The burgeoning scholarly literature on seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting has seen vigorous growth since the 1980s. Three issues repeatedly inform the discussion of Dutch scenes of daily life: questions of method, especially regarding the aims and limitations of iconographic analysis and the meaning of realism as a pictorial style; questions of social and ideological space in an era of emergent notions of privacy and domesticity; and questions of gender, particularly concerning the meanings mobilized in Dutch images of women. Nanette Salomon’s Shifting Priorities: Gender and Genre in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting strongly contends with each of these issues in a book that occupies an important place among recent work on Dutch genre painting. At the same time, this book foregrounds the author’s ‘shifting priorities’ over a twenty-year period during which she has sustained her gaze upon Dutch paintings of domestic life while also embracing aspects of the critical theory that have so significantly transformed art history during this same period. Thus, even though the book gathers together a body of work originally produced as articles and conference papers, it offers something distinct from the ‘collected essays’ genre that purports to demonstrate the unassailable unity of an author’s thought. Salomon instead consciously engages us in a narrative that, in her own account, charts a shift in her work ‘from the practice of art history to the analysis of visual culture’ (p. 4).
The differences between these two kinds of practice and the stakes of this intellectual journey are cogently laid out in the introduction, where Salomon situates the essays within a set of frameworks increasingly informed by feminist and semiotic notions of how as well as what Dutch pictures mean. Her voice joins productively with those of other scholars of early modern art who are interrogating, redefining, and ‘relativizing’ (p. 2) iconographic methods. This entails replacing iconographic stability with a dynamic model of meaning grounded in social discourses and deploys a form of attention to paintings (or other objects of inquiry) that seeks significance in visual as well as symbolic phenomena. The arc that Salomon traces in her introduction is one that moves increasingly away from intentionality as an explanation for pictures while challenging the privileging of structures of virtue and vice as the most authoritative framework for viewing Dutch pictures.
The rest of the book comprises nine essays divided into three sections that seem loosely to follow the chronology of their original production, but also forge topical and methodological links. (In an odd design decision, bibliographic information, including dates, about the original publication of the essays is included only on the front matter page with the book’s copyright and ISBN number. Given that the book specifically invites a historically-aware encounter with its contents, it would have made sense to make this publication history more apparent in the body of the book itself.) Section I includes an essay on Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance, one on a Molenaer musical scene, and a third on a pair of Ter Borch drinking scenes. Section II focuses on the work of Jan Steen. Section III includes pieces on the sixteenth-century tradition of bordello scenes and on Adriaen van Ostade’s prints of peasant domesticity, then returns in the book’s final essay to a consideration of Vermeer’s depiction of women. On one hand this arrangement positions the earlier pieces in an implicitly lesser standing within a broadly developmental scheme, but on the other hand it makes salient the enduring force of Salomon’s commitment to the practice of closely reading images.
With only one exception, all of the essays included here focus upon one or two works that Salomon presses in ways that compel new readings. For example, in the essay on Ter Borch’s drinking scenes, Salomon demonstrates that pendants might convey a range of relationships between the two terms encompassing opposition, likeness, or complementarity, and that the attitude toward the depicted soldiers and imbibing women might turn less on questions of morality and more on the clever structure of a witty conceit. Similarly, attention to the divided compositional effects in one of Steen’s disorderly households occasions a trenchant reading that richly opens up the image’s ‘domestic ideology.’ Here Salomon argues that Steen’s images of home not only engage with contemporary notions of privacy, morality, and decorum, but also evince the artist’s historically self-conscious dialogue with his sources and the emergence of nostalgia as a foil to the renegotiations of social space in the present. In her discussion of Adriaen van Ostade’s prints of peasant families, Salomon focuses upon the multiple displacements effected in the sentimentalized representation of the father at home who assists in tending the children. Van Ostade’s revisions of conventions of peasant imagery and urban domesticity mark, in Salomon’s analysis, the particular ‘ social work’ (p. 95) that the pictures perform for a culture of changing familial roles and growing class mobility.
The book’s strongest unifying element is its focus on the circulation of woman as an unstable but necessary sign within Dutch visual culture. Several of the essays develop the ready congruence between a woman’s body and an interior space, either virginal or trafficked, within which the woman herself might denote sexuality or civility. Salomon urges us to see how the realism of Dutch painting powerfully naturalizes its semiotic, and thus ideological, aspects and how some images play with and draw our attention to these very effects. For example, Salomon discerns in Steen’s Morning Toilet a bravura performance of the remaking of multiple genre tropes to produce a new ‘modern’ urban figure of woman. In Salomon’s analysis the picture offers a brilliant balancing act in which the seemingly natural seductions of a realistic image of a woman undressing are themselves exposed as effects of the work’s literal and discursive frameworks. Salomon explores the meanings of ‘woman as a culturally produced sign’ in Vermeer’s work (p. 107) by tracking the transformation of this figure from one associated with illicit minne to refined, civil liefde. What Salomon would have us note is that late seventeenth-century civility as embodied by a woman at home achieves its efficacy specifically through its dialogue with what it transforms, suppresses, and remakes.
With its emphasis on methodological shifts, this book adds a distinctive voice to the recent outpouring of publications on Dutch genre painting. As a focused historiography of some of the changes that continue to alter the scholarship of Netherlandish art, Shifting Prioritiesdemonstrates how intellectually lively and contested our terrain remains.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign