Jan Tilens and Hendrick van Balen’s “Expansive Mountain Valley Landscape with a Rainbow and the Hunt of Diana” is a classic example of a “Weltlandschaft,” or world landscape, the sort of picture that first drew Otto Christian Fassbender and his wife Renate to assemble their outstanding collection of 17th century paintings now on view at the CAM. Tiny figures of Diana engaged in a hunt, along with what looks like Acteon being torn by his hounds (and the even tinier suggestions of a farmer or shepherd or two), are dwarfed by the painting’s topographical sweep. There is the wildness of some tumbling vines, some ruins, more than one distant waterfall, a working mill, and land that is fenced off for farming. The picture is an anthology of the sorts of things one might see if one were hovering distantly over the rural world; there is little sense of how they are connected spatially (although it is an early 17th century work, it is essentially pre-perspectival) or culturally.
By contrast, Jacob van Ruisdael’s “Waterfall in a Rocky Landscape” truly exemplifies baroque splendor. The waterfall provides the painting’s drama as the calm flow of the river breaks into the violence of four low but frothy waterfalls, snaking through a barricade of large rocks. Directly above the waterfall, a couple calmly converses outside a wooden building; across the river, a shepherd leads his flock. As in the Tilens and van Balen Weltlandschaft, we are somehow suspended over space, looking down on the works of nature and man, but we are much lower and closer to the action. We can make out timber that the stream has carried along with it that had gotten lodged just at the brink of the falls. Everything is far more specific than in the Tilens and van Balen work. The label on the wall, however, goes to some pains to explain that van Ruisdael is unlikely to have seen such waterfalls during his European travels—more than several times, the exhibit calls attention to various ways that highly representational works are fundamentally fictive—proving that the art of the 17th century could be extremely naturalistic in appearance without being reportorially accurate. (We are told more than once that a still life, for example, depicts flowers that do not bloom at the same time.) In other words, these paintings are committing art. The world that counts is the one represented on canvas or panel, and we are drawn to their fictions of specificity. Our pleasure is in the well-painted, recognizable detail, which is probably some part of what makes the paintings in this show such crowd-pleasers.
One way of thinking of the difference between the 16th and 17th centuries is that in the High Renaissance, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, while in the Baroque, there is always the possibility that the parts are greater than the whole. It’s a century that revels in its materialism. How else can we explain the almost disorderly, groaning board of the “pronck,” or sumptuous, still life? But it’s also a century driven to find meaning in the proliferation of things made available to citizens, patrons, and painters in what was almost surely the first great middle class culture in western history.
The old ways of making pictorial meaning are plainly tied to Christianity. Though the code may be complicated and the symbolic content multi-layered, pre-Baroque painting generally values things for their capacity to become conduits between divinity and our mortal world. In Jan Brueghel the Younger’s and Hendrick van Balen’s “Virgin and Child in a Landscape,” angels are presenting baskets of fruits and garlands of flowers to the Infant Christ who, by accepting them, is also blessing them, creating a sacramental dimension and divine order to Nature’s plenty. But the 17th century artist tends to resist orderly and single-minded readings of his world. The label proposes a connection between a wild gourd and the promise of resurrection, but into what schema can we place the nibbling squirrel who pauses, startled, and looks straight out at us? Divine signification is not the only game in town. In an anonymous “Still Life with Stoneware Jug and Smoking Requisites on a Barrel,” it is possible to read the folly of tobacco and even make a traditional connection between wisps of smoke and the evanescence of human life. But it is also perfectly possible that the painting celebrates tobacco’s bourgeois pleasures and even, perhaps, the ways it draws people together into social combinations (there are three or four pipes sitting on that barrel). In a world where parts can rearrange our reading of the whole, what are we to make of the scribbled cartoon of a smoker tacked to the wall? In Otto van Shriek’s awesome “Forest Floor Still Life with Thistles, Reptiles, Frog, Snail, Butterflies and Other Insects,” does the snake rearing back to strike a butterfly “symbolize evil and the butterflies careless souls in peril”? Should we make something of dolphins in Simon de Vlieger’s “Dutch Merchantmen in Rough Seas off a Rocky Coast” or is it a fair representation of what occupies the stormy waters?
