Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2018
Angela Ho Creating Distinctions in Dutch Genre Painting Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. 272 pp. Hardcover €105.00 (9789462982970)

Angela Ho’s Creating Distinctions in Dutch Genre Painting: Repetition and Invention is a groundbreaking book that explores the phenomena of repetition and invention as they pertain to the work of the most outstanding genre painters active in the Dutch Republic during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. Ho focuses on three of the leading masters during this period: Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, and Frans van Mieris, who collectively helped to raise this art to an extraordinary level of technical refinement imbued with matchless splendor and consummate illusionism. In order to delve more fully into the achievements of these painters and the elite cultural milieu in which they worked, the author construes the notions of repetition and invention in expansive terms. Repetition, for example, in Ho’s view, involves much more than “mechanical attempts to facilitate production,” nor is it “just indicative of the conventional nature of Dutch art” (19). Rather, painters selectively and self-consciously replicated specific subjects, figural poses, compositions, motifs, and so forth to serve as a foil against their own inventive pictorial achievements, thereby imparting distinction—as the book’s title implies—to both themselves and their art.

Fundamental to this self-aggrandizing initiative on the part of artists were their audiences, which Ho calls, following seventeenth-century terminology, liefhebbers. The author argues that liefhebbers, that is, collectors—elite collectors in connection with the pictures under consideration here—did not respond passively to the creations of the most preeminent genre painters. To the contrary, well-informed, urbane liefhebbers played an active role in assessing art, negotiating with artists, and at times even helping to foster their careers by referring them to potential clients. Collectively then, they functioned as promulgators, helping to shape the directions in which the market for expensive genre paintings would head as they responded positively to thematic and stylistic innovations. Yet, collecting and viewing art—that is, its consumption—shaped liefhebbers themselves by contributing substantively to their elite identities, the formation of which was critical to the upper echelons of society in the Dutch Republic. In sum, economic and anthropological theory inform Ho’s sophisticated arguments as she attempts to situate Dutch genre painting within the broader cultural frameworks of early modern taste, connoisseurship and collecting, artistic virtuosity, and social distinction.

Following an introduction, the initial chapter, entitled “Key Concepts,” investigates the “conceptual tools needed for analyzing how painting played a role in mediating social relations between the various participants in the rituals of collecting and viewing of art” (27). Three concepts central to the ensuing discussion are identified here: creative repetition, liefhebber, and taste. These notions cannot be separated from one another; in their interlinked state, all three played a formative role within upper-class culture of the Dutch Republic, as “artists and collectors alike had the obligation—and opportunity—to project cultural identities, a process in which the creation and consumption of art played a crucial part” (30). Ho’s somewhat elastic interpretation of the term repetition is grounded in part in the writings of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, drawn from his landmark book, Différence et Répétition (1968). In this context, repetition is meant to signify “the forms and practices . . . that help an artist distinguish himself from his peers and predecessors” (32). Likewise, liefhebbers strove to distinguish themselves from others who acquired pictures both by the scale of their activities as well as their passion for and knowledge of what they collected. However, this mark of distinction for one who had achieved the potential leading status of a cultural insider could prove elusive because of the continual shifting over time of what characteristics actually constituted a cultural insider. Fundamental to this is the concept of taste, which for Ho is not predetermined by absolute standards but born of complex negotiations inherent to a group dynamic informed by specific knowledge and social rituals.

These concepts are articulated more fully in three subsequent chapters, each dedicated to the distinctive innovations associated with three of the preeminent genre painters of the era: Dou, Ter Borch, and Van Mieris. Chapter 2 examines Dou, specifically his famed “brand-building” niche pictures. Far from simply hitting upon a formula that appealed to a nebulous market, Dou’s niche pictures involved the purposeful repetition of particular motifs that liefhebbers would recognize and compare to other paintings they had seen by the master as well as his rivals. In effect, the niche picture functioned as a strategic branding mechanism for Dou, namely, a specific type of composition marked by compelling illusionism and a gleaming facture that came to be associated with his name and hence could be found in the leading collections of his affluent clientele.

