Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 1, 2001
Eric Jan Sluijter Seductress of Sight: Studies in Dutch Art of the Golden Age Waanders, 2000. 368 pp.; 245 b/w ills. Cloth (9040094438)

The explosion of visual images in seventeenth-century Holland was accompanied by an equally rich outpouring of critical dialogue on their benefits and dangers. Lifelike portraits could be praised in ekphrastic poems or disparaged in moralizing pamphlets for their capacity to fill the heart with “love’s poison.” Pictorial artifice could be both extolled for the pleasure it served upon the beholder and condemned as a “food of evil lust.” As the poet Jacob Cats would succinctly state, “the higher the painter flies . . . the deeper he can wound,” adding that “the best of minds . . . cause the greatest harm.”

Eric Jan Sluijter brings these complexities of reception into focus with Seductress of Sight: Studies in Dutch Art of the Golden Age, a collection of essays previously published between 1991 and 1993. Together, these six studies are a valuable contribution to the literature on the reception of works of art in the Dutch Protestant republic. At the same time, they provide a variegated commentary on one of the most important conclusions in another seminal work on the history and theory of response in the visual arts—David Freedberg’s The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago, 1989)—that the distinction between the reality of the art object and reality itself often lapses when a beholder is confronted with an image (Freedberg, 436). Indeed, whether Sluijter discusses mythological themes in seventeenth century Dutch art or the “fine painting style” of Gerard Dou, he convincingly demonstrates that the visual culture of seventeenth century Holland, with its premium on pictorial illusionism, was a particularly fertile ground for the ontological dilemma between semblance (schijn) and being (sijn), and all of the interpretive problems arising therefrom.

Two of these essays build upon the author’s dissertation on the representation of pagan fables during the golden age of Dutch art. The first one surveys the prints by Hendrick Goltzius and his circle that depict Ovidian stories, with an emphasis on Andromeda and Callisto; the second one, a uniquely popular mythological theme in Dutch art—the seduction of Pomona by the shape-shifting divinity Vertumnus. A third related essay concentrates on the introduction of the pastoral idyll in Dutch prints and paintings. This group is complemented by two studies on a seemingly disparate subject: the art-theoretical grounding of the “fine painting style”(fijnschilderij) and the question of its meaning. In both cases, the author focuses chiefly on the oeuvre of Gerrit Dou, the most highly esteemed practitioner of this style in the period under consideration.

Tying these diverse threads together is “Venus, Visus, and Pictura,” an essay that can rightly be termed a theoretical axis of the collection. Though its immediate subject is a single allegorical invention by Hendrick Goltzius, in its eighty-plus pages Sluijter addresses some of the fundamental premises governing the creation and reception of works of art in seventeenth century Holland. A notable strength of this argument derives from the manner in which it integrates the different registers of contemporary art production and critical discourse generated by the long-standing notion of the perils of sight: classically-inspired imagery of Danae, Actaeon, or Apelles falling in love with his model Campaspe; theoretical writings on the art of painting as a Venus-figure; poems and print inscriptions aimed against the “salacious diversions” afforded by illustrations of Old Testament stories, such as Susanna and the Elders; or low-end publications exploiting the literary legacy of antiquity for clearly pornographic ends. Through his perusal of this diverse material, Sluijter persuasively shows that the ambiguous tensions between the purely sensual appeal and the professed “noble” purposes of an image were acknowledged by artists such as Goltzius and articulated in sophisticated pictorial inventions. It is art historians, he observes, who have often “reasoned away” such self-evident and important aspects of erotically charged images and their reception by viewers, both then and now (Sluijter, 159).