Interpretative dilemmas are at the core of 17th century art. (Remember that this is the century of Shakespeare and Cervantes.) The exhibit helps us see and experience some of the richness of meaning-making in Dutch art. The label on the wall proposes usefully that Pieter de Grebber’s “Prayer Before the Meal” (1635) follows a well-known pattern of celebrating the Protestant ideal of individual-based, family-focused religious instruction as an ordinary mother watches her child pray before tucking in on an apple and a loaf of bread. But the same label cannily notes the backlighting on the child creates a suggestion of a halo, which might make the Child no ordinary one, nor the mother, who now might easily be Mary. The apple and bread’s suddenly obvious connection to the Fall and the Eucharist lend a meaning to the painting more central to the Catholic Counter-Reformation than to northern Protestantism. There are multiple interpretive frameworks available everywhere we look. The label for Paulus Moreelse’s “Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth” notes that “the combination of allusions to both classical antiquity and biblical scenes in this painting are rare in Dutch art,” but I suspect that such an assertion is hardly true. (We might remember that it is also Milton’s century.) Joachim Wtewael’s “Venus and Adonis,” for example, plainly shows a church in the distant background.
One place where we can see the clash of codes with particular clarity is in the still lives, a genre in which the Hohenbuchau Collection is especially rich. Abraham van Beyeren’s “Banquet Still Life” depicts a table overflowing with the trappings of middle class luxury: a lobster, oysters, shrimp, a cured ham, a bowl of fruit about to topple out of a tilted blueware bowl, glass roemers, a pocket watch, a silver ewer with a hazy reflection of the artist at work. A gaudy, gold-mounted nautilus shell has fallen over on its side. Is that a warning that all banquets end and that we are all just awaiting the divine clearing of the dishes? Does the pocket watch upbraid us for the loss of time? Of course, they both also serve as reminders of the wealth and status of a family that can afford such a feast, let alone such a painting. It is interesting to wonder how much of one’s wall space a 17th century patron would give over to self-rebuke. Out of an open window, we see the skyline of the town, a dull and slightly dreary reminder of the sober alternative to such vivid luxuries.
At one edge of the table is a peeled lemon with its skin spiraling down. This calls attention to a different, less moralizable claim about Dutch materialism: we can see the outside and the inside of things at the same time. Seeing the surface does not preclude us from seeing the interior essence. We get a similar look at the wonders of materialism in van Beyeren’s even more remarkable “Fish Still Life,” where the salmon is already filleted, and fish in the foreground has already been sliced to indicate the serving portions. A turbot in the background has been tied up almost grotesquely with string so as to reveal all sides of itself as fully as possible. Everything has been arranged in this picture to help erase the distinction between surface and interior.
These multiple maps make wrangling a meaning into a far richer activity. In one of the show’s most wonderful paintings, Hendrick ter Brugghen’s “Laughing Bravo with his Dog” (1628), a partly dressed man, no longer young, holds a dog to his chest. The dog is licking him and the man looks up and away from his companion with robust pleasure. There is an emblem on his cap that perhaps suggests why he is called a “bravo,” a mercenary thug in service of some lord. The dog adores him; the man is relishing being adored. He is a tough guy with an important weakness, caught up in pleasure and possibly even sentiment. But we know that ter Brugghen also did a series of paintings of the ancient philosophers, and the dog and the man’s partial nakedness might identify him as Diogenes the Cynic, whose association with a dog—the emblem of behavior more natural and down to earth than most humans’—is second only to his association with a lantern. Is his laughter then a rejection of the absurdity of people’s addiction to abstractions? Are we witnessing a private moment or the staking out of a philosophical position?
The exhibit is rich in paintings that seem at odds with their nominal purposes. Cornelis van Poelenburgh’s “Cimon and Iphigenia in an Arcadian Landscape” harkens back to one of Boccaccio’s tales in which an unlettered shepherd comes across the beautiful and highly cultured Iphigenia while she is sleeping; the gap between their worlds inspires Cimon to become learned, noble, and generally worthy of her. But the beauty that inspires him in Poelenburgh’s picture is a woman sleeping with her servants in a grotto with one breast concealed and one revealed, with one hand sleepily between her legs. The austerity of culture indeed! Gerard Dou’s “The Wine Cellar (An Allegory of Winter)” depicts the maid of the house surreptitiously dispensing wine for herself and a young man with his hand on the cask in a proprietary sort of way. In the near dark, she seems enthralled and he seems attentive to her larceny. In the background, an old man sits solitary by a fireplace with nothing alive to comfort him in the cold. If the painting is supposed to suggest an argument for sobriety and domestic honesty, it is remarkably unpersuasive.
