Brusati and Berger: Analysis of Viewing Dutch Painting

merry family[JG] Celeste Brusati in her article Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time analyzes the active engagement and exploration of perspective in seventeenth century Dutch paintings. Reading her article, Brusati makes a strong and valid argument toward artist technique to stimulate viewer response activating close looking and longer interaction between the viewer and the image. Today, it is noted that people spend no more than 20 seconds reading the label to a painting, and similarly, less than a minute on the painting itself. With this short attention span, how can a painter extend the engagement of the viewer? Dutch painting in its desire to sustain visual attention uses techniques like dramatic foreshortening, anamorphic elements, and manipulation of perspective through wide viewing angles and close vantage points to engage the viewer. Through this the artist multiplies perspective spaces and disperses visual attention through out the painting mobilizing the eye and body of the viewer to create a longer and more attentive visual experience. In the end, Brusati’s analysis of Dutch viewing techniques and active involvement by the viewer links closely with my method of viewing.

As an art history student, we are required to spend hours looking at all types of art, sometimes focusing on just one piece. It is our duty to look at art through different perspectives in order to fully understand the artwork and see how the features of the art may change based on these different perspectives. While Dutch artists simulate active seeing through their techniques, it is also the viewers job to simulate their own active viewing on pieces that do not hold the same illusionist, multifocal perspectives. Personally, viewing art is a two way street. The artist had a job in creating art that would initiate a response from the viewer, and the viewer has a job to actively engage in what that artist is attempting to show or say. Beyond this active and close looking, there are other ways of analysis and engagement with art. Harry Berger Jr.’s article Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch involves a more historical approach to viewing art.

Berger analyzes The Night Watch using a historical context. First, he describes the military, political, and administrative powers of the Dutch around the time when the painting was being worked on and completed. Then he delves into the history of militia portraits, comparing The Night Watch to other pieces of similar portraiture. Finally, Berger analyses not only the intent of Rembrandt but that of the patrons and sitters of the painting, questioning how Rembrandt wanted to depict the sitters and consequently how the sitters might have wanted to be depicted, and how they responded. Berger’s analysis is very different from that of Brusati. One is focused on the evidence of perspective within the painting and the interaction between the viewer, the other on the interaction between the painter, the sitter, and his environment. The Night Watch responds to social and political ideals of the time, whereas the perspective painters by Dutch artists yield work that has a timeless observance, we can look at their work today and regard the painting with similar intent to the origin date.

Looking at and viewing art is a completely subjective experience. There is no correct way to view a piece or a required amount of time, or detail of depth in which to analyze it. These two articles give an interesting comparison on two different ways one might approach looking and analyzing art. While one can still go to a museum and look at a piece of art in under one minute, perhaps developing a historiographical approach to viewing art may yield more of a gain for the viewer enhancing their experience.

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4 thoughts on “Brusati and Berger: Analysis of Viewing Dutch Painting

  1. I agree with a lot of what you said. I think that your essay would be aided by a combination of discussion of the subjectivity you mention in your first comment coupled with the discernment of method — such as the more formal Grootenboer and the more historical Zemel.

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  2. The next three readings by Susie Protschky, Hanneke Grootenboer, and Carol Zemel expand our knowledge of how to analyze and look at art. Protschky takes a comparative approach looking at the entire genre of Netherlands Indies still life’s from the 17th century “Golden Age” to the modern colonial period of the 19th to early 20th centuries. Her analysis is different from the formal analysis of Brusati. Instead she takes a postcolonial approach and looks at the symbolic anthropology of the piece. She discusses the still life’s only in a colonial context and discusses the social and economic influences of colonial trade. Quite differently, Grootenboer steps away from an outside context and focuses more on the symbolic nature and formal analysis of the image.

    Grootenboer’s article is a theoretical analysis of theatricality in portraits. Instead of looking at outside influences that might affect how one views the painting (like colonial trade), he looks at formal analysis and how the viewer can see a sense of self of the sitter based on the figural/compositional elements of the portrait. Again, while Protschky uses a more historical framework, Grootenboer’s is theoretical. Furthermore, as Protschky and Brusati are focused on a genre and broad time periods, Grootenboer is focused on specific pieces from specific artists. Finally, Zemel takes up a Marxist art historical approach, combining a historical narrative with an artist biography.

    Zemel is less theoretical and more along the lines of Berger and Protschky in her analysis. Discussing Van Gogh’s weaver paintings, Zemel takes a Marxist art historical approach. She looks at the social and economic issues of industry especially with rural artisans and the invention of larger technology. From this, Zemel weaves in Van Gogh’s own personal biography and experiences with the weavers. Thus her analysis hinges on Van Gogh’s perspective and opinions toward the social and economic circumstances of weavers. This analysis allows for a greater look into the artist as well as their opinions of their social environment.

    With all these different ways to approach art it becomes difficult to determine which is the “best” way. However, I think that approaching art only through formal analysis like most of Grootenboer’s argument may not yield the most productive analysis. I think it’s almost irresponsible to not look at the the history surrounding the art. The artist’s life, the social and economic environment, and even the political and religious sphere of the period all have an effect on the way the art is produced and viewed in that time. Without this analysis, one is analyzing the piece through a modern day lens and our own cultural bias will have an effect on the interpretation. In viewing art its important to try to understand the artist’s intent, the reaction of the audience, how the piece fits in its original environment, and then, after all that think about how we view the piece today and how it can fit in our own current culture.

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    1. I like the way you’re grouping the formal vs. historical approaches. What specific differences do you see within these two groups? For example, what exactly are the formal techniques Brusati is highlighting–what were the artists’ tricks they were using to invite us to keep looking, to invite us to try to look around corners, to follow the gaze of people (or animals?) in the paintings, to see where the light was coming from, etc.? What are the specific “theatrical” qualities that Grootenboer points out and how do these function, exactly? What do they do or seem to do to the viewer? And similarly for the historicist &/or theoretical approaches: what is each scholar looking for in the context? What kinds of context do they think explains something in the painting?

      You also raise interesting questions about the responsibility of the viewer. I agree that the better we are at looking (and this is a skill), the more we’ll get out of art. But there is some language here that makes it seem like a burden. Are we forced to look? Is it our responsibility? Is it an onerous task? (I’m exaggerating here a bit.) What role does pleasure and volition play in the viewer? Isn’t that part of Brusati’s point–that the art itself is enticing the viewer, inviting the viewer in, leading the viewer on? This sound like fun! But do we have to do the work of gaining those skills first? Does the historicist/theoretical approaches help us do that?

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  3. I really like how you describe viewing art as a two way street. It is all too often that museum-goers think that they are supposed to get something out of art without giving something.

    With regard to the viewing time of an art piece, which you and Brusati address, there is not necessarily a right or wrong amount of time, but the average is quite low. What do you think should be the suggested viewing time of a piece, all things discussed here considered?

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