A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718

Mariët Westermann

Yale University Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013 http://dannyreviews.com/
About half of A Worldly Art is taken up by high quality colour photographs, but it is not just a selection of paintings with captions and analyses; it is a broad-ranging study of the painting of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, the long seventeenth century, with the illustrations used as support. An introduction aimed at a general audience, it is accessible without a background in art history or familiarity with Dutch history. Westermann combines "close reading" of key paintings — starting with Jan Steen's In Luxury, Look Out — with exploration of their immediate contexts and their broader social, economic, political and religious backgrounds.

She describes art workshops, the training of artists, and the role of patrons in the marketing and collecting of art, with Rembrandt's early career as an example.

"It is difficult to associate preferences for certain pictorial genres with particular types of owners, but a few trends can be detected. All types of customers seem to have ordered portraits, from individual shopkeepers and artisans to the boards of local militias or commercial companies. In a few cases, collectors can be identified with specific themes. Large New Testament paintings were often painted for use in private Catholic churches. The Catholic painter Abraham Bloemart (1564-1651), resident in predominantly Catholic Utrecht, painted spectacular altarpieces in a style reminiscent of sixteenth-century Italian painting (FIG. 23)."

This was a period which saw outbreaks of iconoclasm and the privileging of text over image in the religious sphere, but art had a key role illustrating texts, including emblem books as well as sacred works. And theory linked painting genres to literary ones.

"While genre paintings can resemble emblematic texts in structure and motifs, other literary genres bear meaningful comparisons with types of painting as well. Genre paintings also share characteristics with domestic conduct books, the most popular of which was written by Jacob Cats (1577-1660) and illustrated by Adriaen van de Venne."

Painters took different approaches to achieving realist verisimilitude, using perspective, oil painting effects, and ideas from optics (Westermann covers other connections to science). Others drew on Mannerism and Italian models for landscape and history painting.

"With their nette or gladde (smooth) techniques, Dou and Van Mieris received some of the highest prices paid for paintings in the seventeenth century. Paradoxically, they shared this financial honor with Dou's teacher, Rembrandt, who began painting in a moderately smooth manner but in the 1640s developed a 'loose' or 'rough' manner. Contemporaries remarked on this stylistic distinction."

Despite its realism, the "ideological charges" of Dutch painting are often fairly obvious. Westermann examines depictions of national history, global trade and colonialism, landscapes and agriculture, and the moral economy of the household.

Portraiture was used to present identity and status; here Westermann focuses on married couples and professional and civic roles.

"Contemporaries did not speak explicitly about the identity-forming functions of portraiture. They commissioned portraits because they made loved ones seem present while physically absent and preserved their memory after death. Portraits made on special occasions, such as weddings, could immortalize and comment on a couple's union, to themselves, their families, and visitors. Most portraits were intended for more or less public display, and they thereby allowed the sitters, whether private citizens, officials, or business leaders, to present themselves as possessing qualities suitable to their social roles."

Westermann ends with "artistic authority", looking at self portraits and signatures, treatises on art, the effects of reproducible prints on notions of individuality, and broader debates over intentionality.

Apart from the brief look at print-making and a four page digression on the Delft and Amsterdam town halls, A Worldly Art stays focused on painting. The result shows off both the diversity and innovation of Dutch painting during the period and the complexities of its embedding in the broader world.

June 2013

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%T A Worldly Art
%S The Dutch Republic 1585-1718
%A Westermann, Mariët
%I Yale University Press
%D 1996
%O paperback, colour photographs, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780300107234
%P 192pp