In Gerard van Honthorst’s “The Steadfast Philosopher” (1623), the man of learning sternly turns away from the half-naked advance of a woman who reaches out to touch him. She is all smiles with a gentle, endearing carnality; he raises one hand in elaborate protest and turns away to contemplate the sands of time running through his hourglass. But it’s hard not to think that this is a painting that wants it both ways, like “Cimon and Iphigenia.” Honthorst’s philosopher is no Diogenes (if Diogenes it is) who sacrifices all for his learning; he is well-dressed and not badly fed, and has all the books he needs, stacked neatly on the rich carpet that covers his table. The hands of the wise man and the sensual woman cross over the table, woven together. The painting raises questions about its moral argument. Turning away from her nudity, perhaps the philosopher is being steadfast, but in openly presenting her unabashed sensuality, is the painter being steadfast? In viewing the picture, even if we know what side we are supposed to be on, are we being steadfast? Whatever ethical position the painting advocates—I find it hard to believe that this particular philosopher is going to hold out very much longer—we are out in the position of an audience watching a certain kind of drama being acted out.
The theatricality of many of these paintings—something brilliantly complexly understood by Rembrandt, whose work is naturally but unfortunately not represented in the Fassbenders’ collection—raises a further set of issues about depictions of identity and those who consume them. In Gerard Dou’s second night scene, “A Woman Asleep,” a blowzy but trusting woman is asleep at a table while a man in a plumed cap plans to startle her awake by holding something burning under her nose. He seems at least a little affectionate towards the sleeping woman, and he seems at least a little bored. A second man stands in the foreground, lighting his pipe from a candle on the table, ostentatiously disinterested in all that is going on, but perhaps its initiator. There is a certain tradition of apparently predatory men in Dutch domestic genre scenes (compare, for example, the CAM’s very great “Music Lesson” by Gerard ter Borch). Besides what is, to our contemporary taste, a certain spirit of ungenerosity in the man’s prank on the sleeping woman, the other thing that is remarkable is that it is being witnessed by a servant in the background holding a candle, her wide-eyed stare fixed upon the imminent mischief. And, of course, we’re somewhere in the mix as well, looking on at four people on the same stage, each playing a different scene.
The 17th century is, arguably, theatre’s greatest age across Europe, and the success of the institution gives us a framework for thinking about theater’s complex economy. Who plays roles? Who casts other people into roles? Who consumes all this role-playing? In part, theater helps raise complex questions about what is essential to our identities and what is endlessly malleable. It also raises questions about agency and autonomy: is a role-player free? And finally, it encourages us to think about the status of the audience who can choose to gaze on and experience things deeply, but who can also walk away because to the audience, it’s all only a play, a dream from which we can awake.
In 17th century Dutch painting, there is an interesting and sometimes complex distinction between a portrait and a “tronie.” A portrait is designed to capture the uniqueness of a single individual. A tronie is a vision of a type, of some human position that is immediately recognizable. (Characterization on network television throughout its history is probably more filled with tronies than portraits.) The roots of the tronie are in caricature, in unmistakable expression, in costume drama. It’s hardly to be dismissed as second-rate stuff; 17th century documents identify some of Vermeer’s figure paintings as tronies. Rembrandt capturing himself drawing by a window is a self-portrait; Rembrandt painting himself dressed as an old man or an emperor is a tronie. To complicate things, a painter might paint a model as a tronie and explore to what extent individuality can be encapsulated or suppressed by a costume. The ter Brugghen “Bravo” probably has its roots in the tronie tradition; Peter Paul Rubens’s “Portrait of a Capuchin Monk” probably is a true portrait. How important is it to the painting that the figure is a monk? Would we know him as a monk if he weren’t wearing his costume? What would a painting of an old man who was playing a Capuchin monk look like? Is Michael Sweerts’s “Portrait of an Old Man Begging” more a portrait or a brilliant tronie?
