The Role of The Threshold in Dutch Art by Elisabeth Pearson

The Love Letter c 1669 by Johannes Vermeer

Dutch art has unique qualities and artistic techniques emphasizing Dutch nationalism, symbolism, and optical illusion. According to Celeste Brusati’s Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time artists like Johannes Vermeer and Samuel van Hoogstraten are skilled in manipulating perspective. The technique of perspective is practiced and abundant in Netherland artwork. Thus, according to Brusati, artists like Vermeer and Hoogstraten generate an active looking experience for the viewer depending on the features and manipulations of the painting (Brusati 912). While reading Brusati I noticed a theme in the paintings: framing through thresholds. Whether it be Pieter Saenredam’s painting of the Church of St. Bavo and the framing of the threshold of the arches to a Vermeer where a doorway frames an intimate scene, it is clear that the role of threshold is to manipulate the eye movement of the viewer. But beyond the physical action of looking at the framing purpose of the threshold, Brusati does not touch upon the potential symbolic meaning. Thus, as a viewer, I found the role of the threshold – both literal and fictive – to connect the exterior world with that of the intimate interior and to both limit and enhance the perception of the viewer. As perspective, framing, and thresholds works hand in hand to activate the eye of the viewer, the reoccurring and symbolic purpose of the threshold should not be overlooked.  

View of an Interior c. 1654-60 by Samuel van Hoogstraten

Brusati notes the abundant use of fictive thresholds that work to frame and manipulate perspective in Dutch art. Samuel van Hoogstraten’s work was the first to create a new type of perspective: that of “domestic thresholds” (Brusati 925). For example, in van Hoogstratens’ View of an Interior c. 1654-60 he uses a new perspective format of framing via a threshold. Brusati notes that this ‘fictive threshold’ forces the viewer to halt before the painting as they cannot enter the threshold, thus symbolically and literally limiting their view of the space (Brusati 926). Van Hoodstraten’s painting depicts a domestic space framed by a doorway, a passage in between and another threshold. There is a broom off to the side and keys left in the ajar door. A pair of shoes are strewn in front of the threshold as if a woman had just walked in. These thresholds act as a linking mechanism between the exterior of the viewer and the interior of the scene.

View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street” c. 1658 by Johannes Vermeer

Likewise, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer contributes to the realm of fictive thresholds. In some of Vermeer’s paintings like The Love Letter c. 1669-70, and View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street” c. 1658, he deals with fictive thresholds in two unique and poignant ways. In The Love Letter Vermeer paints two women, one well dressed and the other a maidservant. In the painting, the maid has handed the woman a letter. More importantly, however, this painting offers a unique vantage point for the spectator much like Hoogstraten’s domestic threshold. The Love Letter places the viewer behind the threshold, unable to enter, but stuck in a frozen and intimate moment of peering into a private and domestic scene. Similarly, in “The Little Street” there are two fictive thresholds which peek into worlds of two different women. They are engaging in separate tasks and seemingly separate lives. However, from the perspective of the viewer their presence is cohesive liveliness of the painting overall. In “The Little Street” there are also several other doors and windows that are obstructed by doors or opaqueness. The contrast between an open threshold with action and life to that of the closed thresholds makes the viewer question what other activities and lives take place behind those walls.

As Brusati notes, fictive thresholds work to manipulate eye movement and perspective, but they also lend a symbolic quality. I believe that they symbolize a portal to an extremely intimate view that is cut and framed by the threshold. This limits the viewer as one cannot lean in to see what is happening on the other side. However, it also lends possibility: the imagination of the spectator is activated. This activation is heightened in “The Little Street” because of the juxtaposition between the open and closed thresholds. Further, these thresholds of the domestic interior mark a transition in the painting evoking the shift from public to private.            

Perspective Box with Views of the Interior of a House c 1650-60 by Samuel van Hoogstraten
Perspective Box of a Dutch Interior c. 1663 by Samuel van Hoogstraten

However, the Dutch playfulness and utilization of perspective via thresholds did not stop there. Some artists used literal thresholds, albeit small ones like boxes and cabinets, to create artwork. Artist like van Hoogstraten’s used this technique in Perspective Box with Views of the Interior of a House c 1650-60 and the Perspective Box of a Dutch Interior c. 1663. In both of these works Hoogstraten paints the interior of a Dutch house. While this artwork masterfully deals with optical illusions and perspective, the significance of the threshold integrating the art and the viewer is overlooked by Brusati. By using literal, rather than fictive thresholds as a medium, van Hoogstraten enhances the symbol of a threshold by placing the viewer in the piece of art. Moreover, the threshold links the exterior of where the viewer stands to the interior piece of the artwork. Van Hoogstraten’s notes that “the world itself changes shape depending on one’s position” (Brusati 916). Perhaps this observation inspires the use of the box as a threshold, and to move around the space of the work.  

Perspective Box c. 1682 by Pieter Janssens Elinga

Likewise Dutch artist Pieter Janssens Elinga uses wooden boxes in his artwork to create illusion and thresholds. Elinga’s “Perspective Box” c. 1682 depicts a table set for tea in a wealthy Dutch home. There are maidservants working in the background of the painting. Like van Hoogstraten, Elinga manages use the box as a threshold into the painting, bridging the world of viewer to the interior of the Dutch home. Meanwhile the technique of optical illusion and perspective draws the viewer even further into the scope of the painting.

While Brusati discusses techniques of perspective via illusions, she does not mention a factor that I noticed time and time again in Dutch work: the role of the threshold. Whether it is a literal threshold or the fictive, the technical and symbolic uses of it in a painting hold great importance and power for the viewer. Technically, the threshold activates one’s eye as Brusati discusses the purpose behind perspective techniques: however thresholds also stimulate a visceral reaction through its symbolic nature. In this a sense of uniting the exterior world to the interior is formed. The threshold serves as the bridge that cannot be lingered in. The threshold itself is not tangible to the viewer. This bridge connects public and private spheres evoking a sense of intimacy and connection between the viewer and the image before them. These spectacular pieces by the Dutch invite a sense of connection and affinity between a stranger and the world depicted in front of them.

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One thought on “The Role of The Threshold in Dutch Art by Elisabeth Pearson

  1. I love the move from the figurative or fictive threshhold to the literal one. You see these perspective-box makers as literalizing, emphasizing, amplifying what the painters were already doing, right? I wonder what the other painters thought of this move?

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