Perspectives of Viewing: The Camera Lens and Dutch Paintings

As an art historian, one learns that there are many ways to “view” a work of art. With each method and theory comes a new insight to a work. While there is no sole method of viewing art and gaining its meaning, they bring more layers of meaning and understanding to a work. Art historians and theorists such as Harry Berger Jr., Celeste Brusati, Carol Zemel, and Hanneke Grootenboer all explain, debate, and legitimize their arguments by explaining Dutch art. With each new method there comes a new perspective on art. Both Harry Berger Jr. and Celeste Brusati give compelling arguments on vastly different ways of reading Dutch paintings yet their methods are both solid.

Berger suggests that an artwork, especially a historical scene or portrait can only be truly understood once the viewer knows the historical background of the painting’s content. Berger uses The Night Watch by Rembrandt to show his method, making the accusation that this painting has a wildly different meaning with historical context than without. By looking into the cultural and historical background of The Night Watch, Berger sees the true intention of this painting was not intended as a nationalist painting and more of a parody of the militia culture in the Netherlands (Berger 184-87). As Hanneke Grootenboer suggests in “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits,” the Dutch historic portrait has a sense of theatrics and play. However, we would not get this effect from The Night Watch without Berger’s historical research method. Also, I did not think Berger’s first-person narrative style worked well for this piece. This complex and dense of an argument needed a more solid and concrete narrative. While this informal narrative felt a nice change from dense art historical texts, it often felt too informal.

This method works particularly well for historical scenes. The downside with this method is that this cannot only be used for paintings with historical meanings within the content of the canvas. Not everything in a work of art has a deep and fascinating historical significance. In addition, this method works more for the art historian or historian rather than a tourist walking into the Rijksmuseum. The everyday viewer is not going to walk into a museum and search the entire cultural significance of The Night Watch and Dutch history. The viewer wants to be lead to the meaning of a painting and then, once pulled in, can research beyond the work.

While Berger focuses on the historical background, Celeste Brusati’s method focuses solely on the content in the artwork. She focuses on the act of viewing and understanding the elements on the canvas rather than a work’s historical significance. “…they utilize perspective as an optical technology to magnify, diminish, fragment, and manipulate pictorial space, multiplying vistas, and transforming depicted structures and objects in ways that bring their multiple aspects into view” (Brusati 913). Brusati focuses on perspective and the idea the intimate, domestic spaces create portals into the daily life of the Dutch. She argues that perspective adds a sense of realism, depth, and emotional connection to a work of art. With perspective and these small spaces, the viewer’s gaze is moved around the painting to fully envelop them into the Dutch world. They are drawn into the scene. This method seems more universal than Berger’s, which only works well with historical scenes and portraits. Brusati’s method can be applied to historical scenes as well as landscapes and domestic scenes. It can work with any painting with a content and perspective. It dramatizes the experience and allows the viewer directly into the painted world.

The idea of photography came up in Bursati’s article as well as Susie Protschky’s article, “Dutch Still Lifes and Colonial Visual Culture in the Netherlands Indies, 1800-1949,” and can be referenced in conversation with Hanneke Grootenboer’s. These historians reference Svetlana Alpers’ writings on Dutch art and the idea of viewing it. Alpers suggests that Dutch art does not need an outside context and has everything a viewer needs to understand the painting’s meaning within the canvas. Alpers feels, as does Bursati, that the world on the canvas is self-enclosed and has its own reality and meaning (Betsky 148-50).

Alpers explains her argument saying that art can be paralleled to using a camera, particularly a camera obscura. A painting requires a focus both focal point and content. The artist, particularly the Dutch artist, creates a lens in which the viewer can explore the world on canvas. This creates a world using the edges of the canvas as the camera frame. With Dutch artists, such as Vermeer, there was a focus on creating many focal points, which allow for the viewer to get absorbed into the world, getting a true connection with the scene and people depicted. The frames for these small areas of focus come in the form of doorways and windows. By allowing the viewer to be so enveloped in the world in front of them allows the viewer to emotionally understand and connect to the world on the canvas. This all comes from just viewing the artwork; no research is needed to get the full effect of the painting. However, is there a limit to this idea? The artist can manipulate his viewer to focus on one part of the painting. At this time, historical and cultural research may be needed for more in depth understanding.

