Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 11, 2021
Celeste Brusati, ed. Samuel van Hoogstraten's Introduction to the Academy of Painting; or, The Visible World Trans. Jaap Jacobs. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2020. 424 pp.; 24 b/w ills. Paper $75.00 (9781606066676)

Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst: Anders de zichtbaere werelt (1678) is one of the most important sources for Dutch seventeenth-century art practice and art theory. The book has been frequently mined by art historians to support interpretative arguments on a variety of subjects, but few scholars have read Van Hoogstraten’s magnum opus cover to cover. The original text is difficult to understand, even for those well trained in seventeenth-century Dutch, due to its idiosyncratic vocabulary, highbrow writing style, and the abundance of quotations from antique and early modern sources. Jan Blanc’s Introduction à la haute école de l’art de peinture: Traduction, commentaires et index par Jan Blanc (Droz, 2006) delivered Van Hoogstraten’s treatise to French-reading scholars. This long-awaited and superb English translation—a joint effort between historian Jaap Jacobs as translator and art historian Celeste Brusati as editor—finally makes Van Hoogstraten’s world available to an English-reading audience as well.

The Inleyding was published in 1678, a few months before Van Hoogstraten’s death. The painter-poet, one of Rembrandt’s most talented pupils, had been a participant in and an observer of an extraordinary period of artistic production and innovation in the Netherlands. As such, the book addresses different aspects of Dutch painting, pictorial practices, and theories of art. The Inleyding also reflects the economic challenges Dutch painters faced in the later seventeenth century, when the demand for paintings diminished and cheap mass-produced works were widely available on the market. In Van Hoogstraten’s view, the market-driven production of paintings had negative effects on their quality, the training of artists, and the valuation of artistic excellence. The solution Van Hoogstraten offers is to teach the art of painting to his readers, as in an academy. He wrote his Inleyding to educate pupils, to assist masters in their painting instruction, and to enlighten liefhebbers (“art lovers”) on what is good art. Van Hoogstraten’s pedagogical program is delivered in nine “books” or chapters, each presided over by a Muse who offers a leerwinkel (“workshop”) to shed light on different aspects of the noble art of painting. Polyhymnia teaches the proportionality of the human form, Erato the accessories best used in history painting, and so forth. Together, the Muses present all of the academic rules needed to judge a painting.

Introduction to the Academy of Painting; or, The Visible World is the first translation of a Dutch source text published in the Texts & Documents series by the Getty Research Institute; a second one, Walter S. Melion’s translation of Karel van Mander’s Grondt der Edel vry Schilder-const, is currently in the making. The English edition of Van Hoogstraten’s book opens with an introduction by Brusati, author of Artifice and Illusion: The Art and Writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Brusati’s well-written and highly stimulating introduction to the Getty translation situates the painter-poet and his ambitious literary project and serves as the appetizer that Van Hoogstraten’s book deserves. The introduction is followed by the translation of Van Hoogstraten’s entire text, with the editor’s annotations in endnotes after each of the nine chapters. In addition, the book contains an index of names and subjects and a glossary of Dutch artistic terms, whose meanings are usefully explained for the modern reader.

Brusati and translator Jacobs aim to stay as close as possible to Van Hoogstraten’s original, and they do not erase ambiguities or create elegant prose in those passages where the original is quite awkward. The result is undeniably close to the original in style, in voice, and in use of quotations and sources while nonetheless being remarkably easy and pleasant to read, which is an extraordinary achievement. This book has been over a decade in the making, and the impressive outcome suggests an enormous amount of fine-tuning and collaboration between translator and editor. The translation is particularly adept at rendering Van Hoogstraten’s many different voices, humorous passages, and tongue-in-cheek comments, which are at times explained in the editor’s notes. Finally, the layout of the book has been kept as similar to the original as possible, and includes reproductions of full-page frontispieces and title pages, marginal notes in their original locations, anatomical tables, and the original table of contents.

