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

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5 ‘To instruct and delight’

The iconographic method rapidly established itself as the dominant approach to seventeenth-century Dutch painting and was taken up by a large number of art historians, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere. In 1976, exactly one hundred years after the publication of Fromentin’s book, de Jongh and his colleagues curated a major exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, to which they gave the title Tot Lering en Vermaak (‘To instruct and delight’). In the wall captions and the accompanying catalogue, they sought to show that by placing familiar artworks in their original historical context, and by drawing on a wide range of contemporary literary sources, it was possible to discern ‘hidden meanings’ that had previously been overlooked or lost from view. These hidden meanings were principally of a moral or didactic nature, and could be related directly to Calvinist teachings on virtuous conduct and the need to reflect on the transience of worldly goods. The curators claimed that the seductively pleasing appearance of Dutch paintings cloaked an important moral message and that they were intended not only to ‘delight’ the eye but also to ‘instruct’ the mind. The title of the exhibition can thus be taken as a radically different answer to the question that Fromentin had put one hundred years earlier. When Fromentin asked ‘what motive had a Dutch painter in painting a picture?’, he answered ‘None’. De Jongh and his colleagues claimed that there was a motive: to instruct and delight.

The contrast between these two approaches becomes all the more marked when we observe that the iconographic method is deeply rooted in the humanist tradition of classical learning. The motto ‘to instruct and delight’ derives from the Latin docere et delectare and the sentiment it embodies can be traced back to the declaration by the Roman poet Horace (65 BCE–8 CE): Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci (‘He who unites the useful with the pleasant is praised’). Moreover, the identification of a close connection between textual and visual sources was a mainstay of classicist art theory, which frequently referred to the idea of the ‘sister arts’ expressed in Horace’s dictum ut pictura poesis (‘as is a picture, so is a poem’). Whereas the nineteenth-century realist and art-for-art’s sake interpretation emphasised the ‘new’ character of Dutch art and society, insisting that the urban and commercial nature of the Netherlands made it unlike other cultures, the iconographic method reintegrated the study of Dutch painting into mainstream art history. For the art historian who seeks to track down recondite allusions and decipher visual puzzles by studying paintings alongside literary texts and documents, the extension of iconography to seventeenth-century Dutch art allows a return to business as normal.

You will now consider some of the criticisms to which the ‘disguised symbolism’ interpretation is exposed. The main focus of the discussion will be on landscape painting, since it is here that the most interesting debates have been generated.