Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 11, 2003
Martha Hollander An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 263 pp.; 10 color ills.; 89 b/w ills. Cloth (0520221354)

The fascination of seventeenth-century Dutch painters with the manipulation of pictorial space is a persistent theme in scholarly literature. Whether one reads about representations of Dutch homes, contemplative interiors of whitewashed churches, or courtyards and markets bustling with activity, one of the salient points for discussion is the complex spatial order of these renderings of daily life, whose dizzying sense of accuracy is inevitably a result of contrived artistry. It may therefore appear curious that Martha Hollander’s book, An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, constitutes the first sustained analysis of the fundamental role of the composition of space for narrative content in seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings.

Yet the absence of earlier studies on this topic can also be understood in view of the highly charged atmosphere that has colored academic discussions concerning the extent of “meaning” in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings for the several past decades. For instance, iconographic approaches to scenes of daily life, often grounded in vernacular sources such as emblem books and proverbs, have been countered by equally plausible interpretations of the patently staged narratives within this genre of painting as mere displays of artistic skill in the creation of persuasive mirrors of reality. As Hollander observes in her introduction, as a result of this “unfortunate rift” between the so-called descriptive and iconographic models, the scholarly literature betrays a dearth of more comprehensive investigations into the close interdependency of the narrative and aesthetic aspects of genre paintings (5).

With this poetically titled volume, Hollander makes an important step toward the kind of scholarship that aims to close this methodological impasse by taking into consideration a range of factors that would likely have been operative in the creation and reception of Dutch genre paintings, including their formal, art-theoretical, psychological, social, and cultural values. However, though the focus of her analysis is reasonably narrowed to the subgenre of domestic interiors, she acknowledges that, even so, the sheer scope of formal and thematic variants allows for a mere glimpse at the “social and psychological nuances of space” (5) accomplished through figurative and compositional devices, such as rooms-within-rooms, or through calculated displays of maps, pictures, and mirrors, on the walls of typical homes pictured by seventeenth-century Dutch artists.

The theoretical basis for this investigation into the spatial ordering of scenes of domestic life is laid out in the first chapter, “Karel van Mander: The Doorsien and the Language of Space.” Implicit in this title is the central role of the concept of “seeing through” (doorsien), which van Mander, the greatest Dutch art theorist of the early seventeenth century, prescribes for the composition of history painting and, by extension, for any pictorial genre involving a narrative. His notion of doorsien, as explicated by Hollander, is essential to the visual staging of narratives across the picture plane, where foreground and background elements are carefully juxtaposed in accord with their mutual relationship and their respective significance for the whole. In the case of more complex stories, this layering becomes a particularly effective tool for allegorical exegesis. By means of conventional rhetorical tropes, such as amplification or contrast, the artist arranges the “main” and “subordinate” formal elements within the pictorial into a semantic diagram of interrelated glosses.

Hollander presents the implications of doorsien for seventeenth-century Dutch art with a characteristically deft touch and a commendable absence of academic jargon. She makes a good argument for the cultural resonance of van Mander’s theoretical prescription by pointing to examples of the “layering” of words and images in native literary tradition, such as the narrative glossing in proverbs and, especially, in emblem books, where allegorical meanings are typically generated through a purposeful dissonance between realistically painted and spatially dislocated vignettes that complement or contrast each other. It is noteworthy that her discussion of the rhetorical significance of doorsien reaches back to its important historical precedents, such as medieval manuscripts. She also judiciously comments on the particularly Northern interest in spatial dissonance between individual vignettes of the same pictorial composition as an allegorical tool that retains considerable currency for much of the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries.

Each of the following three chapters reads as a case study of the specific uses of spatial construction in the work of individual artists. Chapter 2, for instance, represents an insightful analysis of the multiplicity of meanings born out of the elaborate spatial ordering of elements in the work of Gerard Dou. Subtitled “The Reconfigured Emblem,” this section of the book relates Dou’s (often obsessive) engagement with conceptual and formal wit to the pronounced play between realism and symbolic imagery in emblem books in order to highlight the tension between the suggestive illusionism of surfaces in his finely crafted depictions of mundane things and the high-key artifice of his compositions. As Hollander duly observes, Dou’s exquisitely painted world is definitely organized more in accord with narrative than optical exigencies, where each figural element is both a seemingly unmediated mirror of reality and a facet of a multilayered allegory that invariably invokes the theme of artisanal virtue.

The manner in which sophisticated spatial ordering becomes an instrument of social commentary is examined in Chapters 3 and 4, on Nicolas Maes (“Space as Domestic Territory”) and Pieter de Hooch (“Indoors and Out”), respectively. These sections provide numerous persuasive readings of compositional juxtapositions of the segments of a typical Dutch household of the seventeenth century, most often contrasting the “inside” and the “outside,” or the socially configured “upstairs” and “downstairs” realms, which become vehicles for intricate dramas played out between mistresses and maids, or masters of households and their visitors. Hollander’s analysis of these visual exchanges is enriched by a critical use of a variety of literary sources: seventeenth-century architectural treatises on domestic spaces and their associated terminology, contemporary accounts of the gender-based division of roles in a typical Dutch household, or the influential prescriptive writings on the desirable behavior of the master and the mistress of the house, as well as their relationships to servants. Once again, her goal is to present a balanced argument in which questions of meaning, in these instances revolving mostly around gender and class relations in seventeenth-century Holland, are discussed in tandem with the aesthetic value of the paintings under consideration. She succeeds at this task admirably, providing scrupulous descriptions infused with a genuine sensitivity for the purely formal qualities of painting as such. As a result, the representations of daily life that are the object of her study are never reduced to indices of the social and cultural codes of the time.

Hollander’s book leaves the reader wanting more in the more theoretical Chapter 1, where she touches upon certain themes but then leaves them tantalizingly sketchy in the main text. One of these is the implicitly Northern emphasis on spatial manipulation in the construction of pictorial narratives. While she correctly notes that the concept of secondary space is not a Netherlandish invention per se, the reader’s understanding of the interrelation of form and content in the genre scenes she studies would have benefited from a more probing analysis of the particular fascination of Northern painters with the rhetorical modalities of spatial ordering. Hollander does point to the recurrence of the Erasmian praise of artistic variety (copia) among Dutch theorists, from van Mander to Samuel van Hoogstraten and Gérard de Lairesse, but she could have delved further into the manner in which the fascinating multiplicity of meanings in many of these images of domestic life reconciles with the premium on didacticism in seventeenth-century Dutch visual culture.

Hollander’s particular strength lies in her lingering gaze at the formal properties of the paintings she studies. This is why it is sometimes frustrating when her perceptive visual analyses stop short of more specific suggestions for reading these carefully crafted images. Yet these deficiencies, if one can qualify them as such, also reflect an admirable willingness on the part of the author to accept the allusiveness and ambiguity of these scenes of daily life as essential aspects of their capacity to reward the viewer’s eye and mind with unexpected and fresh insights upon every return to their richly ordered spaces.

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