Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Keeping It Real

Jan Steen: Drunken Couple. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that Honore de Balzac had “a Dutch hand and an Italian soul,” she neatly encapsulated the conflict of those two aesthetics—the supposedly “low brow,” narrative-less detail of the Dutch paintings done in the days of Rembrandt and Vermeer versus the “high brow,” intellectual, narrative-laden works of the Italian Renaissance. In Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel, Ruth Bernard Yeazell revisits this divide between the allegedly sacred and profane and its influence on the realist novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Balzac, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Marcel Proust all consciously drew connections between their novels and the paintings of the Golden Age of Dutch painting—even “vulgar” episodes such as Jan Steen’s Drunken Couple (above). As Yeazell shows, each of these writers dealt with that connection in their own way—embracing, rejecting, and sometimes both.

Yeazell ties the realist novel and Golden Age Dutch painting together from the start. Calling Dutch painting “as much a nineteenth-century idea as a seventeenth-century phenomenon,” Yeazell believes that “the modern idea of genre [painting] as the representation of everyday life and the novel’s affinity with such representation grew up together.” Novelists such as Balzac look to the earlier Dutch painters as a “precedent” to follow in their work. Henry James says of Balzac, “Where another writer makes an allusion, Balzac gives you a Dutch picture,” in just one of the many comparisons of the French author’s works to Dutch painting. The estimated five million paintings made in seventeenth-century Holland, many of which survived and emigrated beyond those borders, become a monolithic entity in the nineteenth-century imagination. Yeazell shows how this entity represents a distorted view (i.e., a “selective” realism emphasizing the female and domestic aspects of life, rarely showing the soldiers of that war-torn era or the dockworkers supporting the powerful shipping trade) but emphasizes that it is this misconception that the public, these novelists, and critics operated under.

Balzac actually invited comparisons to Dutch art. In response to criticisms that his writing, like Dutch art, lacks narrative, Balzac “simultaneously denies the charge and dismisses it as irrelevant,” Yeazell writes, “since inventing new plots, he insists, is no longer possible in any case.” Having it both ways, Balzac promotes even further the monolithic misconceived idea of Dutch painting by alluding to a composite Dutch style rather than specific works. “[Balzac’s] representation of domestic life in nineteenth-century Flanders,” Yeazell writes, “keeps threatening to turn into an idea rather than a picture.” By rising to the realm of ideas, Balzac gains his “Italian soul” in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s estimation while retaining his “Dutch hand.”

Nicolaes Maes: Girl Sewing (Girl at Work). Private collection

In England, George Eliot assumes the task of writing in the “Dutch” style and defends herself in novels such as 1859’s Adam Bede. When tastemakers such as John Ruskin decried Dutch painting as vulgar, “refus[ing] to distinguish between aesthetic concerns on the one hand, and moral and spiritual ones on the other,” Yeazell writes, Eliot reveals the class prejudices behind such attacks. “It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings,” Eliot responded, “which lofty-minded people despise.” Uncovering the elitist bias of Ruskin and others, Eliot transforms her aesthetic choice of realism “into a moral imperative” in Yeazell’s eyes. Eliot elevates Dutch painting in the vein of Nicolaes MaesGirl Sewing (Girl at Work) (above) above accusations of vulgarity and erects, through her novels, “a tribute to labor.” Eliot looks around her native rural England and its hard-working people and connects those scenes with those she sees in paintings of the seventeenth-century Netherlands. Dutch painting allows Eliot “to embody spiritual abstractions in concrete particulars” and thus “naturalize religion rather than abandon it.” Faced with the loss of conventional religion, Eliot builds a new church founded on the simplicity of the rural lifestyle, with the Dutch genre painters as its patron saints.

Pieter de Hooch: Woman Directing a Young Man with a Letter, c. 1670. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Perhaps taking his cue from Eliot, Thomas Hardy subtitled his first novel—Under the Greenwood Tree—“A Rural Painting of the Dutch School.” While working as an architect in London during the 1860s, Hardy visited the National Gallery almost every day, drinking in their recent acquisitions of Golden Age Dutch painting. Yeazell performs an almost magical task of archaeology in tracing back which paintings Hardy would have seen on those visits and linking them to passages in his writing. After seeing a painting by David Teniers the Younger, Hardy wrote in his notebook: “David Teniers, humour, drollery, vulgarity—truthful.” From Dutch genre painting, Hardy learns truthful simplification and, like Balzac before him, embraces the tendency to caricature when emphasizing the comic aspects of ruralism. Most importantly, Hardy learns the art of picture making in words from Dutch paintings done in the spirit of Pieter de Hooch’s Woman Directing a Young Man with a Letter (above). Hardy would later distance himself from his “Dutch” period, turning to J.M.W. Turner and the Impressionists for “the deeper reality underlying the scenic,” as he put it.

Nicolaes Maes: Young Woman at a Window, known as The Daydreamer, c. 1655. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Yeazell concludes her quartet of realist novelists with Marcel Proust, who knew intimately the works of the three who went before as well as their complex relationship to Dutch painting. Rather than embrace Dutch painting for sociological reasons, Proust sees value in that school because of how it mimics memory itself—his greatest subject. Memory itself becomes a “Dutch painter” in its ability to fuse together “a number of similar scenes or acts in the representative images that constitute ‘the Dutch painting of our memory,’ for Proust, Yeazell argues. We are each like Maes’ Daydreamer (above) in our ability to muse upon everyday reality and create composite snapshots of the past. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s narrator Marcel lectures Albertine regarding Vermeer’s paintings, saying “they are fragments of an identical world… it’s always, however great the genius with which they have been re-created, the same table, the same carpet, the same woman, the same novel and unique beauty.” Vermeer becomes the height of Dutch painting for Proust specifically for the dearth of biographical knowledge about him. Vermeer becomes pure Dutch painting, pure memory in action, completely free of personality. The tiny details of works such as Vermeer’s The View of Delft captivate Proust and catapult Vermeer to the top of the Dutch painters along with Rembrandt. In fact, the rebirth of Vermeer’s reputation in the nineteenth century owes much to modern museum hanging practices allowing viewers to appreciate such small details. Yeazell wrestles with the sprawling behemoth that is Proust’s writings and comes away the victor in making the author’s subtle, innovative use of Dutch painting for his own creative needs clear and persuasive.

“Alone among the novelists studied here,” Yeazell writes, “Proust began with an idea of Dutch painting that did not require him to choose between the everyday detail and the aspirations of high art.” Like Proust (who even imagined in an essay that cantankerous old Ruskin reconciled with the Dutch painting on his deathbed), Yeazell looks to bring together both the high and the low, bridging Barrett Browning’s gap between the Dutch and the Italian. The generous number of illustrations throughout the book help the reader visualize the argument going on not only in Yeazell’s text but in the texts of the authors discussed. In many ways, the reader of this book comes away with a clearer vision of the Golden Age of Dutch painting than most critics of the nineteenth century had. Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel sheds new light on both the realist novel and Dutch painting and covers both fields with the clear, warm glow of a fine Vermeer.

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel by Ruth Bernard Yeazell and for the images from the book.]

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