Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 8, 2002
Mariët Westermann Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt Exh. cat. Zwolle, Netherlands: Waanders in association with Denver Art Museum and The Newark Museum, 2000. 240 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. $29.95 (0914738461)
Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, October 17, 2001–January 20, 2002; Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO, March 2–May 26, 2002

According to Witold Rybczynski’s Home: A Short History of an Idea (New York: Viking, 1986), private spaces in households are a Dutch seventeenth-century invention, despite their commonplace nature today. A serious new exhibition and a handsomely produced accompanying catalogue set out to explore this premise by showing Dutch representations of household interiors, as well as actual period furnishings.

The exhibition organizer and catalogue supervisor, Mariët Westermann, is far from naïve about the differences between sanitized, conceptual representations and the contemporary actualities; after all, this tension within “Dutch realism” lies at the heart of any interpretation of such pictures. Westermann even cites contemporary mail-order catalogues from Martha Stewart and Pottery Barn to elicit our understanding of both historical continuities and conventions of pictorial artifice in these depictions. The subtitle of her introductory essay, “Making Home,” should be taken literally for its evocation of the constructed nature of both the images and their underlying concept. In similar fashion, H. Perry Chapman’s essay on the “display of privacy” compares these inhabited but morally normative spaces of order (and disorder) to the “family values” that shaped early U.S. television family sitcoms. Both authors note the absence of men from these depicted private spaces, since their province was understood to be the wider world, public rather than private. Such images clearly explore the fluid boundaries among family, house, and home, and scrutinize the values of marriage and acceptable public morality. The insights of both Westermann and Chapman can be supplemented by the collection of related articles in a recent issue of the journal Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (51 (2000)), dedicated to the theme of domestic imagery in Dutch art.

Dutch pictures emerged from a dominant Protestant culture and offered a clear cultural definition of gender roles, even as they created a fluid blending between family portraits and genre depictions in household interiors. Homes were most aptly the province of mothers and (obedient) children, as well as maidservants, whose presence signaled class distinctions amidst the bourgeois surroundings. Westermann’s exposition builds upon solid foundations of scholarship by both art historians and cultural historians, including recent work on the sympathetic seventeenth-century Dutch view of childhood, particularly in portraits of children. (Here, too, the strict prescriptions of religious authors differ utterly from artistic representations.)

Prescription or description? How accurate were these painted images? The essay by Willemijn Fock, “Semblance or Reality?”, tackles this issue by using inventory sources and a close inspection of the depicted details, as well as chamber spaces as a whole. She concludes that the pictures often take liberties, mixing actual domestic features with imaginary, usually lavish ones, including “enfilade” room sequences. Another of this essay’s strengths is its use of the wonderful de la Court dollhouse, a late seventeenth-century construction from Utrecht. This careful verification can also be supplemented by a recent book on the collecting and display of paintings in Holland, John Loughman and John Michael Montias’s Public and Private Spaces (Waanders: Zwolle, 2000), whose approach inverts the aim of Westermann’s catalogue by examining the “role and function of paintings in Dutch homes.” Art and Home builds its own case for pictures in homes in the essay by Eric Jan Sluijter, who offers two documented case studies of images in wealthy Leiden homes owned by the Calvinist medical professor Sylvius and the prosperous Catholic Brugge van Ring.

The catalogue proper is divided into segments, whose distinctions are not always clear. The first, “Home in the City,” offers views of cities, as well as some pictures that show the household facing its surroundings, plus maps and globes as symbols of the wider world brought into the house. The second part, “Cornerstones of Home: Marriage, Family, and the Godly Household,” focuses on family portraits and marriage pendants, as well as a variety of handsome decorative objects, chiefly metalwork keepsakes, associated with marriage through inscription or ornament. “Domestic Roles,” the third section, encompasses most of the genre pictures, both exemplary and admonitory in conduct, and many of the homelier household objects. At the end of this section, a clustered assemblage of furniture, objects, and paintings simulates a seventeenth-century interior. The final and largest segment, “Refinement: Private Pursuits and Social Rituals,” discusses the sophisticated world of interiors after midcentury, a world of satin-clad ladies in rich households. The images published in the catalogue include trompe l’oeil and elaborate luxury (pronk) still lifes, as well as ornate cabinets, chests, and other decorative objects in glass, metalwork, and porcelain. When taking in these works together in the exhibition, one is prompted to make a closer examination of the represented interiors in the paintings, as well as examine the inscriptions and ornament of the objects.

The final section of the exhibition seems to argue that with the advent of national independence after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Dutch culture experienced a new sense of confidence associated with the promise of peace and prosperity. This familiar argument is correlated with the greater luxury and ostentation in all of the artworks of this portion of the exhibition and catalogue: a gilded mirror frame, sophisticated still lifes, and the satin-clad figures of Terborch and van Mieris. By implication, this is a cultural sea change from the earlier period and the prior portions of this very exhibition. The attentive viewer (or catalogue reader) will have noted, however, that virtually all of these pictures and objects alike date from the same period—that is, after midcentury. The prudent married couples and heartwarming children or seniors are also creations of the same moment, if perhaps a different consumer culture or taste segment. Only the unruly inversion by Jan Steen of these norms really offers a vestige of the earlier, raucous genre scenes of barracks, taverns, and brothels. (The only ambiguities here center around courtesans and their luxury in the guise of domestic indulgence, which has elicited varied reactions to the actions of couples in both interiors by de Hooch and Vermeer.) Thus, a disguised problem is nestled at the heart of this otherwise exemplary and informative exhibition: How can its insights be pushed further to resolve the varieties of outlooks and seeming contradictions in these diverse interiors, still lifes, and family representations? How can this cultural work be more closely linked to the social and political world of Dutch cities after midcentury, the very period when cities most flourished in Holland, free from the domination of ruling stadhouders? This is the same material discussed in a recent provocative essay (cited by Chapman) by Richard Helgerson, “Soldiers and Enigmatic Girls: The Politics of Dutch Domestic Realism” (Representations 58 [Spring 1997], 49–87). To understand the local conditions for such shifts and varieties of values in Dutch culture requires reconciling not only Art and Home but also Public and Private, History and Structure (or here, perhaps, Structures).

As is so often the case, without the richly nuanced analyses of the fine catalogue essays, there is a gap between what can be shown about Dutch cultural values, as well as the larger critical issues of the two dialectical terms of the exhibition, “Art” and “Home.” Wall labels were ample in this exhibition, but neither they nor Acoustiguides and museum docents can provide this missing link. Before visiting this exhibition, I heard one art historian lament that it was an illustrated catalogue rather than an exhibition that focused primarily on investigating the works on the walls and in the vitrines. On the walls in the Newark Art Museum, the clustered or juxtaposed images were often provocative, and the signage was generally helpful, but the actual works were demanding images, to be “read” closely, so their individual and collective visions might easily have remained obscure, along with the overall points of the exhibition segments. Museums and their academic guest curators need to ponder this dilemma in planning future exhibitions.

What is undeniable about Art and Home is that it touched on a major development in both art and life in the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century, a moment of cultural definition to which our modern world owes a great deal. The selected artworks and decorative art objects are splendid indeed and give the wider public much to enjoy on the walls. This pleasure of the exhibition is completed by the considerable, shaping, and scholarly contribution provided by its important catalogue.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania