Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 1, 2000
Frans Grijzenhout and Henk van Veen, eds. The Golden Age of Dutch Painting in Historical Perspective Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 348 pp.; 73 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0521496217)

This is an ambitious book on the historiography of seventeenth-century Dutch art and culture, containing essays written by many of the most influential Dutch archivists, art historians and historians at work in the 1990s: Marten Jan Bok, Jeroen Boomgaard, Dedalo Carasso, Frans Grijzenhout, E. de Jongh (with two essays), J.J. Kloek, Eveline Koolhaas and Sandra de Vries, E.H. Kossmann, Debora J. Meijers, N.C.F. van Sas, Eric J. Sluijter, and Lyckle de Vries. Edited by Grijzenhout and Henk van Veen, it originally appeared in a Dutch edition of 1992, and was written in conjunction with the programs of the Open University of the Netherlands. Andrew McCormick has translated the text into English in a straightforward manner, and the book was not changed or augmented for the English edition. However, this immediately presents some potential problems for the reader.

One is practical in nature. In the first two sections of the book a fair amount of knowledge about eighteenth and nineteenth-century history of the Netherlands is assumed by the various authors. Some of this history can be picked up contextually, of course, but even brief annotations about such events as the Batavian Revolution or the period of French rule of the Netherlands would have been helpful.

The other problem, though, is of greater significance and has to do with the purpose of the book itself. Divorced from the original context of a text written for a specific academic audience, the aim of the book seems unclear. The Dutch title, De Gouden Eeuw in perspectief: Het beeld van de Nederlandse zeventiende-eeuwse schilderkunst in later tijd, indicated more of the original intent of the authors and editors to explicate how the culture of the northern Netherlands in the seventeenth century, including, but not limited to its art, was conceived in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. The reader of the English edition might well wonder whether the book is about views of Dutch painting or the seventeenth century. The individual essays tend to blur this distinction, but some lean more in one direction than the other.

Following the organization of the Dutch text, the book is divided into three parts: “Art Lovers,” containing two essays on late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century views; “Ideologues,” with six essays on the nineteenth century; and “Art Historians,” with five essays for the twentieth century. These headings are unfortunate, carrying with them in English fairly heavy implications about the degree of seriousness of purpose and “objectivity” on the part of the writers discussed in each section. They are not entirely accurate, either, for the essays on the earliest views treat the literature on Dutch art by artists and theoreticians (not just the dilettantes implied by the term “art lovers”). Given the orientation of the essays in part three, the seemingly neutral title “Art Historians” is misleading about the content of this section as well, where it is clear that many if not most of the authors discussed were overtly ideological in their writings, in an intellectual sense if not always in a political sense. The division of the third section into essays on different “types” of historians and art historians seems a bit specious and even arbitrary at times. There is a fair amount of overlap among the three sections, which means that some writers and issues are returned to several times; firmer editorial control could have eliminated this sometimes annoying characteristic.

Several implicit dualities are at work here. In one, writers of the pastare poked and prodded, so to speak, for their biases, agendas, and the limits of their understanding. But whenever the essays approach the present more closely, there is a kind of assumption of progress in art-history writing (witness the shift from ideologues to art historians) that suggests a greater scholarly objectivity, if not worth. In the other, foreign (non-Dutch) writers are discussed in separate essays in the first two sections but are ostensibly omitted from the last one. Of course, it is impossible to discuss the recent history of writing on Dutch art without mentioning figures such as Svetlana Alpers and Gary Schwartz, much less avoiding discussion of exhibitions of Dutch art staged outside the Netherlands. But these writers and discussions are simply folded into essays that treat recent developments in the Netherlands.

It would have been more valuable, albeit controversial, to have maintained the distinctions made in the original sections, and to have devoted a separate essay to the treatment of Dutch art and history by non-Dutch scholars in the past one or two generations. That such differences exist is tacitly acknowledged by many in the field; why not take advantage of this for a really rigorous discussion of current trends? But then, that would contradict the sense of evolutionary progress in the writing on the seventeenth-century Netherlands that is promulgated throughout the text—for if such differing approaches not only exist, but thrive simultaneously, the history of our understanding cannot be forwarded as a linear process, but is necessarily time-bound, contingent, and even contradictory.

All this being said, the essays individually have merit, and as a whole provide a useful and often fascinating overview of some of the dominant paradigms advanced in the past three hundred years. The second section, on “Ideologues,” is perhaps the strongest as a whole, and serves to enlighten the reader about the development of art history itself as a serious and independent academic discipline. This is a book that should be read by all students and scholars of Dutch art and could make an interesting case study for courses in historiography and methodology.

Catherine Scallen
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Art, Case Western Reserve University