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Dutch painting of the Golden Age
Dutch painting of the Golden Age

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4 Disguised symbolism and ‘seeming realism’

Doubts about the validity of the realist interpretation had already been expressed in scattered form by a number of writers, but it was not until the completion of the so-called ‘iconological turn’ in Dutch art history in the second half of the twentieth century that a viable alternative was established. Iconologists are primarily concerned with the content or subject matter of an artwork rather than its style or technique, and they draw on a wide range of sources, including contemporary writings and documents, in order to elucidate the significance of particular subjects and motifs. The leading proponent of the use of this approach to elucidate Dutch seventeenth-century painting, Eddy de Jongh, defines iconology as ‘the branch of art history that seeks to explain the content of representations in their historical context, in relation to other cultural phenomena and to specific ideas’ (Jongh, 1999, p. 200). However, the key difference from both realist and art-for-art’s sake approaches is best captured in his observation that the iconologist ‘sees works of art as vehicles of meaning’ (Jongh, 1999, p. 200).

The modern use of the term ‘iconology’ derives from the work of the art historian Erwin Panofsky, whose book Studies in Iconology was published in 1939 (Panofsky, 1972 [1939]). He originally developed iconology as a tool for interpreting Renaissance art, which provided rich material for the detection and decoding of symbolic and allegorical concepts. However, in his book Early Netherlandish Painting (1953) he sought to show that iconology could also be applied to northern art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, despite its outwardly naturalistic appearance. Panofsky introduced the idea of ‘disguised symbolism’ to explain how apparently realistic representations of everyday objects and motifs, such as flowers, fountains and enclosed gardens, could take on symbolic significance, standing for example as symbols of the Virgin’s purity. It was de Jongh, however, who first extended this approach to the study of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, which had previously seemed so recalcitrant to any search for deeper meanings.

In accordance with the requirement cited above that the iconologist should place artworks in their original ‘historical context’ and draw on ‘other cultural ideas’ to explain their content, de Jongh drew attention to two important features of seventeenth-century Dutch culture. First, he observed that in this predominantly Calvinist society there was a pervasive tendency to moralise, expressed through exhortations to live a virtuous life and reminders of the transience of worldly pleasures. Second, he drew attention to a wide range of literary and other sources that delighted in word play, metaphor, riddles and rebuses. This allowed him to suggest that there was a ‘marked preference for disguising, veiling, allegory, and ambiguity, in short, for all that is enigmatic’, and that this could also be found in seventeenth-century painting (Jongh, 1971, p. 21). Of particular significance for his account is the great popularity of emblem books, a form of illustrated literature in which images of everyday objects and other motifs were given multiple interpretations through the addition of mottos and poems that expounded a diversity of possible meanings. Jacob Cats (1577–1660), one of the most widely read authors of such works, wrote of the ‘agreeable obscurity’ that arises when a maxim or proverb appears to mean one thing but in reality contains another, claiming that ‘Experience teaches us that many things gain by not being completely seen, but somewhat veiled and concealed.’

By putting these two things together – the moralising tendency of Dutch society and the predilection for hidden or covert meanings – de Jongh developed a new framework for interpreting Dutch seventeenth century painting. His core thesis is that rather than offering a ‘reflection of reality’, as the realist account supposes, Dutch paintings of this period contain only a ‘seeming realism’. The Dutch term he uses is schijnrealisme, which might also be translated as the ‘semblance’ or ‘mere appearance of realism’. According to de Jongh, schijnrealisme ‘refers to representations which, although they imitate reality in terms of form, simultaneously convey a realized abstraction’ (Jongh, 1971, p. 21). What he means by this is that although the outward appearance of a painting might provide a realistic representation of, say, figures in a domestic interior, this can be used to communicate abstract ideas, which the viewer grasps by interpreting the painting’s symbolic or allegorical content. The painting appears to be a representation of an everyday scene, but it contains hidden meanings that the iconographer must seek to decode. The best way to understand this argument is to consider an example, which you will do so in the next section.