Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2017
Arthur J. DiFuria, ed. Genre Imagery in Early Modern Northern Europe: New Perspectives Visual Culture in Early Modernity. New York: Routledge, 2016. 208 pp.; 64 color ills. Cloth $149.95 (9781472449146)

Genre Imagery in Early Modern Northern Europe: New Perspectives, edited by Arthur J. DiFuria, consists of eight essays on the topic. DiFuria’s own introduction is followed by two studies addressing genre painting during the sixteenth century, and, thereafter, five that explore this artistic phenomenon during the seventeenth century, though mainly in the Dutch Republic. According to DiFuria, scholars engaged in the study of genre imagery must contend with its reception, origins, and definition. Hitherto, these critical facets of inquiry (all explored in detail in his introduction) have been approached separately when, in this author’s opinion, they should be treated synthetically. Furthermore, traditional studies of genre imagery have tended to focus upon its purported symbolic content and moralizing meanings; the essays presented in the book challenge these traditional notions and actually transcend them by exploring the complex, heterogeneous reception of such imagery among early modern viewers. This is a noteworthy goal and one achieved with varying degrees of success by the book’s contributors, but at times and perhaps unintentionally, DiFuria seems to imply that moving beyond moralizing interpretations here is something quite novel, when, of course, it is not, as scholarship over the last three decades makes abundantly clear.

Jessen Kelly and Annette LeZotte contributed the first two essays, on sixteenth-century genre imagery. Kelly addresses Lucas van Leyden’s well-known paintings of card players. Rather than adhering to traditional interpretations of them as admonitions against the dangers of gambling, Kelly’s detailed analysis of actual contemporary card-playing, drawn primarily from an understudied treatise by Girolamo Cardano, leads her to draw clever analogies between this ever-popular form of gaming and artistic portrayals of it, as both manifest temporal concerns associated with uncertainty and contingency. Kelly’s hypothesis is fascinating, notwithstanding her propensity to elide the differences between the socio-economic realities of gambling with inexpensive paper cards—here treated as art objects—and its portrayal in very costly oil paintings targeting elite audiences.

LeZotte focuses on genre imagery produced in sixteenth-century Antwerp, a city experiencing intense religious strife and sweeping political and economic changes during the sixteenth century. For LeZotte, women play a crucial role in genre paintings by Antwerp’s most talented masters, functioning as mediators in helping audiences to decipher art within the city’s complex cultural and economic matrix. She engages in an extensive analysis of Quentin Massy’s famed The Moneylender and His Wife (1514), a panel in which the female has been invariably construed negatively, because she is said to be distracted by her husband’s coin-weighing. For LeZotte, this picture and others like it offer tantalizing visual clues via their archaisms, color choices for costume, and so forth that would have elicited a spiritual response from sixteenth-century viewers. The businessman’s wife is thus seen positively, assuming the role of the Virgin Mary, who like her heavenly counterpart “can guide them through the Antwerp marketplace and ensure both their spiritual salvation and secular success” (58).

Equally thought-provoking though in my view less convincing is her analysis of Joachim Beuckelaer’s Market Scene (1563), whose pronounced vertical format and monumental female figures are said to evoke traditional altarpiece wings, wherein the women function as “secularized patron saints who presented viewers to a marketplace beyond the boundaries of the physical frame of the painting” (59). Beuckelaer’s panel looks like it has been cut down on at least three sides. If this is indeed the case, one wonders what the potential implications would be for LeZotte’s interpretation. And what are we to make of Beuckelaer’s other monumental females (and those by his uncle, Pieter Aertsen) rendered in vertical formats but with decidedly different subject matter, including kitchen maids skewering fowl in erotically suggestive ways?

The remaining five essays focus on the seventeenth century, beginning with Irène Schaudies’s study of Jacques Jordaens’s paintings representing Twelfth Night festivities along with the popular proverb “As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe.” She likewise aspires to move beyond the well-entrenched scholarly propensity to “interpret these images as moralizing subjects for a middle-class audience, designed to instruct and delight” (67). Fair enough; but these images, given their splendor, their famed maker, and their high cost at the time, were hardly destined for the “middle class,” a socio-economic term that to this reviewer seems more conducive to nineteenth-century art-making and reception than that of the seventeenth century. Terminology aside, Schaudies’s erudite essay seeks to uncover political associations in Jordaens’s exuberant paintings of festive gatherings. The results of her ambitious and well-researched efforts are mixed. Some paintings, among them Jordaens’s As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe (ca. 1644) and interesting pendants by Jan Miense Molenaer depicting The King Drinks (ca. 1634–35) and Battle Between Carnival and Lent (ca. 1633), provide visual clues in the form of, respectively, sheet music and strategically colored costumes that serve as clever allusions to political and military struggles affecting the Southern Netherlands during the 1630s and 1640s. To the contrary, Jordaens’s Twelfth Night (ca. 1645) lacks the internal visual evidence to confirm such a reading. Regardless, Schaudies’s essay succeeds in further integrating Jordaens into his elite cultural milieu—something so often lacking in studies on this artist—just as her contributions did to the important exhibition catalogue, Jordaens and the Antique (Joost Vander Auwera and Irene Schaudies, eds., Brussels and New Haven: Mercatorfonds in association with Yale University Press, 2012) (click here for review).

