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

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In this free course, Dutch painting of the Golden Age, you have examined a range of different strategies for interpreting Dutch seventeenth-century painting: the ‘direct realist’ interpretation, defended by Hegel and Fromentin, which treats Dutch painting of this period as a documentary portrait of a people, its landscape and its customs; the ‘disguised symbolism’ interpretation, defended by de Jongh, which employs the iconographic method to identify a hidden didactic or moralising content; and the ‘art of describing’ interpretation, defended by Alpers, which identifies close connections between Dutch visual culture and scientific enquiry. Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses, and no interpretative strategy has succeeded in establishing its pre-eminence over the others. The absence of consensus among art historians reveals the difficulty of attributing meanings to works of visual art and the extent to which one and the same artwork can sustain divergent interpretations. The debate surrounding Dutch seventeenth-century painting is, perhaps, unusual in having such clearly defined contours, but the issues addressed in this course have a wider relevance in so far as they encourage us to think about the complex task of establishing the meaning of a work of visual art and the variety of approaches that are available to us.

This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course A226 Exploring art and visual culture [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .