This welcome volume gathers together, in English translation, six studies that appeared in Dutch between 1990 and 1993. Studying the history of painting entails a willingness to yield to Pictura, the ‘seductress of sight.’ These studies implicitly remind us of that while exploring works of art in rigorously historical terms. Sluijter emphasizes that throughout the period under consideration, “sight was considered the most powerful of the five senses and images were thus credited with having an exceptional effect on the mind.” In regard to the many Dutch paintings, prints, and drawings whose subjects and form highlight “seduction, inducement of desire, appearance and deception,” the power of sight “could be viewed in either extremely negative or positive terms.” The phrase ‘seductress of sight’ in fact comes from a self-professed enemy of painting, D. R. Camphuyzen (1624). Camphuyzen’s specific criticisms, along with his telling admission of the minority status of his views in a society wherein painting had achieved formidable cultural and economic weight, throw into relief the positive regard of art’s masterful seductions by its faithful lovers. This contrast also points to tensions lurking around an art that at times combined the reprehensible with the irresistible.
The cast of characters is wide, but two artists star in this study: in Chapters II-V, Hendrick Goltzius, and in VI and VII, Gerrit Dou. This might come as a surprise, since most surveys of ‘Dutch Art of the Golden Age’ give little space to either artist, despite each one’s undisputedly original, individual, and often breathtaking brand of virtuosity, greatly admired by connoisseurs and exerting long-lived influence. Goltzius (1558-1617), the prodigious graphic artist with extraordinary paintings to his name as well, died around the time that the Golden Age was taking off, and Dou (1613-1675) has long been overshadowed by his slightly older teacher Rembrandt, and somewhat more recently by Vermeer. Yet for anyone whose field encompasses the Dutch Golden Age, two of the chapters should, quite simply, be required reading: “Venus, Visus and Pictura,” which takes an engraved allegory after a design by Goltzius as its point of departure, and “In Praise of the Art of Painting: On Paintings by Gerrit Dou and a Treatise by Philips Angel of 1642.” All of the collected articles are fascinating and substantial, while these two chapters stand out as the most encompassing and widely-applicable in their implications.
Sluijter’s Introduction is important, but the reader might better begin by plunging directly into one of the original studies. There, careful, vivid examinations of works of art take the reader-viewer immediately into the world of the working artist, and into, as well, the active processes with which the art historian recovers and engages that world. This reviewer suggests as a starting point Chapter IV, “In Praise of the Art of Painting” (1993). Here, Sluijter, having realized the importance of Philip Angel’s ‘Praise’ as an interpretative tool in the case of Dou, is able to create an unusually tight, secure, and complex argument about key values in Dutch painting. The case is argued with the logic of a legal brief in which much is at stake, and is supported by an impressive array of evidence. The range and creative weave of this chapter can be conveyed by its three parts, two with subheadings: (1) Jan Orlers, Philips Angel and a Leiden Canon; (2) Gerrit Dou and Philips Angel: The Status of the Painter and his Art (Zeuxis and Parrhasius; The ‘Paragone’ with Sculpture: A Semblance without Being; The ‘Paragone’ with Poetry: Financial Profit, Preserving the Temporal, and the Power of Sight); (3) Gerrit Dou and Philips Angel: The Conditions of Good Art (Borrowing from Others; A Wealth of Visible Things; The Reflection of Light; Illusion and Manner of Painting; The Deceptive Appearance of an Artificial World). Sluijter plays Angel’s text and Dou’s paintings against one another in a manner both straightforward and sophisticated. And he gives greater force to his case by demonstrating that Dou pointedly set his path away from that of Rembrandt; thus, via well-chosen comparisons, Rembrandt’s art is illuminated as well. An important contribution lies in Sluijter’s attentiveness to the clever devices through which Dou – and elsewhere Goltzius – demonstrate keen artistic self-awareness, a position that increasingly comes to the fore in the seventeenth-century.
In “Venus, Visus and Pictura” Sluijter explains Goltzius’s allegory as being “about the depiction of female beauty, about the art of painting, and about the faculty to which this art owes its very existence – the sense of sight.” This allegorical key has relevance to the book’s other chapters, all of which concern, to varying degrees, beauty (construed throughout as female, but often male as well); seduction; love; desire; and prohibition: “‘Metamorphoses’ in Prints by Hendrick Goltzius and his Circle;” “Vertumnus and Pomona by Hendrick Goltzius (1613) and Jan Tengnagel (1617): Constants and Contrasts in Form and Content,” “The Introduction of the Amorous Shepherd’s Idyll in Dutch Prints and Paintings;” “On Fijnschilders and ‘Meaning’.” The negative position of Camphuizen versus that, say, expressed by the artist Adriaen van de Venne, mark the parameters within which many practitioners of the visual arts explored such issues. In this regard, we can be thankful that for Goltzius, an appeal to art evidently legitimized quite any turn his wonderfully protean mind chose to take.