H. Rodney Nevitt Jr.: Art and the Culture of Love in Seventeenth-Century Holland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003, XVII + 302 S., 88 Abb., ISBN 978-0-521-64329-0, GBP 60,00
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This provocative, entertaining though uneven book focuses on Dutch love imagery - that is, genre scenes and portraits involving courting couples - in the first half of the seventeenth century. Nevitt's material comprises the garden parties and "merry companies" of the first decade of the century by artists such as David Vinckboons, Willem Buytewech, and Esaias van de Velde, some portraits by Frans Hals, and two etchings of Rembrandt. As a literary context for the imagery of love Nevitt includes emblems, songbooks, poems, love manuals, and even board games. The organization of the material is very roughly chronological, from Vinckboons' works of the turn of the century to the mid-1640s.
Even before opening the book, we are introduced, rather jarringly, to Nevitt's central assertion. The jacket illustration is Vermeer's Concert, painted around 1665. Because the book concerns only the first half of the century, this is misleading; we might assume a marketing strategy on the part of the press (since Vermeer images are always appealing to book buyers), or an elegy for a painting still lost since its theft from the Gardner Museum in 1988. Nevitt maintains, however, that the subtlety and psychological penetration of works like Vermeer's and Terborch's were already present in earlier generations of courtship scenes. The cover illustration, however irrelevant, is thus meant as a key to understanding the book's subject as the forebears of Vermeer.
Nevitt introduces the concept of a seventeenth-century Dutch "youth culture" which centered on the love lives of young unmarried men and women (vrijers and vrijsters.) Pointing out that the Dutch married relatively late, Nevitt cites the ubiquitous poet and moralist Jacob Cats, who, in his treatise Houwelijck (1625) designates the lengthy unmarried state as a distinct phase in the life-cycle. Furthermore, he points out that term vrijer and vrijster, are derived from vrijen, which can mean a range of activities from illicit sexual behavior to flirting and more understated courtship; thus in Dutch culture youth and love are intertwined even at the linguistic level.
The chapters are not only loosely related, but in a sense, exemplify different interpretive strategies. The first chapter isolates and traces a particular genre: the so-called "garden parties" of David Vinckboons (1576-c.1632) and their expansion and revision in those of Esaias van de Velde (c.1590-1630), featuring elegant young people eating, chatting and making music in gardens or landscapes deriving from the garden of Love traditon. The ambitious and unwieldy second chapter (also, at 80 pages, the longest) is organized thematically, with various genres thrown into the mix. The subjects include merry companies by Buytewech (1591/2 - 1624), Isack Elyas (active c. 1620) and Jan Miense Molenaer (c.1610-68), some examples of a sub-genre of merry companies in which young couples stand to one side and observe a scene of flirtation or low comedy involving peasants, and finally, two portraits by Frans Hals (1582/3 - 1666) with gardens of love in the background. But this chapter deals with moral issues of all kinds: sexuality, worldliness versus spirituality, clothing and manners, differing views about young people and their deportment in the recently-won Dutch Republic. The third chapter, scaled down to two works by a single artist, discusses the hidden lovers and other anecdotal figures in two Rembrandt landscape etchings from the 1640s - The Three Trees and The Omval. Aside from the pastoral associations of the lovers, Nevitt finds a rich assortment of themes: the local references to pleasure trips, the theme of fishing, the uncontrollable vagaries of nature.
While the organization of these chapters is somewhat confused, Nevitt's interpretive approach is laudable. He focuses on the little dramas taking place in these early garden parties and merry companies. Considering the variety of gestures, glances and overall moods of these paintings, he isolates particular types - such as the drunken, aggressive vrijster, or his counterpart, the melancholy loner amidst a party of couples. Nevitt finds many parallel sentiments and scenarios in contemporary poetry and the lyrics of love songs. Songbooks, he argues, offer a particularly rich context for courtship imagery. Proliferating in the early years of the century along with emblem books and collections of jests and riddles, these books were marketed to young people to encourage social interaction in potentially awkward courtship situations. The garden parties by Esaias van de Velde, in Nevitt's view, articulate these subtle interactions.