The essay on the print illustrations of the “Metamorphoses,” even though it is placed in this volume before “Venus, Visus, and Pictura,” is best read as an elaboration of this thesis. In a similar way, the contributions dealing with representations of the story of Vertumnus and Pomona, and on the theme of the “amorous shepherd” in Dutch art, can be seen as two more case studies of the ambivalence of authorial intentions and viewer response to erotically charged imagery. At the same time, they demonstrate the singular place of Goltzius as an artist who consistently played upon these ambiguities to their fullest potential. We read, for instance, that Goltzius introduced previously unrepresented episodes of metamorphoses into the Ovidian canon, more often than not because of the amatory content of a narrative moment. We observe Goltzius’ inventive depictions of love unfettered by nature, equally unprecedented in Dutch art until that time. We are led to recognize his various renderings of the myth of Pomona as self-conscious comments on his Vertumnus-like artistic skill, for which he was so highly praised by the contemporary critic Karel van Mander (84). Where Sluijter leaves the reader wanting, however, is in his hesitation to delve deeper into the theoretical dimensions of his very perceptive reading. This is probably due to the fact that Seductress of Sight is a hybrid text in which a decidedly cautious mode of argumentation, rooted in the author’s dissertation, is combined with a much more inspired writing style that this author has since developed.

The latter approach is exemplified in the two essays on the meaning of fine painting (fijn schilderij). Once again, Sluijter’s study of Gerrit Dou in light of the 1642 art treatise by Philips Angel possesses a scope and depth of investigation that would easily justify a longer publication. Yet, even in its present format, it allows the author effectively to review the major critical categories in seventeenth century Dutch art writing—the currency of concepts such as highly finished neatness (netheid), subtlety (subtil), and painting “from life” (naar het leven), as well as the broader Renaissance theories of imitation, including the ubiquitous paragone between the art of painting and sculpture, or poetry. In this process, he shows himself to be a fine reader of Angel’s text and its wider theoretical context, as well as proving the necessity of that kind of reading in any further analysis of Gerrit Dou’s work. Of particular note is his theoretically informed comparison of the effects of “realism” in Dou’s meticulous depiction of surfaces, materials, and reflections of light, with the manner in which Rembrandt, Dou’s teacher at the beginning of his career, pursued that same goal in the “rough” painting style. Just as important is his assessment that for all of this ostensible striving to fool the beholder’s eye, Dou invariably disclosed the artifice of his creations, that perfect “approximation of life” that Philips Angel speaks about in his treatise as an epitome of a successful artifice.

The second of these essays, placed at the end of the volume, adds a pointedly polemical note to the ongoing debate about the “meaning” of the most elusive category of seventeenth century Dutch art—scenes of daily life. Sluijter correctly notes that art historians have often been too focused on the question of whether a painting is merely an exquisite rendering of something, or else contains a moralizing comment on the thing rendered. He illustrates the fallacy of the argument over the “descriptive” versus the “didactic” character of genre painting by a somewhat contentious use of the work of Peter Hecht and Eddy de Jongh, scholars whom he singles out as exponents of these two opposing views. Instead, he calls for a more scrupulous analysis of an artist’s choice of subject or motif in the context of the prevailing cultural conventions that ultimately determine that choice. Whether or not Sluijter’s sharp criticism of his peers is fully warranted is not at issue here. What matters is that in his own writing, he has consistently demonstrated a close attention to the reasons why an artist depicts a particular subject and the cultural weight that subject brings to any instance of its representation, thus avoiding the dichotomy of the literal versus metaphorical meaning that has, unfortunately, used up much scholarly energy in this field of study.

This last essay, “On Fijnschilders and ‘Meaning’,” was certainly not intended as an overall conclusion to Seductress of Sight, though it serves that function admirably. More than anything, it provides the reader with an opportunity to read a direct exposition on Sluijter’s interpretive approach, something that he otherwise does rather reluctantly. This resistance to an explication of his method is quite understandable. Precisely because Sluijter generally avoids methodological disputes, but rather allows the material at hand to guide his ideas, which he invariably expresses in an elegant, jargon-free prose, he can serve as a model for any study of seventeenth century Dutch art.

Aneta Georgievska-Shine
Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland