The Responsibility of the Viewer: Looking at Dutch Art

Looking at and viewing art is a completely subjective experience. There is no correct way to view a piece of work. A visitor to a museum may spend one minute on a piece, enough time to note its beauty. Another visitor may spend an hour on a piece noting everything from the techniques of the artist in brush strokes and color to the historical significance of the art itself. History shows that people have argued about the different ways to examine and analyze art for centuries. But in all discussions, there is a consensus on the responsibility of the viewer.

Many artist’s works are created for the enjoyment of and evaluation by an audience. In return, the audience has a basic obligation to look at the work and react to it. For those who say that, in some cases, a viewer may not react at all to a piece, I firmly disagree. To say a work is boring, ugly, poor quality, or that the artist is not that good or alternatively very good, the art is encouraging a reaction out of the viewer. Even if a viewer spends three seconds on a piece and moves on, the artist elicited a response, that the piece is not worth looking at. So, to say that one does not gain anything from a work of art is impossible. However, there are different ways to view art that increase the responsibilities of the viewer in their analysis.

Looking at art historical analysis of Dutch art, scholars are split between a historical and formal analysis of viewing art. Celeste Brusati and Hanneke Grootenboer note the viewer’s responsibility to interact with Dutch art on a formal level, to note the compositional elements and style of the piece. Alternatively, Susie Protschky and Carol Zemel indicate that the viewer has a responsibility to bring in outside knowledge to look at the art, to note the social environment the work was produced in. Though different, both cases emphasize the point that the better we are at looking, the more we will get out of the art.

The general public, the people who have base knowledge of art and the history of art, more than often take a formal view of a work of art. A viewer is more likely to note the different narrative spaces in a work of art, for example a window that showcases a monument outside or the illusionist depth of an interior colonnaded space, than link their outside knowledge of Dutch clothing or instruments from history to the elements they see within the piece, since on average many might not know this history. It is easier for the viewer to just note what they see rather than associate what they see with a known history; this is more work for the viewer. Furthermore, a formal analysis of art is broader, analyzing a genre or specific art culture’s development rather than artist individuality. Thus, when looking at art formally, people can analyze through comparison and association, what looks familiar, rather than their knowledge of the artist or history. Examples of a formal approach and the respective responsibilities of the viewer are noted in Celeste Brusati’s Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time and Hanneke Grootenboer’s How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits.

Brusati discusses how Dutch painters in the seventeenth century used specific techniques to sustain the visual attention of the viewer and encourage more active engagement of the pictorial field (909-910). At one point, Brusati looks at the work of Pieter de Hooch and his piece Interior with a Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair (1658-60). Brusati argues that de Hooch uses inventive perspective spaces to incite active looking in the viewer (910). In the scene, a mother and child are seated in the right of a domestic interior. Behind them a storage space is open to the viewer from drawn back drapery. To the upper right of the family there is a window letting in an angled ray of light. To the left of the family there is a dog stationed a few feet away from an open door leading into another interior space of the house. Within that space, the viewer also notes another open window yielding a small view of the outside world. These various embedded through-views, open doors, and windows draw the viewer in. They first walk into the space with the image of the mother and child but are drawn further into the domestic lifestyle by the positioning of the dog willing the viewer to look beyond the front room into the back room. De Hooch lures the viewer even more into his imaged space with the addition of the open window in the back room. The viewer has the opportunity once more to travel through the optical passages de Hooch prepared into the outside world of the domestic space (Brusati 911). The different narrative perspectives are also seen in the inclusion of the paintings, a world within a world. In creating these open spaces for the viewers eyes to wander, he creates a visual curiosity and enraptures the viewer’s attention.

While de Hooch entices the viewer into the painting, he demands the viewer to participate in his piece, reminding them of their responsibility to the pictorial field. Close scrutiny, long looking, and repeat glances are responsibilities of the viewer when looking at the formal characteristics of art. The viewer should ask themselves where their eye wanders and what makes it do so. Furthermore, the viewer should attempt to find the multiple perspectives that the Dutch painters incorporated into their work through dramatic foreshortening, the distortion of a space to create depth in the image, and anamorphic elements, a spatial device to allow the viewer to occupy a specific vantage point. Brusati concludes her article by reflecting on the mutable dimensions of vision and the Dutch perspective that invite us to see (930). While Dutch artists of the seventeenth century, as argued by Brusati, worked hard to engage the viewer’s attention for longer, the experience of looking that is provided by Dutch artists should translate to our current experiences in looking at all art. Viewing should be active and engaging not something completely reliant on the artist. An example of this type of close looking is evident in Grootenboer’s active engagement and exploration of pictorial space in seventeenth-century Dutch portraits.

Grootenboer looks at the formal characteristics of Dutch portraits arguing that they hold elements of theatricality in revealing a represented self of the sitter, that the portraits are performative (322). Grootenboer references Michael Sweerts’ Portrait of a Young Man (1656) to make his point that the sitter and the artist are aware of the separation between the audience and the person in the painting. Thus, the artist may paint the sitter in a light that is representative of how they perceive him. Or, the artist may paint the sitter exactly how he sees him in the moment, in a way that the sitter has decided how he wants others to perceive him (Grootenboer 330). Grootenboer describes different elements of the painting that showcase this division and theatrical nature of seventeenth-century Dutch portraits.

In Portrait of a Young Man, Grootenboer emphasizes the “structure of address” in the painting (324). A young man sits at a desk which is turned sideways towards the viewer. The Man is pulled away from his desk in the chair but rests his right arm on the counter and places his head in his right hand. The left hand is also on the counter with the palm facing away from us. In his hand, he holds a sheet of folded paper. Finally, the young man looks out directly at the viewer, an unknown light illuminating his face contrasting with the dark background and his own dark clothing. Grootenboer states that his posture and glance reveal the awareness that he is being watched. Furthermore, the posture addresses the divide between the viewer and his place at his desk (Grootenboer 322). So, due to this recognition of the audience the young man is representing himself in a certain way. He is disclosing to the viewer the self he wishes they will identify him with. Sweerts’ painting is an example of the theatricality of portraiture, that the sitter is an actor and the painting his stage. Grootenboer uses the formal characteristics of these portraits as evidence to his claim, further justifying the responsibility of the viewer to have an active engagement with art.

On the other hand, Protschky and Zemel would argue that formal analysis can only get you so far in analyzing and interpreting a piece of art. Taking up a historical approach, Protschky and Zemel accentuate the benefit of viewing art with a historical background. Protschky looks at the genre of Netherlands Indies still lifes from the seventeenth century Golden Age to the modern colonial period of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries using a postcolonialism art historical approach. Zemel, discusses Van Gogh’s weaver genre paintings taking up a Marxist art historical approach. In both cases, the scholars are using information from the environment of their respective paintings and artists to look at the art.

Protschky’s article Dutch Still Lifes and Colonial Visual Culture in the Netherlands Indies, 1800-1949 examines still life images produced in the Netherlands Indies during the colonial period (511). The collection of flowers and fruit in these pieces emphasize the flourishing nature of places untouched by Western culture, and showcase the economic values of the colonial establishments, the wealth profited from colonial trade (Protschky 513, 514). Historically, the Indies was a profitable colony supplying a huge trade network for tropical fruits enhancing the colonial economy (Protschky 516). One of the pieces Protschky analyzes is East Indies Market Scene (1640), one of the earliest known still lifes from the Indies (519). In this image, it is not so much about the formal characteristics of the piece, but rather what the items in the painting symbolize and are emblems of in relation to the colonial context in which it was produced. The variety of fruits and vegetables show food items in their “botanical mode of display” which was a popular illustrated feature in printed books on natural history because of the expansion of European overseas trade (Protschky 519).  Thus, the artist wanted to associate their work with these works on trade culture and economy. Furthermore, the variety of rare fruits yield the exotic nature of colonial societies emphasizing their “otherness” from Western culture, a prevalent current attitude in Europe at this time.  So, we can see how these paintings are interpreted through a postcolonial lens, making sure that certain biases are noted between the colony and colonizer.

Zemel’s article The ‘Spook’ in the Machine: Van Gogh’s Pictures of Weavers in Brabant is using a different analytical technique than Protschky under the same historical approach. Zemel uses a Marxist art historical method looking at the social and economic issues of industry with rural artisans and the invention of larger technology. Her analysis hinges on Van Gogh’s biography and knowledge of his interaction with the weavers. The paintings celebrate the Brabant weaver’s way of life that was becoming increasingly undermined by mill towns and factories (Zemel 126). Zemel uses research from literature of the period not just artistic works to make her point, noting George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Carlyle, the former who states in “Signs of the Times” that the “living artisan is driven from his workshop to make room for a speedier, inanimate one” (126). She uses this literature as further evidence for her analysis of Van Gogh’s Brabant weaver collection to emphasize her thesis that Van Gogh created these works in a sympathetic light, since he himself shared the outlook that a simpler civilization, not one of factory life, would be more harmonious (Zemel 127). In conclusion, Zemel analyzes Van Gogh’s Brabandt weaver collection through the lens of a Marxist approach toward industry, using evidence from local literature, and Van Gogh’s biography to further understand the art.

While formal analysis, as seen through Brusati and Grootenboer encourages closer and active looking of art, historical analysis, as seen through Protschky and Zemel, puts the responsibility of the viewer to engage outside the work of art. In this method, the viewer gets more out of the painting, understanding not only what is there but why it is and what outside influences may have impacted the viewers intent on the image. Also, it allows a glimpse into how the period audience might have reacted to the work. While there are different approaches to view and analyze art, in all cases the viewer has a responsibility to look at the work and react to it. Depending on which method one takes, the reactions will be different.

Jackie Gase


Brusati, Celeste. “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time.” Art History 35.5 (2012): 909-933.

Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits.” Art History 33.2 (2010): 320-333.

Protschky, Susie. “Dutch Still Lifes and Colonial Visual Culture in the Netherlands Indies, 1800-1949.” Art History 34.3 (2011): 510-535.

Zemel, Carol. “The ‘Spook’ in the Machine: Van Gogh’s Pictures of Weavers in Brabant.” The Art Bulletin 67.1 (1985): 123-137.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s