Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 12, 2004
Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 256 pp.; 30 color ills.; 65 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0300098170)

Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips’s Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective is a curious book: while largely synoptic, written by two nonspecialists who rely heavily on previously published research, it also constitutes an ambitious attempt to reconstruct the reception of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings among contemporary viewers. Issues of audience response have received increasing scholarly attention in recent years. The authors take their cue from the likes of Alison Kettering and Elizabeth Honig, among others, who have already investigated questions of audience reception vis-à-vis seventeenth-century Dutch art. But although Muizelaar and Phillips explore these questions in a much more expansive manner than has hitherto been attempted, their approach generally lacks the caution and sophistication that characterized those earlier studies; for example, they even introduce the potential viewing habits of children and servants into the argument.

The first two chapters sketch the urban and domestic backgrounds that underlie the display of art, focusing on Amsterdam during the Golden Age. On the whole, these chapters provide much fascinating material, particularly for readers unfamiliar with the period. But in this reviewer’s opinion, certain parts of the first chapter could easily have been omitted, among them protracted discussions of education, work, and, related to the latter, the occupational structure of the Dutch Republic. Since Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age is primarily a study, however hypothetical, of the interaction persons of elite social status had with art, it might have been more sensible to focus exclusively on elite audiences as is done in the second chapter and indeed throughout much of the remainder of the book.

Having established the physical environment in which seventeenth-century Dutch paintings were originally seen, subsequent chapters are devoted to different genres of painting in relation to how beholders may have regarded them. Chapter 3, for instance, investigates portraiture primarily in terms of how portraits functioned in the lives of affluent families. In a way that typifies this entire study, the authors combine the findings of other scholars with their own extensive archival research concerning the collecting habits and interests of the wealthy; they use this material to conjecture how families and friends may have reacted to images of their loved ones: “Particular portraits must have kindled a variety of feelings, from pride to love and affection, but some must have caused negative memories and feelings” (84).

Chapter 4 addresses the function of history paintings—religious and mythological scenes—along similar lines, though it is debatable whether the protagonists of mythological paintings can be described as “identifiable human figures” (italics mine; 87). Once again, much valuable archival data has been gathered pertaining to the types of history paintings collected and where they were displayed in homes of the day. Hypotheses about the viewing habits of contemporary audiences are consequently promulgated, filtered through the important studies of such art historians as David Freedberg and Eric Jan Sluijter.

The fifth chapter, entitled “Elegant Men and Women, Peasants, and Prostitutes,” is arguably the most successful one in the book. This chapter contains much valuable and fascinating material concerning what were likely striking differences in physical appearances between actual persons in the seventeenth century, who were routinely ravaged by illnesses and nutritional deficiencies, and the idealized and vigorous figures who populate paintings. This undoubtedly affected reactions to paintings, particularly those depicting elegant men and women, but to what degree is difficult to determine. Like the other chapters in the book, this one makes abundant use of archival evidence, especially inventories of paintings in the homes of the deceased. Muizelaar and Phillips express surprise at the rather low monetary values ascribed to pictures by Jan Steen and Caspar Netscher in a particular inventory (127). But they fail to take note of Marten Jan Bok’s research, which has already demonstrated that notaries routinely underestimated the value of paintings in such inventories, often considering them second-hand goods. (Bok’s valuable contributions are likewise conspicuously absent from the appendix, a worthwhile discussion of how household inventories provide evidence about the exhibition of paintings in seventeenth-century homes.)

Chapter 6 addresses the display and function of erotic images in domestic interiors. Muizelaar and Phillips have once again tapped a substantial amount of research on this topic by historians of Dutch art and archival data, ultimately offering speculative insights concerning viewers’ potential reactions to sexual imagery. Marring an otherwise interesting analysis is a passage in which the authors place erotic works of art within a wider theological and cultural framework, a framework that is described as Calvinistic. For a study that is praiseworthy for its understanding of art as multivalent, it is indeed curious and surprising that Dutch culture is considered in such an outmoded, monolithic fashion. It is simplistic to view the Dutch Republic as a Calvinistic nation, as a number of historians have persuasively argued in recent years. The final chapter outlines some of the fundamental differences between modern-day encounters with seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, which most often occur in museums, and those of its original beholders, whose viewing circumstances were obviously entirely different.

In sum, Muizelaar and Phillips make clever use of some fascinating archival material to establish the original settings of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. Despite some inherent problems, the book will be useful for educated readers, especially English-speaking students, because it distills a lot of earlier research, much of which was originally published in Dutch. Specialists will no doubt find the book less helpful and at times even frustrating because of the occasionally indiscriminate use of secondary sources.

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