Nevitt also offers a welcome scrutiny of small details. His first chapter opens with comparison between a lost Hals painting (Banquet in a Park, c. 1610) and an engraving by Claes Jansz. Visscher after Vinckboons, The Prodigal Son, of 1608, from which Hals apparently derived his composition. He compares the small Prodigal Son narrative details - didactic markers, as he calls them - in the Visscher with their absence in Hals's painting, which thus becomes unspecific. He points out, quite rightly, that these markers "imply the existence of viewers who were in the habit of searching for them. They are hermeneutically significant in part because of their visual insignificance." (23-24) Nevitt refers elsewhere to the "fragility" of moralizing iconography; it can be easily overlooked, and when omitted, transforms the nature of the image.
With this example Nevitt takes on the thorniest interpretive problem of Netherlandish art studies for the past forty years: the extent to which artists used biblical and allegorical iconography as a kind of moralizing shorthand, and the consequent moral interpretation of the imagery of pleasure. What is the moral viewpoint of these images? To what degree do they condone, affectionately regard, satirize or warn about the flirtation, music-making, drinking, they portray? Nevitt tests individual pictures and concludes that the "fragile" presence of moralizing iconography is precisely the appeal of these images for their audience. "Between admonition and delight there is surely always a muddle of authorial intentions and viewer responses which [...] is impossible to describe fully or reconstruct historically. [...] What I have in mind [...] is an [...] intimate union of morality and delight: one in which images do not merely accommodate both 'moral' and 'epicurean' readings from differently minded viewers, but assume the existence of viewers to whom such meanings are not at all contradictory." (16 - 17)
In fact, Nevitt proposes a rather tidy approach to this open-endedness. His basic assumption is that a moral resonance of some sort is not only ever-present, but inherent in images of youthful pleasure. In a discussion of the garden of love, Nevitt bases his sense of the closeness between moral content and sensual subject matter on the perhaps obvious idea that the theme of young love, traditionally associated with springtime, is inextricably linked with the theme of transience, as well as with the pain and volatility of love. (He even links this theme to the Dutch concept of "modern" - contemporary dress and setting as opposed to those of antiquity - quoting Gerard de Lairesse on the transience and mutability of contemporary fashion.) Thus these images, for all their ambiguity of tone, are still "safe". Since a carpe diem approach to youthful pleasure still culminated most desirably, in virtuous marriage, even extreme sensual pleasure would still fit cozily into the prevailing moral code.
Nevitt's conclusion,"Love, Time and Death", attempts to bind together what are clearly three different articles; it also raises new unanswered questions. We are told that the culture of youth was part of "a larger culture of love" in seventeenth-century Holland. But Nevitt fails to indicate what this large culture would be like: Does he simply mean, as he says, that older married people bought and enjoyed these pictures? To what extent are the new garden parties a local phenomenon? Is there a direct connection between the merry companies by Buytewech and those of Dirck Hals or Judith Leyster two decades later? Or Pot or Codde in Amsterdam? Where in this context are the fanciful scenes of fashionable young people at play by Dirck van Delen and Bartholomeus van Bassen? (Are they disqualified because of their architectural settings?) There is no sense here of how, if at all, the culture of love progressed. Nevitt will often refer generally to "the seventeenth century"; were there changes in the youth culture - texts and images alike - after 1648? What's missing is some sense of continuity with the next generations of artists, thus fulfilling the promise of the cover illustration.
Other, far smaller details are missing as well. While Nevitt writes with liveliness, humor and grace, the book suffers from poor copyediting: there are many infelicities of spelling and grammar; some important names in the text are not found in the index; citations in the notes do not appear in the bibliography.
In his introduction, Nevitt justifies his focus on the first part of the century thus: "The year 1650 struck me as an imminently [sic] reasonable stopping point for my project since I never got beyond that date in the chronological card catalogue at the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Amsterdam." (2) This confession of an inefficient scholar may have a self-deprecating charm but is quite unnecessary. The richness and subtlety of these formative genre paintings, presented through Nevitt's sensitive and engaged readings, are reason enough for his choice.