Eddy de Jongh’s long-awaited Questions of Meaning; Theme and Motif in Dutch Seventeenth-Century Painting (originally published in Dutch in 1995) presents for the first time in English a collection of many of his most memorable studies. The book consists of an introduction, nine reprinted essays (whose endnotes have been slightly updated), and a hitherto unpublished lecture, all dedicated to explicating the signifying mysteries of seventeenth-century Dutch art. Specialists will already be familiar with several of these now classic essays, especially, “A Bird’s Eye View of Erotica,” “The Changing Face of Lady World,” and “To Instruct and Delight.” And other, lesser known essays, such as “A Heathen Poet Christianized and Moralized,” along with the previously unpublished “Mountains in the Lowlands,” will undoubtedly stimulate considerable interest.
De Jongh has long been heralded as one of the founding fathers of interpretive studies of Dutch seventeenth-century art, a field of inquiry that is barely thirty-five years old. Indeed, his iconological method of interpretation, itself a variant of Erwin Panofsky’s venerable method, has consistently yielded fruitful results in the form of fascinating insights about Dutch art and the long-vanished culture which produced it. This volume proves no exception as we are informed, with great perspicacity and wit, of inter alia, early modern European fears of mountain ranges, of late seventeenth-century Dutch obsessions with language and civility, of the significance of the motif of a sphere resting on a balustrade in Dutch portraiture in relation to contemporary concepts of tranquillitas animi, the estimation of Ovid’sMetamorphoses during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, etc.
This publication is richly rewarding; it was a pleasure to reread essays in English that I had previously pored over in Dutch. This exercise caused me to appreciate anew the subtleties of De Jongh’s arguments and the enormous wealth of contemporary source material (principally in the form of texts and prints) that he summons forth as evidence to support his arguments. The sheer diversity of supportive information presented here militates against the reductive view among De Jongh’s antagonists that he primarily utilizes emblems to interpret Dutch paintings and consequently, that his overall method is best termed ‘emblematic interpretation’.
De Jongh confronts his critics in his thought-provoking, though at times, overly defensive, introduction. Here he responds to the growing chorus of scholars critical of iconology who have emerged since the appearance in 1983 of Svetlana Alpers’s notable book, The Art of Describing. Specifically, De Jongh addresses questions that have been raised concerning the iconological propensity to separate form from content in its interpretive strategies, its insistence that motifs replete with meaning are concealed or disguised so as to preclude immediate recognition, and that these very same motifs served to impart weighty moral messages to contemporary viewers. De Jongh’s introduction is eloquent and illuminating though not all readers will concur with his point of view.
In light of what essentially amounts to the book’s ‘a posteriori’ introduction, it is interesting to note that several of the other essays gathered within it reveal De Jongh’s frustrations with the growing army of less skillful exegetes who applied his method indiscriminately. Very often these essays – “The Interpretation of Still-Life Paintings: Possibilities and Limitations,” provides a telling example – seem to use art as a pretext to explore relevant methodological precepts and gently castigate those misemploying them. Yet the caricature-like manner in which the iconological method has sometimes been wielded by others undoubtedly stoked the fires of scholarly discontent.
Despite the existence of many excellent iconological studies (best exemplified by De Jongh’s own work), some specialists working at the dawn of the new millennium question whether the iconological method is still viable in an unmodified form. These very same specialists have subsequently expanded the parameters of investigation to include broader cultural, intellectual and pictorial issues that lie beyond the confines of De Jongh’s more restricted concerns. Nevertheless, we must all acknowledge the tremendous contribution that iconology in general and De Jongh in particular has made to the study of seventeenth-century Dutch art. The passage of time and the concomitant changes in scholarship have had the unfortunate consequence of making it difficult for us to appreciate fully the incredible impact that many of De Jongh’s essays exerted when they were initially published, in some cases over three decades ago. And his work continues to be influential today. Simply stated, Questions of Meaning is a valuable book that makes some of De Jongh’s most important essays available in English to wider audiences for the first time. Indeed, it will be particularly valuable for advanced undergraduate and new graduate students studying seventeenth-century Dutch art.
Reprinted, with permission of the author, from Seventeenth-Century News, 58, 2000, pp. 217-19.