The work of the cultural historian Herman Roodenburg has long been of interest to art historians who share his fascination with codes of civility in early modern social discourse. In this book, Roodenburg builds upon a series of insightful conference papers and journal articles to explore in depth a central theme of his research: the significance of elegant, cultivated posture and gesture as an attribute of social distinction among the elite classes in seventeenth-century Holland.
For art historians interested in decoding any work of Dutch art in which the human figure is represented, this study offers important insights. From Roodenburg’s careful reading of courtesy manuals, diaries, and other primary sources, we learn that the contrast between the flat-footed awkwardness of peasants depicted by Ostade and Steen and the graceful deportment of wealthy citizens portrayed by Hals, TerBorch and others is not just a pictorial convention, but a reflection of contemporary practice. The conscious separation between natural and genteel behavior served an essential function in controlling social discourse. Erect bearing, moderate gestures, and a habitual stance akin to classical contrapposto were inculcated in children of the upper classes through a variety of activities such as dancing, riding and fencing. These qualities were consistently advocated in instructional manuals for these sports and for the cultivation of polite conversation and manners. An intriguing recurrent theme is the close parallel between the ideals advocated in courtesy books and those in found in texts on the techniques of acting and painting.
An exemplary case throughout the book is the family of Constantijn Huygens, secretary to Stadhouder Frederik Hendrik. Huygens’s diaries and other ‘egodocumenten’ provide an especially rich archive of information about this family and its rising social status. Their story is of interest not only for biographical data about the remarkable individuals who belonged to this clan, but also as a model for the upward mobility of Holland’s burgher elite. It is clear that Huygens took a sustained interest in rearing his sons Constantijn the Younger, Christiaan and Lodewijk to look, live and behave like gentlemen, even going so far as to submit the adolescent Constantijn to a painful operation to correct an unattractive kink in his neck. A highlight of their education was foreign travel, especially to France, where they could perfect their social skills through daily practice in genteel conversation.
Most of the sources Roodenburg cites were written or published originally in languages other than Dutch, not for lack of indigenous texts, but because the educated upper classes preferred to read, write and converse in French or Italian. Dutch translations of courtesy books, by the time they appeared, were aimed at a more plebian market. Roodenburg relies frequently on inventories of the libraries of the Huygenses and their contemporaries for evidence of their interests and concerns. It is a fair assumption that men who owned copies of Castiglione’s Courtier and other manuals of civility, as well as books on fencing, horsemanship, and other polite activities, made a point of being knowledgeable about these topics. To offer one small quibble, however, I wonder if Roodenburg’s tendency to accept this evidence at face value is too generous. Owners of large libraries do not always read every book they possess, nor do they necessarily practice all the activities described there. Certainly, the building of a library for its own sake was less common in the seventeenth century, when books were more precious commodities than they are now, but ownership of several different copies or editions of the same text suggests the acquisitive passion of the collector as much as the reader’s interest in the book’s contents. Nevertheless, to the extent that displaying one’s library in the home provided a mute demonstration of one’s education and interests, the owner of such books could certainly present himself to his visitors as well-informed on the polite arts. Books and other domestic accessories, as well as clothes, made the man – but, as Roodenburg shows, physical deportment was an even more essential quality by which civility was literally embodied.
Following a general introduction to the problems and methods at hand, the discussion is divided into chapters that establish the cultural context of life in the Dutch Republic, the centrality of physical grace to the concept of self-fashioning, and the consistent emphasis on bodily ideals in the arts of painting, acting and preaching. An important central focus is the sociological concept of habitus, or behavior so well-ingrained as to be practiced habitually, without conscious thought. To achieve this instinctive level of response requires repetitive practice, preferably at a young age, and this method was applied to the education of the Huygens boys and others of their class. Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura, or seemingly artless grace, defines the ideal end product of such a campaign, although Roodenburg clarifies the distinction between the more artificial and self-aggrandizing conduct of the sixteenth-century courtier and the later, French-inspired ideal of thehonnête homme, whose manners were more understated and whose primary aims were to charm and to please.
Of most direct interest to art historians will be Chapter 4, “Painting and Civility.” Here, Roodenburg shows that not only did the depiction of the figure by painters such as Steen and TerBorch reflect contemporary codes of manners, but both the paintings themselves and the painters’ manuals written by Karel van Mander, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Gerard de Lairesse and Arnold Houbraken were recommended by writers on manners as sources of instruction for personal conduct. Indeed, in their practical advice to painters on how to construct a pose or display an emotion, these authors offer unusually specific and concrete descriptions of pervasive ideals. Thus, texts composed for the education of artists take their place alongside courtesy books as essential clues to, and manuals for, the practice of civility. Furthermore, as demonstrated in the next chapter, there is a particular reciprocity between acting and painting: the actor’s body, like the figure on the canvas, is artfully composed to express conventions of status, character and mood. This applies both to individual figures and to interactions among groups. (For instance, in both theatrical scenes and painted cityscapes, the most important person in a cluster of figures is usually placed in the middle.)
Although Dutch painting can no longer be understood as a transparent “mirror of everyday life,” body language is such a fundamental component of social discourse that its construction in figure painting, to be intelligible to its audience, must express a widely accepted code of conduct. Roodenburg’s exemplary study makes this point from a variety of angles, and his extensive bibliography provides a treasure trove of sources that deserve to be further mined for clues to the relationships between pictorial imagery and its social context. Clear, well-organized and straightforward, Roodenburg’s prose makes his thoroughly researched conclusions look inevitable, even easy: like its subjects, a model of savoir faire.
Stephanie S. Dickey
Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario