A Worldly Art

I have chosen Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” to be in conversation with “The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” from Westermann’s book. As mentioned, historical revolts and triumphs were often represented in official buildings to reflect the triumph of the Dutch Republic. I have always viewed this painting in context of the earlier “oriental” works of Rembrandt compositionally and stylistically. While this painting isn’t explicit in Oriental costume because of the historical scene being depicted, I find this painting similar to others in style and composition that it is worth noting. Rembrandt’s paintings throughout his career are full of “oriental” costume and scenes. Some of them are historical/biblical like the “Belshazzar’s Feast” and this one, but many of his these paintings are portraits of anonymous people donned in elaborate Eastern dress. This appropriation of the east and the prominence of the East India Trading Company calls attention to the darker side of the “Dutch Republic” that is being praised. The replacement of this painting by one in more fashionable contemporary dress and style, shows a shifting attitude of this darker scene that looks barbaric in nature, even though it is a proud moment.

The Folklore of ‘Zwarte Piet” can come into conversation with how other cultures were being viewed at the same time. The exoticness and almost caricatures of the Eastern identity through using their costume and customs as props is dehumanizing similar to how Blakely describes Zwarte Piet and black people in the Netherlands. The religious aspect is also important, as the chosen scenes of Eastern depictions are typically from the old Testament and in negative lights, such as “Belshazzar’s Feast” paralleling how a painting can be stagnant while emitting a powerful narrative that can be construed to anyone’s whim.

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2 thoughts on “A Worldly Art

  1. The idea of paintings being locked in a certain time period is a fascinating topic of discussion. Art is, after all, the product of an artist, who themselves is a product of their time. To what extent can we judge a man of the seventeenth century for their obvious stereotypes and biases, when they could not possibly have known better. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the example of our modern debate over Confederate statues, as my argument has always been that the subjects and creators of these statues must be judged by the standards of their time. Of course, the subjects were traitors, and were racists even by the standards of their time, when the institution of slavery was widely opposed. Also, the artist’s intent must be kept in mind. Many of these statues were built in the early twentieth century as part of a swelling of racism and Confederate sympathy brought about by the deaths of the last surviving confederate soldiers and rising immigration. So both by the standards of the subjects’ time and the artists’ time, these statues are still obviously racist and should be torn down, not celebrated. However, paintings and artists of the seventeenth century are not so clear, and Rembrandt is a perfect example.

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  2. I like your commentary on exoticism as viewed through the lens of Dutch art. From our perspective, the horrendous stereotypes assigned to the non-Dutch are both dreadfully ignorant and harmful. But a typical Dutchman in the 1650s would not have known much more than vague stories passed down from parents or shared by merchants. Especially when locked into a religious mindset, which uses symbolism that isn’t always fair to outsides – such as white representing purity and black representing corruption – it is easy to see not only how such misconceptions became apparent but continued to perpetuate themselves in the absence of outside experience. Paintings are stagnant and reflect the intent of the painter during its moments of creation. Only in the past century – and arguably the past few decades – has the world begun to learn about and understand its various different cultures and peoples.

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