The Frisian painter and writer Wybrand de Geest (around 1660-1716) is often confused with his grandfather who had the same name (1591-after 1661). The latter was also called “the Eagle” in honor of his putative “high flight” in the art of painting. The elder De Geest was a successful artist who travelled to Paris and Rome and collected artificialia and naturalia. By contrast, none of the grandson’s paintings are extant. He was, however, quite a prolific writer. One of his writings on painting has now been reprinted, in an edition that contains an introduction by Jochen Becker. This text is one of the first scholarly studies on the younger De Geest, a lack of attention that is remarkable taking into account the paucity of Dutch art literature in general. In addition to the work that has now been published in a facsimile edition, the Kabinet der Statuen or “Statue Cabinet,” De Geest wrote in 1702 an adaptation of Van Mander’s didactic poem, the Grondt der Edel-vry Schilder-const, entitled Den leermeester der schilderkonst (The Instructor to the Art of Painting).
The Kabinet der Statuen actually comprises three texts. The first is an illustrated description and exploration of the most important ancient statues in collections in Rome, containing also references to contemporary artists, mostly from the Southern Netherlands. The title refers to its being a virtual “portable sculpture cabinet” in pocketbook format. The second text is a description of the artistic attractions of ancient Rome, complete with a large fold-out map of this city (included in the reprint), entitled Den getrouwen leidtsman in Rome (The Reliable Guide to Rome). The third is a eulogy of painting, Het Pronk-Altaar der Schilder-Konst (The Art of Painting’s Altar of Praise). Both latter texts only comprise 31 of the 156 pages of the publication.
The first text, the actual Kabinet itself, contains adaptations of the images of classical sculpture which were put together first by François Perrier in 1637 and copied by Jan de Bisschop in his Signorum veterum icones of 1668-69. De Geest’s publication, however, differs essentially from the works of his predecessors. The original large-scale images of Perrier are scaled down by the engraver Jan Lamsvelt in order to fit four of them together on one octavo page. De Geest has added an explanatory text, referring to a variety of other publications, both from antiquity (Ovid, Pliny) and the seventeenth century (Junius, Vondel, the poetess Katharina Lescailje). De Geest’s remarks give the reader mainly an overview of the mythological and historical background of the figures represented, but he also refers to the reception of the statues by modern artists, dwelling on topoi from the tradition of art theory.
In his introduction to the original text – in effect it is an epilogue – Becker swiftly but extensively outlines De Geest’s intellectual background and his theoretical ambitions. The many eulogies preceding the main text of the book clarify how De Geest’s endeavour originated in a milieu of acquaintances who were also active in literature. This procedure echoes for example the situation in which Van Hoogstraten’s Introduction to the Academy of Painting originated in 1678: just like De Geest, Van Hoogstraten was also active as a playwright. In the Kabinet, De Geest compares the arts of sculpture and drama. His flexible borrowings from diverse authors also yield some interesting theoretical views on issues such as the concept of ‘grace’ and the function of sculpture to be lifelike.
Becker states that De Geest was devoted in general to the ideals of ‘classicism,’ but he does not explain this term, which was obviously not used by seventeenth-century authors. This is regrettable. In one of the few passages in which De Geest praises a contemporary master, he is very positive about Rembrandt. How does this praise fit in with a supposedly ‘classicist’ doctrine, within which, as defined by Jan Emmens, Rembrandt was described as the first ‘heretic in art?’ Becker also calls De Geest’s methods ‘amateurish,’ contrasting them with the more ‘philosophical’ and systematic works of Van Mander, and relates this to a putative ‘classicist’ favor for details, contrasting it to an older tendency for systematic theorizing. I do not find this argument convincing, deeming the respective characters and personal commitments of De Geest and Van Mander more essential to the diverse natures of their writings than this rather ill-defined concept of ‘classicism.’ The position De Geest’s writings hold in respect to the tradition of Dutch art literature needs elaboration, especially because De Geest explicitly refers more than once to his predecessors Van Mander, Junius, Goeree and Van Hoogstraten, and he interestingly even talks about a treatise on the art of drawing by a S. de Roet (or Roed), which is lost.
The edition does not contain an index, bibliographical analysis, nor references giving information on De Geest’s use of older literature. The excellent bibliography provided by Becker, however, is the perfect starting point for any further research. It is remarkable that the small German publishing house chose to keep this publication entirely in Dutch (including Becker’s text). Unfortunately, the publisher seems not to have employed a Dutch-speaking copy editor, with the result that there are a number of typographical errors in the epilogue, and even on the cover.
Both the reprint and the clarifying epilogue are a valuable contribution to the knowledge of the tradition of art literature in Dutch, which surprisingly is still not generally known, analyzed, and accessible. De Geest’s book serves especially as a key to a better understanding of the intended public of most treatises: as a ‘pocketbook’ it was a cheap and accessible form of information about the sculptures of antiquity and their artistic and literary background, without having to enter deeply into philological and antiquarian discussions. The edition contains a concrete reference to this intended public, in the form of an image of the autograph of the owner of the original copy used for the reprint, hinting at the reception of De Geest’s work in the eighteenth century by Frisian art lovers. It is to be hoped that the publisher of this book and the author of the commentary will continue their much needed work and bring forth for example, a reprint of De Geest’s Leermeester der schilderkonst.
University of Amsterdam