The Viewing of Dutch Paintings (Brusati and Berger)

As an art historian, one learns that there are many ways to “view” a work of art. Each method is debated, legitimized, and gets a new perspective on art. While there is no true method to figure out all context of an artwork, Harry Berger Jr. and Celeste Brusati give compelling arguments on vastly different ways of reading a (Dutch) painting. Berger makes the argument that an artwork can only be truly understood with a historical background on the content portrayed. According to Berger, The Night Watch by Rembrandt has a wildly different meaning with historical context than without.

While Berge focuses on the historical background an artwork such as The Night Watch, Brusati feels that everything that is needed is in the content of the artwork, focuses on the act of viewing and understanding the elements on the canvas rather than a work’s historical significance. Brusati argues that perspective adds a sense of realism, depth, and emotional connection to a work of art. The viewer is drawn into the painting and is given a direct view into a space, including the viewer in the scene.

I tend to agree more closely with Brusati. While historical context can be very important for a historical scene or portrait, this method cannot be used universally. Brusati’s argument can be applied to any scene with perspective. Also, I did not like Berger’s first-person narrative style.While it felt more informal which can be a nice change from dense art historical texts, it felt too informal and at times I had trouble following his train of thought.

After Van Hoogstraten, Johannes Vermeer uses perspective to move the viewer’s gaze and attention around the piece, ultimately creating many different domestic focal points. With View of the Houses in Delft (The Little Street) by Vermeer, we can see what Brusati is saying. The longer the viewer looks into the painting, the more detail and sense of domestic Dutch life the viewer understands. Vermeer adds different foreground and background scenes and scapes to create depth and realism. As Brusati discussed, the windows and doorways act as portals to the domestic world.


5 thoughts on “The Viewing of Dutch Paintings (Brusati and Berger)

  1. I really enjoyed the discussion above about the use of historical context versus no context at all and just using formal analysis when viewing art. I think for your paper developing this argument for both sides could be interesting. Also in your original post I loved how you brought in the painting from the Rijksmuseum that you studied. Perhaps in your paper you could try to link both methods argued above to your painting and try to analyze it in both ways. The authors of the articles all chose paintings that would align nicely with their argument so I think choosing a random piece of art and trying to apply both methods would really bring out some interesting analysis and discussion.


  2. As a historian, it might seem strange for me to be siding with Brusati on this one, but I will! Or at least that is my personal default disposition. I think the work itself needs to pull me in. Something about its technique, form, composition, use of light, etc., will do that. And I think many artists would argue that point too, that the “meaning” is in how it makes you feel, or in the formal aesthetic.

    But then again, of course, I have to be prepared to be pulled in, right? And at some point, my knowing some historical context might be the thing that prepares me for the painting to pull me in. So Aaron’s point–and your art history training–has to be dealt with.

    In your take on the Vermeer, I’m wondering what you see in particular there that does this? What formal qualities, tricks, techniques, etc., do you think Vermeer was using, and how exactly did those affect you? What did they do to you as you looked? And was there a time component to that? Did some appear first to you, some later? How specifically can we see Brusati’s idea at work as we look?

    Finally, I’m glad you’re responding to Berger’s first-person narrative as well. I think first person can be useful–both analytically and rhetorically–but the question is always about when and how and why to use it. What purpose do you think he had in using it? And did it not serve that purpose? (And was it always the same purpose throughout the essay?) How could he have done it differently to make the same point? It’s interesting, actually–if he is arguing that the historical context creates “the” meaning (is he arguing that?), then the first person would seem to undermine that, making it seem more like his own subjective reading. Or does his historical knowledge also create his own subjective reading?


  3. Thank you for your comments! I feel that there is not one correct method of viewing and interpreting art; each brings a new perspective and insight to an artwork. Referencing Hannake Grootenboer’s article, does the artist give a clear and exact depiction of the content or does the viewer put their own thoughts and emotions onto it? Gootenboer also discusses Berger, saying that while the historical and cultural background of a portrait is important, HOW and not WHY can be more important. This partially separates the painting from its historical context, allowing the piece to be viewed as it is with addition to historical knowledge rather than being covered up with history. Gootenboer feels that it is ultimately about the person in the portrait and the sense of self that they have, whether to theatrical or genuine. I agree with Jackie (ajstreker) that an artwork should be able to be viewed and understood without a viewer having to do research on a piece. A piece should be able to speak for itself. If not, does it really portray the figure, scene, etc correctly?

    Something I also plan on covering in my later essay is Svetlana Alper’s arguments in “Dutch Still Lives… Netherlands Indies” and “False Flat.” Ultimately, Alpers uses a very similar method to Brusati and feels almost the opposite that Berge does. Alpers suggests that you (the viewer) can see everything they need to know in the painting, it is a self-enclosed world and the art does not need an outside context. In Dutch art, Alpers feels that there reality is in front of you in the painting. Windows, mirrors, and door frames all act as portals for the viewer to be transported into the world of the painting. While I believe this, I do feel that Berger’s method can help a lot with historical portraits and scenes and can help a researcher (such as an art historian) understand intentions behind the painting and the cultural impact the work had.


  4. As graduate students in art history it may seem silly of us to push against the idea that historic context is the most important in viewing a work of art, but I agree. Is a work of art successful if we need to know the context of its creation to appreciate it? Sure we may get a little more of the intricacies of the technique or deeper meaning, but works of art are visual things, and shouldn’t our raw visual appreciation come first?


  5. While I agree with your interpretation of both Berger and Brusati’s ideas of viewing and analyzing art, I disagree with you in regards to putting perspective before historical context. I beleive that while perspective is beneficial in many cases of putting oneself into the specific point of view through which the artists intends is crucial, understanding the “why” factor brought forth through historical context and asking intricate questions about the arts nature can be applied universally to help gain a deeper knowledge of the art.
    Your mention of attempting to find a universal method drew me back to my own findings, and made me realize that both of these methods can only be applied to certain aspects or depictions of art. For instance, analyzing perspective of an abstract Pollock painting or analyzing the historical context of a simplistic painting where not much can be drawn through historical analysis. Perhaps the best methods are those that mix the two analyses together.


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