The central thesis of this book is a relatively simple one: that the primary destination of most paintings produced in the Dutch Republic was the home, and that in this environment, men and women reacted to these works differently. Many of the original associations of paintings are lost when they are removed from this context and displayed in present-day museums and galleries. While Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips, an art historian and sociologist respectively, insist that their publication is aimed chiefly at the non-specialist reader, there is much to ponder even for those well-acquainted with the period under discussion. One of the problems with their gender-oriented approach, however, is that there is so little surviving documentation that can inform us about more general male and female responses to works of art. Instead, the authors, with varying degrees of success, draw on sundry sociological and anthropological studies of different periods and cultures to try and reconstruct the seventeenth-century practices of the Dutch.
The first two chapters are introductory in nature, dealing respectively with the socio-economic structure of Amsterdam and the layout and furnishing of elite homes. Among the more interesting issues raised are the lighting conditions within the home. Despite the appearance of brightly illuminated genre scenes, the actual Dutch interior, especially in smaller dwellings, would seem to have offered only restricted visibility for viewing images that decorated the walls. Chapter Three examines the role of family portraits in the home. Beyond enumerating the importance of this branch of portraiture for preserving likenesses and memory, enhancing status, indicating familial and political loyalties, and acting as moral exemplars for relatives and descendants, the authors have few new insights to offer. The core of the chapter is devoted to an analysis of four inventories from the first decade of the eighteenth century, the majority of which describe the possessions of exceptionally wealthy regent families and can hardly be regarded as indicative of the norm in Amsterdam elite circles at this time or the period immediately before.
Chapter Four investigates the reception of history paintings. Muizelaar and Phillips note the popularity of such subjects as Lot and his Daughters, Susanna, Bathsheba, Venus, Diana, and others that usually involve nude or semi-nude females. They reject the idea that owners of these paintings enjoyed the tension between the moral implications of the narrative and the inherent eroticism of the scene, as Eric Jan Sluijter has persuasively suggested, proposing instead that the primary motivation (particularly for male viewers) was sexual. This latter impulse was also primarily the appeal of certain types of genre painting, a subject treated in the following chapter. After a largely self-evident consideration of people’s physical appearance in the seventeenth century – wealthier men and women were taller and heavier than their poorer counterparts! – the authors launch into a long discussion of how various members of the Houting family of Amsterdam would have responded to the elegant female figures in two paintings by Gerard ter Borch that they owned in 1704. Not only is it impossible to identify these paintings today, but there is not a shred of documentary evidence to bolster any of the suppositions made by Muizelaar and Phillips. In the section dealing with low-life scenes, the authors fail to engage with the extensive literature on the representation of the peasant in Northern art. The penultimate chapter delves further into the practice among householders of openly displaying erotically-charged works in the main reception rooms of the house where family and friends were entertained. It is the authors’ conclusion that these images worked chiefly as incitements to sexual activity among married couples, which was permissible because the Dutch Republic was relatively liberated in its attitudes. While this may have been one possible motive, the reality was probably a more complicated mixture of titillation and moral exemplar in a society that was just as repressed as it was tolerant.
One of the central incongruities of this book is that while it acknowledges the primacy of inventories in any discussion of the interior and its contents, most of the authors’ own extended analysis of this documentary source is based on a narrow sample of post mortem and bankruptcy inventories assessed by the Amsterdam art dealer Jan Pietersz Zomer in the years 1687-1720. This was a period of immense cultural change, a considerable duration after the blossoming of Golden Age painting, when notaries and their clerks became markedly more cursory in describing household possessions, and when important changes in the decoration and furnishing of dwellings were taking place. An explanation for the selection of this inventory sample, the vast majority of the cited examples dating to the early eighteenth century, is never given. Nevertheless, Muizelaar’s and Phillips’s book provides a great deal of food for thought and is written in a clear and mercifully jargon-free style.
University College Dublin