Aelbert Cuyp’s “Shy Little Hunter (Portrait of a Young Boy Holding a Plover)” is one of the exhibit’s most interesting of several paintings that try to socially situate the world of the hunt. One of the collection’s very few paintings to actually depict the highest class in 17th century Netherlands, a very young bejeweled nobleman holds a dead bird in one hand, reaching out or pointing with the other, looking uncertainly out in the painter’s—and the viewer’s—direction. As Otto Christian Fassbender writes, in his essay for the exhibition catalogue called “A Lifetime of Collecting,” “the artist leaves no room for doubt—the bird was not shot by the little boy.” He is painted as someone whose destiny is to play a role. Is the painting about the boy’s present or his future? Should we see him in terms of the role he will one day fulfill, or the role he is playing at this moment? Is this the boy who will become a man who will one day hunt? Or, to be cruel about it, is he being depicted as little more than the dog who retrieves another’s prey?
One of the collection’s best portraits is Frans van Mieris’s “Self-Portrait as a Merry Toper” (1673). At about 6 inches by 4.3 inches, it is hardly grand, but it is very commanding. The artist presents himself as a fleshy man of a certain age, wearing a plumed, velvet hat with his chest bursting just a little bit out of its magenta silk vest. He wears a golden chain across one shoulder and has not shaved since morning, at the best. Like Hamlet contemplating the skull, he holds up a large drinking glass. Perhaps it’s about half full. Though the painting’s traditional title calls him “merry,” his expression seems far more equivocal. Is he looking ruefully into the cup—is that all that’s left?—or is he looking beyond the cup at what his life has become—I ought to think about quitting one of these days? The picture changes some depending on whether we see it as a portrait or a tronie. The artist asks what all self-searchers ought to address: am I am individual or am I a type? Either way, the picture captures something about the theatricality of 17th century figure painting. Van Mieris has depicted himself as someone whose essence is that he can play a role. His identity is not fixed; he can walk away and paint himself as someone else. And indeed in other van Mieris self-portraits, he casts himself as a musician, a cavalier, a smoker, a connoisseur—even a painter.
Salomon van Ruysdael (Jacob’s uncle) paints a fantasy of economic diversity in a culture of prosperity in his “River Landscape with a Ferry, a Yacht and Other Vessels, with a View of Gorinchem in the Distance” (1647). Though we do not see the very top of the social scale or the very bottom, we see a wide range of what’s in between. A small, finely-carved boat is pulled up by the shore; its occupants may be those now riding off in a carriage with a boy (beggar? footman?) running alongside. They might be there on business, or for a picnic, or just to see the sights. In the more workaday ferryboat, some men are being carried over while still on their fine horses, while a farmer keeps a few head of cattle calm. Other people are engaged in conversational groups. Elsewhere, some men are fishing while others are preparing sailboats to disembark. In a clearing, we can make out a couple standing side by side. It is a painting of a sort that the Dutch loved, showing both a landscape and the ways human activities are organized around it. But the most important figure is one we never see: the artist, through whose eyes we are seeing this world. On the face of it, this viewer—with whom, of course, we merge—is not obviously contributing to the economic activities swirling around him. Floating just above the surface of the water, he is most remarkable for his range of vision and for his not taking sides, pursuing judgments, or insisting on interpretations. The artist’s point of view makes him something of a 17th century flaneur, the idler, the appreciative observer who takes in the passing show as completely as he can. He admires the theatricality of others and accepts the roles that he plays. From his sensibility, leisure and work are not exactly opposites. He is one of the most notable creations of Dutch middle class life.
The Fassbenders’ remarkable collection is not encyclopedic. It is short on a number of genres important to the Northern Baroque: historical painting; group portraits, whether of family or profession; scientific pictures; street scenes; urban panoramas; cathedral interiors. But the CAM has mounted an outstanding show. It gives us a chance to understand how painting—and perhaps how seeing itself—are transformed by a vibrant middle-class culture. Its world is far more inclusive than many previous societies that supported artistic production, and the interpretive strategies needed to make sense of the artwork are more inclusive as well. Painting after painting captures the complex core of desire, including the desire for freedom and autonomy, and a whole-hearted love for the equivocal nature of the things of this world.