As with all translations of early modern texts, complex terminology requires clarification. Sentences with multifaceted terms, or terms for which no English equivalent exists, include the original Dutch in brackets after the translation, although this is not done consistently throughout. Specific terms used in artistic practice and theory of the seventeenth century, such as houding (“attunement, harmonious disposition of colors, chromatic harmony”) and welstand (“pictorial coherence”), are included in the glossary, which usefully provides a brief explanation of meaning(s) and page numbers where each term can be found in the original Dutch text. This makes the book easy to handle for the interested reader, although a more specialized reader could have benefited from the translator’s reflections on the uses of key terminology by Van Hoogstraten and his contemporaries. As there is a substantive body of literature on Van Hoogstraten’s concepts, additional bibliographical references would have been welcome. Instead, the translator’s note (viii–ix) is only one and a half pages long and briefly summarizes how the translating project was approached.

For a text of this size and reputation, the editor’s notes to the translation are sparing. Apart from some explanatory notes on terms or on mistakes made by Van Hoogstraten, the notes deal mainly with the many sources the author refers to. Each note includes a reference to the original source and page number, and sometimes delves into considerations about Van Hoogstraten’s adaptation of the source and the edition he used. As the erudite author drew from 139 different sources, both contemporary and antique, this is certainly relevant information. On the other hand, identifications of mentioned artists and artworks and explanations of whether recounted anecdotes are factual or not are rarely explicated in the notes. Artists’ names and the titles of works are provided in full and in modernized spellings, which helps with legibility, but additional notes providing further information on these identifications, the artists’ life dates, and the whereabouts of the mentioned artworks would have been helpful. With regards to Van Hoogstraten’s anecdotes, the inclusion of editor’s notes that distinguish myth from fact can bring a historical text to life. To give one example, the story that Charles I of England sent Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of him to Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome so that the sculptor could execute a marble bust (96) is supported by historical evidence such as letters and archival sources, and a footnote could have informed the reader of this, along with a reference to the painting (Portrait of Charles I of England, Seen from Three Different Angles, 1635–36, Windsor Castle). Given the length of the book (413 pages), one understands that a selection had to be made about the amount of detail in the annotations. Artists mentioned by Van Hoogstraten, however, should at least have been identified and included in the index. Some well-known painters, such as Jacob Jordaens and Jan Lievens, do appear in the index, but many do not. Missing are lesser-known artists such as Abraham Furnerius (146) and Hans Liefrinck (267), as well as better-known ones such as Frans van Mieris (289). In general, the index appears rather inconsistent, making navigating the book a challenge. The above-mentioned anecdote is, for example, indexed under Bernini and Charles I, but not under Van Dyck. The choices made regarding annotation and indexation are not justified in the introduction, and the inconsistencies detract from the usage of this book as a reference work, necessitating the consultation of additional literature such as the indexes in Hans-Jörg Czech’s Im Geleit der Musen: Studien zu Samuel van Hoogstratens Malereitraktat Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst; Anders de zichtbaere werelt (Waxmann, 2002).

But these are minor quibbles compared to what has been achieved. Introduction to the Academy of Painting; or, The Visible World is an outstanding English edition of Van Hoogstraten’s ambitious book. Staying close to the original in style and voice, Jacobs and Brusati succeed splendidly in providing a fresh and accurate translation, turning this important but hard-to-grasp source into a highly legible text and as such making it accessible to the modern reader. This publication will significantly broaden interest in Van Hoogstraten’s text to an international readership, while encouraging scholars familiar with the original to finally read the book from beginning to end. This edition is not only an indispensable source for all scholars of seventeenth-century Dutch painting but also of great interest for scholars in other fields of early modern European art and culture. The publication will undoubtedly instigate and inspire new angles of research into the painter-poet Van Hoogstraten, his theoretical art concepts, and the historical context of his text. From now on, this volume will be the point of departure for any scholar needing to read Van Hoogstraten.

Angela Jager
University of Geneva