Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings developed an incredible quasi-photographic quality that provided the audience with a sense of realism and accuracy. Compositionally the most detailed and seemingly accurate landscapes and interiors were much more complicated than any instant photography. Within the historical tradition of Dutch art, the sense of hyperrealism is achieved as a natural continuation of the detailed visual spectacle of sixteenth-century style painting. This style incentivizes observers to engage with a single image, capture the details, and appreciate the visual complexities. This particular style also highlights historical continuity between netticheyt paintings and realist paintings from the seventeenth century. My paper explores two seemingly dissimilar works of Joachim Bueckelaer and Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael with the intention of drawing unforeseen visual. parallels. The first selected painting is from Bueckelaer’s famous series of interior kitchen portraits, and the second is a classic Dutch landscape by Isaacksz van Ruisdael. The quality that unites both paintings lies in the role of small compositional and ‘narrative’ details that engage the viewer to invest effort in examining the painting as closely as possible in order to grasp it as a whole.
“Seventeenth-century vernacular pictorial and textual commentaries on art took a more than passing interest in the capacity of pictures to elicit inquisitive looking and to sustain visual attention,” According to Brusati (909). The concept of netticheyt, or meticulousness in the execution of compositional details in paintings, is essential in understanding the cultural tradition of Dutch art. The richness of compositional details was not necessarily tethered to the desire for accuracy and realism. In some of the most glorified instances of the use of meticulous details in Early Dutch painting, Hiëronymus Bosch created surreal triptychs deeply embedded with symbolic meanings. However, they visibly had no aspiration for capturing this sense of realism. Instead, the hundreds of figures, events, and symbols included in Bosch’s triptychs allowed for comprehension of the paintings’ narrative, driving every viewer into a personal journey to decipher and comprehend the painting in a unique order and based on unique personal hermeneutic. Equally importantly, Bosch’s paintings are composed in a manner that attracts the viewer to spend considerable time assessing all its details. This precision and attention to detail is quite unusual for the modern-day museum experience, where many visitors have no inclination to engage with any exhibit for more than a few moments. However, as noted by Brusati, such experience was much more common in Dutch experience of art consumption.
Joachim Bueckelaer’s 1566 painting “The Well-Stocked Kitchen, with Jesus in Het House of Martha and Mary in the Background” clearly illustrates the tendency of Dutch painters to engage with netticheyt. Bueckelaer is a Flemish painter most famous for characteristic paintings of kitchen interiors. Bueckelaer’s work is renown, and often used as historical sources for analysis of late sixteenth-century cuisine and cooking techniques, especially in historical women’s studies. “The Well-Stocked Kitchen…” applies the narrative technique that was often employed by Bueckalaer, who rarely painted kitchen interiors in a straightforward manner. Instead, he preferred to engage with modernized paintings of Biblical and historical narratives embedded in kitchen settings. “The Well-Stocked Kitchen…,” as claimed in the title, depicts an episode of a traditional narrative of Jesus Christ visiting a house of Mary and Martha. Martha complained about preparing dinner while her sister Mary was washing Jesus’ feet instead of helping her. The composition arguably centers around Martha’s labors, while the figure of Jesus stands in an honorable position at the top center of the image. Jesus is vaguely seen in the background since he is with his disciples. Mary is seen in the arc that is placed in the left side of the painting. Most of the composition of the picture, including the entire right side, as well as the left side of the left half of it, is dedicated to the spectacle of food. The upward right side of the picture is dominated by partridge carcasses hanging on the wall. There are smaller birds, both plucked and unplucked ones, beneath it. The topic of birds in the upward right is complemented with the activity on the far left of the composition, as women in the kitchen, one of whom is presumably Martha and Mary, are depicted plucking a partridge and skewering a carcass on a spit. The entire table is filled with greens foods, from grapes and cucumbers to cabbages and artichokes, with the greens interspersed with a pleasantly pink ham, the brown of a small rabbit, red and orange pitches, and bright red tomatoes. The table is overwhelmed with food. Yet, upon analyzing all of them in detail, one cannot help but notice that foods and ingredients are placed in a visually appealing way with tones that complement one another. The compositional details are not limited to food. Human figures, clothing, and architectural aspects of the painting are also presented in netticheyt style. The most remarkable details include the lace on the women’s corsets, the texture of clothing, towels and column’s decoration, including the decor on capitals of the columns and the meander decoration on the cornice.
Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael’s “The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede” seemingly lacks the level of netticheyt that provides “The Well-Stocked Kitchen…” its appeal. A careful analysis of the painting reveals that Van Ruisdael’s landscape engages in reproducing the effects of the optical illusion of increasing vagueness as a function of distance. Considering that most objects depicted in “The Windmill…” are seen in the distance, the picture, in general, appears to be vague. Nevertheless, the influence of netticheyt is evident in how a potential audience member would react to the picture of a windmill. While the immediate glance reveals compositional beauty and realism, the further comprehension of the picture is impossible without a look at close details of the picture. Figures of countryside women, the sailors loading grains on a small boat, the urban landscape with a cathedral, a tower, and the household are essential, dynamic aspects of this painting. Additionally, viewers observe distant images of people; possibly children walking through the scene, and a person in the hat, probably a windmill owner, observing the work the dockworkers do loading his grain to the trading ship.
“The Windmill…” manages to capture the beauty of the countryside. Viewers observe a broad range of activities, from leisure to sailing. The piece depicts a microcosm of agricultural economics. The intensity of the compositional narrative of van Ruisdael’s painting relies on capturing the processes in a pseudo-realistic manner, depicting numerous processes that happen over the day on the windmill, as opposed to the provision of purely photographic glimpse on it. Van Ruisdael’s realism in “The Windmill” exemplifies what Westerman calls a combination of “naer het leven and uyt den gheest,” painting ‘from life’ and ‘from mind’ (71-73). Even though landscape paintings like “The Windmill…” were made ‘from life,’ the majority of painting work happened in studios over long periods of time, allowing a painter enough time to compositionally frame the observations of real life. The resulting landscapes, while having photographic quality, were much more compositionally harmonious and sophisticated than an imagined photographic image of the same landscape ever could be. The ‘hyperrealistic’ nature of the composition was the venue in which van Ruisdael could provide “The Windmill” with netticheyt quality, including details that required close engagement to be processed and that compositionally contribute to the picture as a whole, even though they could quickly be glanced over without close engagement.
Despite being thematically, compositionally, and stylistically dissimilar, Bueckelaer’s “Well-Stocked Kitchen…” and van Ruisdael’s “Windmill…” both implement netticheyt, or meticulous attention to detail, that nudged the audience to closely engage with each detail in the picture. The ‘hyperrealistic’ nature we see employed compositionally includes more details and events than available in reality. Though “Windmill…” appears to be much more realistic than “Well- Stocked Kitchen…”, seeing that the latter is composed ‘uyt den gheest,’ the former creates an impression of being written purely ‘naer het leven.’ The “Windmill…” still introduces to the picture excessive compositional complexity and harmony and makes each detail essential for the entire comprehension of the picture, thus continuing the same tradition of meticulousness that was typical for earlier Dutch paintings.