The lack of evidence that occasionally hampers Schaudies’s essay runs wild in Sheila D. Muller’s contribution on Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Merry Fiddler (1623). Here, traditional, moralizing interpretations function as a straw dog for the author’s own startling and ultimately ungrounded thesis that the boisterous Merry Fiddler and similar paintings by fellow Utrecht artists were meant as catalysts to promote “pleasant, well-mannered conversation among gentleman of culture” (99) amid preponderant political and religious strife in Utrecht during the 1620s. This “conversation” is said to be inspired by Italian paradigms expressed in courtesy books, especially Stefano Guazzo’s La civile conversazione, published in Dutch in 1603. Unfortunately, Muller imputes far too much value to Italian courtesy books, for example, arguing for their inordinate influence upon Van Honthorst and, almost magically, for their capacity to offer hope and renewal to strife-torn Dutch citizens. What partly accounts for these problems is Muller’s seeming unfamiliarity with much of the recent literature on the Utrecht Caravaggisti. These scholarly studies potentially alter Muller’s thesis and, more significantly, have already moved beyond the types of moralizing readings of pictures that she decries. To cite just a few: major monographs on Hendrick ter Brugghen (Leonard J. Slatkes and Wayne Franits, The Paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen 1588–1629: Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2007) and Dirck van Baburen (Wayne Franits, The Paintings of Dirck van Baburen [ca. 1592/93–1624]: Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013; both containing exhaustive analyses of subject matter); Elizabeth Nogrady’s dissertation on the art academy in early seventeenth-century Utrecht (“Abraham Bloemaert [1566–1651]: The ‘Netherlandish Academy’ and Artistic Collaboration in Seventeenth-Century Utrecht,” PhD diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2009); Marcus Diekert’s comprehensive study of the Utrecht Caravaggists’ musical iconography (Musikanten in der Malerei der niederländischen Carvaggio-Nachfolge: Vorstufen, Ikonographie und Bedeutungsgehalt der Musikszene in der niederländischen Bildkunst des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts, Münster: Lit Verlag, 2003); and the catalogue to an exhibition exploring precisely the same subject matter in detail (Jochen Sander, Bastian Eclercy, and Gabriel Dette, eds., Caravaggio in Holland: Musik und Genre bei Caravaggio und den Utrechter Caravaggisten, Munich: Hirmer, 2009). Likewise overlooked but fundamental for Muller’s topic is Llewellyn Bogaers’s influential study on civility campaigns in early seventeenth-century Utrecht (“Een kwestie van macht? De relatie tussen de wetgeving op het openbaar gedrag en de ontwikkeling van de Utrechtse stadssamenleving in de zestiende en zeventiende eeuw,” Volkskundig Bulletin 11 (1985): 102–26).

Readers are returned to more persuasive ground with two informative essays by Martha Hollander and Amy Golahny. Hollander’s subject is Adriaen van de Venne’s captivating portrayal of a Cavalier at a Dressing Table (1631). The portrayal of a man primping himself at a dressing table is highly unusual, if not unique, within seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. Hollander rightly interprets the picture as an ingenious parody of scenes of women engaged in the same activity. She buttresses her hypothesis with an impressive array of contemporary observations on grooming, fashions, (long) hairstyles, and masculinity. Golahny examines the fusion of genre and history in the art of Rembrandt van Rijn, the Dutch Republic’s greatest painter, though one not typically identified with genre painting. In essence, Golahny argues that the artist integrated daily life into his art in unconventional ways, especially to enhance the narratives of his history paintings and even his portraits. Her evidence is wide-ranging, involving his earliest paintings, representing the five senses; his magnificent portrait The Shipbuilder and His Wife (1633); a modest charcoal sketch of a blind beggar that was integrated repeatedly into historical subjects by the artist and his many pupils; and a fresh look at the harsh comments about the artist by his later critic, Andries Pels.

Alison M. Kettering contributed the final essay in the book, “The Rustic Still Life in Dutch Genre Painting: Bijwerck dat Verclaert.” Images of farmstead interiors, especially popular in Dutch art during the 1640s, are her specific focus. With their combination of figures and striking displays of comestibles and cookware, these pictures are actually hybrid works that feature “human and material worlds operating as an integrated system” (183). Rather than considering such paintings predominantly moralistic, Kettering expands the parameters of their multivalent interpretation, activated by the proclivities and frames of reference of their urban owners. Nevertheless, farmstead paintings were fictive, picturesque, and even nostalgic, generally evoking associations with nature’s profuseness and the industry of rural folk in presiding over it.

To varying degrees, the essays collected in this book all make contributions to ongoing scholarly debates concerning the nature and reception of genre imagery in early modern Northern Europe. It is disappointing that an essay focusing on genre prints was not included here, since such artworks were so integral to the topic at hand.

Wayne Franits
Professor, Department of Art and Music Histories, Syracuse University