a standard reference to the art of sculpture, and therefore also to the paragone between painting and sculpture. According to Angel, the imitation of nature (nae’t leven) takes priority over the imitation of other works of art, which – in contrast to Italian art theory – especially reveals itself in description without idealization. In the Fensterbild this premise is mirrored in the precise depiction of objects such as fruits and vegetables on a miniature scale, corresponding with Angel’s praise of the ability of painting to evoke the appearance of presence through color alone (schijn sonder zijn). While many of the qualities praised by Angel also occur in other pictures by the Leiden fine painters, Sonntag demonstrates that the Fensterbild in particular contains all the elements that, according to Angel, characterize the mastery of painting, and exhibits them as if on a stage, as a painted Lof der schilder-kunst.
The iconography of the Fensterbild forms the topic of the second part, in which Sonntag arrives at new interpretations through consultation of cultural-historical sources. Her statistical analysis shows that Fensterbilder most often depicted genre scenes. (An exception is the self-portrait in a window, discussed briefly in her conclusion.) The repertoire extends from women engaged in domestic activities (the largest group) to the depiction of shops and professions to children playing. Sonntag asks whether these scenes placed at the opening of a window display a historically accurate scenario. Through a review of the cultural connotations of the window in the seventeenth century, she concludes that they are fiction. Private life took place in rooms at the back of the house not seen from the street. The window seldom permitted an unobstructed view inside, and was seen as a border between private and public worlds.
Although the genre themes depicted have been well-researched, Sonntag provides a novel approach by analyzing the combined meaning of the window and the fore- and background scenes. She concludes that the predominant message was negative. The depictions of maids, for example, can be informed by their problematic social status, underscored by showing them frequently in erotically suggestive activities, such as “sausage stuffing“ (e.g., Schalcken, The Sausage Maker, ill. 13). Furthermore, when the maid presents herself at the window – which because of its grand form does not suit her position and therefore cannot be her proper place – she oversteps the domestic and moral border and offers herself to the viewer.
According to Sonntag, the discrepancy between the noble arch and the scene shown within elevates the subject matter drawn from everyday life and ranked low in art theory.
Art theorists often compared straightforward genre to comic theatre. This parallel also becomes clear in the Fensterbild through the choice of characters – a maid, a doctor, an astronomer, etc. – that correspond with certain types in comedy. Sonntag rightly sees additional comic references in the simulated bacchic putti reliefs that include motifs such as a bearded mask held in front of the face of a putto or a startled billy-goat. In my opinion, she wrongly rejects another interpretation of the mask: despite its Dionysian connotation, it can also be interpreted as the mask of Pictura and the relief consequently as a symbol of imitation through painting. Cesare Ripa’s personification of Pictura, well-known in the Netherlands, borrows the mask as an allusion to imitatio in comedy, in which human activities are simulated, as nature is in painting (see Iconologia, 1593, “Imitatione“, p.127).
In the third part of the book, Sonntag investigates the perceptual structure of the Fensterbild format. She makes clear that it was not the goal of Dou and his followers to evoke a literal illusion. Admittedly, the finely painted rendering of the window, sculpture and still life objects fits the style of trompe-l’œil, but deception of the eyes ultimately falls through: because of the small format, the figures cannot be experienced as true-to-life. As mentioned in the first chapter, what mattered for the painters of Fensterbilder was the skillfulness of imitatio naturae. The gazes and gestures of figures as well as the illusionistic projection of the window involve the beholder in the picture. Because of this aim, the emphasis lies on the scene in the foreground, while the dimensions and perspectival accuracy of the interior in the background are neglected. Sonntag connects this composition of space to the optical impression of tele- and microscopes, whose development was celebrated in contemporary Leiden. The emphatic presence of the foreground scene also prompts a comparison with rhetoric, in which evidentia is an important stylistic device.
In the last chapter Sonntag relates her conclusions to the theoretical and practical interplay between art and the theatre of the rederijkers. She asserts that the structure and inherent rhetoric of the Fensterbildercorrespond respectively to the stage set and the direct address to the theatre audience. The bipolar division into fore- and background, in which a middle ground is always missing, is comparable to the footlights and back curtain of the theatre. At the front of the stage the actors appeared before a simple curtain or architectural façade. At the back of the stage, tableaux vivants (togen), static arrangements of living persons, were presented as festive celebrations of the high points of the action, revealed when a curtain was pulled aside and explained by a commentator. The arched window, often accompanied by a curtain, in painted window scenes corresponds in presentation and function to this staging. The foreground figures are comparable in their rhetorical effect to the speakers on the stage, and like them, reach into the space of the viewer. The miniature scene in the background, like the tableau vivant, has no formal connection to the foreground action. As in the theatre, they are separated from each other, dramaturgically and scenographically. The rhetorical poses and character of the foreground figures correspond with the range of types in comedy.
The self-portraits of artists at the window do not fit into this pattern, and Sonntag deals with them separately in her conclusion, where she designates them as a “painted theory of art.” Here the window is cast as a realm of vision and of the imaginative inspiration of the painter. While Fensterbilder may captivate through their fine technique and deceptive naturalism, the window view consciously presents a “theatre” of the art of painting.
University of Bonn
(Translated by Franziska Gottwald)