Genre Imagery in Early Modern Northern Europe: New Perspectivesarrives at a rich moment in the study of the playful, complex pictures best known as genre scenes. Several current and upcoming exhibitions and symposia focus on early modern genre imagery, including an exhibition from the UK’s Royal Collection Trust, a conference at the RKD, and the eagerly anticipated and methodically researched 2017-19 exhibition “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry.”
Arthur J. DiFuria’s edited volume offers a welcome and important collection of new viewpoints on the origins of these pictures and their social functions within early modern culture. Notably, it aims to move beyond the interpretive binary of genre images as either “slices of life” or “repositories of ‘disguised symbols,’” especially prevalent in the study of Netherlandish art, in search of more nuanced interpretations. The book revisits the major theoretical arguments about genre as an artistic category in its introduction and offers alternative modes of interpreting genre imagery through seven case studies by contributors Amy Golahny, Martha Hollander, Jessen Kelly, Alison Kettering, Annette LeZotte, Sheila D. Muller, and Irene Schaudies. The visual material discussed ranges from the early sixteenth to the late seventeenth century.
DiFuria suggests that the continuing resonance of early modern genre imagery stems from its ability to appear “real” while simultaneously drawing upon a vast array of textual, cultural, and symbolic sources. “Genre’s grafting of the everyday onto the meaningful – and vice versa – also suggests something with more far-reaching implications for our understanding of how people used pictures in the Early Modern Netherlands.” At the same time that viewers could interpret genre scenes based on their daily lived experiences, these images could “condition their audiences to see the everyday with a pictorialized gaze.” In some ways, Genre Imagery in Early Modern Northern Europe: New Perspectives complements Angela Vanhaelen and Bronwen Wilson’s edited volume The Erotics of Looking: Early Modern Netherlandish Art from 2013. Both collections of essays privilege the beholder’s active role in the experience of viewing early modern art. As the essays in the present volume reveal, this participatory aspect was often most overt in genre scenes, wherein the viewer’s own world was reflected, even if it appeared in purposefully skewed or transmuted forms.
Several of the essays delve into highly specific political and cultural contexts in which the pictures they analyze were produced. Kelly’s study of Lucas van Leyden’s pictures of card games links the rise of game-playing with the origins of genre painting as interrelated forms of interactive play. Especially convincing are Kelly’s arguments that Van Leyden’s paintings take time-based, ephemeral games of chance and fix them so that viewers could linger over the uncertain futures of the games and, by extension, of life. Schaudies, in “Jacques Jordaens’s Twelfth Night Politics,” explores reference to kingship and good governance in Jordaens’s images to paint a vivid picture of the political machinations of the Northern and Southern Netherlands during the 1630s-40s. Muller locates Gerrit van Honthorst’s captivating painting, The Merry Fiddler within his social circles and networks of friendship in Utrecht and explores how they, in turn, were informed by his experiences with productive sociability in Rome.
Gender and class overtly inform several authors’ arguments and feature implicitly throughout the volume. LeZotte picks up on Elizabeth Honig’s key work on the interplay of economics, morality, and judgement in imagery of Antwerp market scenes. LeZotte argues that the women portrayed in these market scenes play vital mediating roles as purveyors and guides in ways that echo the physical presence and actual roles of women in sixteenth-century marketplaces. Hollander’s analysis of fragile early modern masculinity, as pictured in Adriaen van de Venne’s Cavalier at a Dressing Table, is, like its subject, both amusing and thought-provoking. Her findings about the fashion wars of the 1620s and 1630s enrich her arguments that Van de Venne’s foppish cavalier is both a response to traditional allegorical precedents of vanity and a time-sensitive social critique of male extravagance.
Another prominent thread in the volume is the instability of the borders between genre images and other artistic categories. Golahny’s discussion of Rembrandt and “everyday life” focuses on evidence for his everyday habits and how he transformed his observations of mundane life into imaginative hybrid compositions of history and genre. Kettering, through the example of the hybrid of rustic still lifes and Dutch farmstead pictures, makes a much broader claim for the multivalent roles of objects in Netherlandish images. As Kettering writes in a footnote, this issue of hybrid genres that destabilize traditional hierarchies of painting would bubble up in the eighteenth century, when genre subjects were firmly demoted as feminine and therefore frivolous. Future studies might grapple with how critiques of genre pictures in the seventeenth century either prefigured or diverged from the class-conscious and gendered criticisms of the eighteenth century. More broadly, genre as a category seems to be most precisely defined, and its provocative links with gender and class clearest, when it is criticized. All of these essays deal with class and gender in genre imagery perceptively, but the volume as a whole does not fully consider this issue as a potential defining element of the category.
E. Melanie Gifford’s technical art history studies for “Vermeer and Masters of Genre Painting” encourage additional avenues for future research. The authors in Genre Imagery in Early Modern Northern Europe refer frequently to the social connections that underlie the compositional, stylistic, and subject choices made by early modern artists. Further collaboration between technical study and historical inquiry could reveal more about how artists’ interactions with one other relate to the innovations that mark genre imagery of the era.
On this note, the authors’ mutual sensitivity to details of facture is obscured by the publisher’s unfortunate use of black and white illustrations. Internet searches can provide the needed color images; however, this lapse creates an unnecessary distance from the intricate relationships between text and image celebrated in the volume. Nevertheless, Genre Imagery in Early Modern Northern Europe: New Perspectives will stimulate many new questions about the slippery category of “genre” and act as a resource for both students and established scholars.
Nicole Elizabeth Cook
University of Delaware