Brusati and Protschky use Alpers’ theory to support their own. Hanneke Grootenboer’s article, “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits,” combines Berger and Brusati’s methods. Grootenboer argues that the theatricality in Dutch portraits show the emotion and class of the sitter. It also tells how the sitter wanted to be perceived in their painting and how the artist wanted to show off their talents. Grootenboer uses Berger to solidify his own argument about knowing the subject and historical content of a work.

In addition, he also uses Brusati’s method of perspective and the camera. The portraits in Grootenbeor’s article all feature a dark background, which focuses the viewer on the sitter and their emotions. Looking closely there are details that can be missed that add to the personality or rank of the sitter. While this seems rather straightforward, Grootenboer brings up the fact that the sitters only sat for a short time in front of the artist. At what point does the artist create a character rather than the sitter? Is this interpretation of the sitter accurate?

In addition, Albers theory and Brusati’s method of viewing can be used in Carol Zemel’s article, “The ‘Spook’ in the Machine: Van Gogh’s Pictures of Weavers in Brabant.” Zemel argues that weavers were often isolated and worked alone which intrigued Van Gogh. The idea of domestic life and the working class was painting almost as often as the Dutch elite. Zemel also mentions that Van Gogh uses the weaver’s industrial loom in his paintings as a frame for the weaver portrayed. This frame captures the weaver in the moment of their work and their lives.

As Brusati discussed, the windows and doorways act as portals to the domestic world. Upon looking into the Riksmuseum’s collection, I noticed many works by famed Dutch artists carried this style of doorways, windows, and frames. In View of the Houses in Delft (The Little Street) by Johannes Vermeer, we can see what Celeste Brusati is saying. Johannes Vermeer uses perspective to move the viewer’s gaze and attention around the piece, ultimately creating many different domestic focal points. The longer the viewer looks into the painting, the more detail and sense of domestic Dutch life the viewer understands.

In View of the Houses in Delft (The Little Street,) Vermeer creates different focal points throughout the painting. This includes the woman in the doorway, the children together in the foreground, and the woman sweeping in the alleyway. There is a contrast of light and dark that helps the viewer’s eyes to the people and around the painting. In addition to the focal points of people, the viewer’s eye is also drawn up to the rooflines above the alley, which creates even more depth and realism to the painting. It is not staged and feels very natural, giving the viewer the feeling that they are looking out their window into the scene. They can relate to the world around them and therefore connect to the painting. In association with Berger, one may want to look deeper into the historical context of a Dutch domestic scene like this one to get even more background and understanding. This may include research done on Vermeer’s connection to this location, the identity or status of the people in the painting, and the architectural styles of the time.

Throughout Dutch paintings, the idea of viewing and movement can become more important than the historical or cultural meanings behind a work. In many cases, the painting can be understood and emotionally connected to without further research and theory. The focal point acts as a camera lens into the lives of the Dutch people depicted in these paintings and can take the form of a window or doorway in a domestic scene. This movement from focal points adds deep understanding but also depth and perspective to the piece. With this, the viewer is drawn even more into this realistic and engaging space. Through the methods of viewing and understanding Dutch art, the painted world comes alive and can be fully understood.

 

References

Berger Jr, Harry. ‘Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.The Virginia Quarterly Review. Winter 2007. Vol. 83. No. 1. ProQuest. Web.

Betsky, Aaron and Adam Eeuwens. “False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good.” New York: Phaidon Press Inc. 2008. Print.

Brusati, Celeste. “Perspective in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time.” Association of Art Historians. 2012. Web.

Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits,” Association of Art Historians. 2010. Web.

Protschky, Susie. “Dutch Still Lifes and Colonial Visual Culture in the Netherlands Indies, 1800-1949.” Association of Art Historians. 2011. Web.

Vermeer, Johannes. View of the Houses in Delft (The Little Street.) c. 1658. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. Web.

Zemel, Carol. “The ‘Spook’ in the Machine: Van Gogh’s Pictures of Weavers in Brabant.” The Art Bulletin. Vol. 67. No. 1. 1985. Jstor. Web.

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