Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 26, 1998
Joaneath Spicer, ed. Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age New Haven: Yale University Press in association with The Walters Art Museum and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1997. 480 pp.; 90 color ills.; 206 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0884010937)

The study of Dutch art presents a particular challenge: How best to organize the material? The extraordinary rate of pictorial production, at a high level of craft, in the northern Netherlands in the seventeenth century, the profusion of first- and second-rank masters, the expansion of the genres, and the existence of specialized local markets conspire to make the task of encompassing discussion difficult. This is true enough for a survey book, but takes on even greater importance in the world of museum exhibitions. In the last three decades, the response has been to examine Dutch art thematically, or by individual artist, or by artistic center of production. In the United States since the 1980s, we have benefited from important exhibitions that have surveyed genre subjects, landscapes, and marine paintings; a major survey of still lifes is scheduled for 1999–2000. The exhibitions of the art of Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer should also be cited in this context. These exhibitions have generally been international in scope and venues, with city museums in North America cooperating with museums in Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, thereby emphasizing the increasingly international scope of the scholarship of Dutch art.

However, other than one relatively modest U.S. exhibition about art in Haarlem in 1984, the shows devoted to specific art centers have been staged by Dutch civic art museums, and these exhibitions have rarely traveled abroad. Thus, displays of works representing the contribution in the seventeenth century of artists in Delft, Dordrecht, Leiden, and Rotterdam have been known to many scholars outside continental Europe only through their exhibition catalogues, which have offered significant contributions to our understanding of the localized art markets in the United Provinces.

The exhibition Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht During the Golden Age, organized by the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and which also traveled to the National Gallery in London, is thus an important departure from the norm. To be sure, the Centraal Museum in Utrecht staged a major exhibition of the Utrecht Caravaggists in 1986–87, but in this case the decision to limit the scope to investigation of one style of art produced in Utrecht during only two or three decades distinguishes this exhibit from the other civic displays.

Even given the broader range of coverage, the organizers of Masters of Light made some crucial decisions about coverage. The exhibition and catalogue included art from the first fifty years of the seventeenth century, not the whole “Golden Age,” and they “emphasized works that conveyed the themes and patterns of patronage and also those of the finest masters” (10). In other words, the common tension between studying objects of historical interest and those of aesthetic significance as defined by our time and by the past, remained front and center in decisions about what to include, and what to exclude. In general, the decisions paid off, for this exhibition and the scholarship supporting it focused attention on an important, but in many ways anomalous, Dutch artistic center.

The contrast between the towns in the province of Holland, notably Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Leiden, and Utrecht, in the province of the same name, was noteworthy in the seventeenth century, in regard to class structures, religious affiliation, economic organization, and, partly as a result of these social factors, artistic output. The exhibition catalogue pointedly emphasized these differences, in order to suggest how much the current view of seventeenth-century Dutch art is really about art in Holland proper. Thus, it has long been maintained that the greater proportion of practicing Roman Catholics in Utrecht, formerly a Catholic bishopric, than elsewhere in the United Provinces, and its concomitant ties to Rome itself, influenced the decision of many artists to visit Italy and to incorporate Italian artistic styles, most notably Caravaggism, but also a degree of Carraccesque classicism, into their art. What this publication makes clearer than ever, however, is the degree to which these artistic choices represented an attitude of “business first,” for Protestant artists (such as Hendrick ter Brugghen or Paulus Moreelse) seemed to have painted subjects that likely appealed primarily to Roman Catholic patrons. Similarly, the importance of the pastoral mode in Utrecht was unparalleled in other Dutch centers, and seems to reflect both the conservative and patrician-dominated patronage in Utrecht. The decision to restrict inclusion of works to those created in the first half of the century, which seems to have been made primarily for aesthetic reasons, is unfortunately never justified by sustained discussion or explanation. Given the general maintenance of a high standard of production in other Dutch centers, at least in the 1650s and 1660s, and often later, one would like to see some consideration of why that did not hold true in Utrecht as well.

The catalogue is in many ways a model of interdisciplinary and international cooperation, with economic and cultural historians, archival specialists, and art historians providing essays that cover the social, religious, and cultural ambients of seventeenth-century Utrecht. The quality and pertinence of these essays for a deeper understanding of art in Utrecht is particularly high in this case. Joneath Spicer, the prime mover behind the exhibition, had what appears to have been the most difficult task in presenting “An Introduction to Painting in Utrecht, 1600–1650”; such a broadly inclusive survey by definition necessitates negotiating a path between cogent observations and a superficial gloss. That she succeeded in her goal is a reason for gratitude, for her summary of Utrecht painting in the first half of the seventeenth century will now stand as the standard English reference to this subject. (In Dutch, Paul Huys Janssen’s Schilders in Utrecht, 1600–1700 of 1990 remains the primary text, and one used fruitfully by the various writers for the Baltimore-San Francisco catalogue.) In terms of overall comprehension it might have been better to place this survey after the fine discussions of the economy of Utrecht (by Jan de Vries) and religion in Utrecht (by Benjamin Kaplan). Their more specific essay topics provide useful grounding for such a broadly inclusive topic as Spicer’s. Marten Jan Bok’s essay, “Artists at Work,” helps to bridge the disciplinary gap between these two areas, and provides much solid evidence about the social milieux in which artists lived and worked in Utrecht. Finally, growing interest in the history of collecting is rewarded by the information found in two essays, one on an important seventeenth-century market, “the Utrecht elite,” by Ben Olde Meierink and Angelique Bakker, and one by George Keyes on twentieth-century acquisition of Utrecht works in the United States.

Debates about interpretation of Dutch art, especially genre subjects, have been central to scholarship of this school for the last thirty years. With the latest pendulum swing to a mode of more cautious interpretation, even one that can embrace contradictory meanings for images, Wayne Franits’s essay on genre paintings by the Utrecht Caravaggists provides the reader with some salient reminders about the obviously sensuous nature of painting itself, and the dubious value of assigning (negative) moral significance to every image of sensory, or even erotic, pleasure. Beauty, and morality, have always been in the eye of the beholder, and the layered potential meanings of Dutch paintings are now increasingly acknowledged. Strict Calvinists would certainly have disapproved of the erotic content of many Utrecht paintings; they were probably never thought of as the audience for such works.

The importance of Italy, particularly Rome, to Utrecht, so crucial to the development of this city’s art in the seventeenth century, unlike other Dutch centers, is the subject of Lynn Federle Orr’s essay. While this has long been a topos of discussion on Utrecht art, Orr has succeeded in revivifying the discourse through her consideration of patronage and the social role of artists’ visits to Italy, as well as the artistic “reverberations.” Finally, Marten Jan Bok’s updated biographies for all the artists represented in the exhibition are highly welcome.

The catalogue essays, by various specialists in Utrecht art, are clear and sometimes nearly comprehensive discussions of the individual objects. However, there is a certain tension that runs between the some of the essays and the entries themselves. For instance, Franits’s discussion of interpretation of Caravaggist genre scenes is both challenged and adumbrated in a number of catalogue entries. The disjunction of producing a book and staging the actual exhibition was manifested for me in one interesting way. When viewing the exhibition in Baltimore I was struck by how Utrecht artists (except for the mannerists) were by and large not interested in surface effects. Despite the interest in light effect, despite the often confidently evident brushwork in their pictures, these artists did not work the surfaces of their paintings in a manner that suggested textural qualities of objects portrayed. This, too, sets the Utrecht artists apart from many of their Dutch contemporaries but is not remarked upon in the catalogue. Despite these qualifications, the exhibition and catalogue are signal contributions to the scholarship of Dutch art of the seventeenth century.

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