In Ter Borch’s case (chapter 3), his innovations centered around the elegance of his subject matter, heightened by intentionally ambiguous narratives, and, as any scholar of seventeenth-century Dutch painting knows, his celebrated renderings of satin. For Ho, viewer reception of his pictures in Ter Borch’s day can be illuminated by considering modern economic theories concerning consumer behavior and the demand for novelty. The allure of his paintings lay in his audiences’ ability to recognize his adherence to and deviation from pictorial conventions and traditions, thereby creating novelty. His compositions were also novel in that they were purposefully injected “with a sense of ambiguity and nuance that defies straightforward interpretation” (125). Ter Borch “invites the liefhebber to draw on his knowledge of pictorial traditions, artistic styles, and current ideas of technical excellence. It therefore demands skills from the learned viewer, who in turn derives part of his pleasure in exercising those skills (137, original emphasis).” Far from being simple reflections of elite behavioral standards then, Ter Borch’s pictures were “works of artifice that allowed their audience to play a role in the rituals of civility” (95) portrayed therein.

Chapter 4 explores the concepts of repetition and invention as they pertain to Van Mieris. This painter’s famed Cloth Shop (1660), with its ingenious Latin inscription inviting “comparison,” takes center stage here. Ho argues that this picture proffers a competitive dialogue with Dou’s fijnschilder wizardry and Ter Borch’s elegant interiors. Van Mieris’s emulation of his illustrious colleagues’ art references his inventive strategies while simultaneously satisfying his knowledgeable clientele, who possessed the connoisseurial skills to discern his achievement. While this is all generally persuasive, the author’s decision to avoid treating the Cloth Shop as a coherent narrative in favor of considering it “a collection of figural types and motifs that visually articulate specific concepts about critical viewing and artistic competition” (142) misses the mark. Ho’s insistence on primarily viewing this canvas as a demonstration of Van Mieris’s “mastery of the different modes of picturing in the Dutch tradition” (144) overlooks the fact that it clearly presents a coherent narrative infused with the artist’s characteristic humor and wit. The presence of the painting of Adam and Eve mourning the dead Abel (murdered by his envious brother, Cain) on the mantelpiece behind the sulking old man is surely meant as a playful and facetious reference to his jealousy as he observes the young Lothario’s sexual advances toward the winsome shopkeeper. This reading of the Cloth Shop does not at all preclude understanding it in relation to Ho’s hypotheses. Moreover, one wonders why persuasive narrative—as opposed to ambiguous narrative in the works of Ter Borch—is not itself a category of artistic repetition and invention. The chapter ends with an excellent discussion of Van Mieris’s late works, whose seeming stylistic anomalies have long been construed negatively. These qualities, which arose in a contracted art market during the waning decades of the seventeenth century, are said to be deliberate on the part of the artist and to move “the viewer’s attention from the lifelikeness of depicted figures and objects to the artist’s effects of execution,” which must “be considered in relation to the engaged viewers’ appreciation of creative repetition and the multiple distinctions it produced” (172).

Although I generally agree with Ho’s repeated exposition of the role played by liefhebbers in the formation of genre imagery, at times I wondered whether she imputed too much value to their influence. For example, she states that collectors did not derive their ideas about art from the relevant treatises but rather that these “texts can be seen as distillation of existing thoughts on and standards for evaluating paintings” (46). Fair enough, but caution still must be exercised here. Pieter Teding van Berkhout—one of the liefhebbers discussed by Ho—provides a case in point. Scholarly study of his voluminous journal has revealed his passion for what are best described as bon mots. He seems to have been in the habit of mining specific passages from books he was reading in order to place them at the service of his literary and conversational needs in a variety of contexts. Teding van Berkhout’s interactions with texts thus reveal his heavy dependence upon them to navigate his social circles. Presumably this was the case for other liefhebbers as well.

Overall, Ho’s thesis is a compelling one that goes far in explaining the readily observable phenomena of repetition and invention in seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. And it was published at a prescient moment in time, because it coincided with the staging of a comprehensive and impressive exhibition of masters of Dutch genre painting (with venues in Paris, Dublin, and Washington, DC) that visually validated many of her hypotheses. 

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