Sunday, 21 July 2013

What was so special about the Dutch 17th century?

It all started when Jane asked why the Dutch painted such amazing pictures in the 17th century. The pictures referred to are the "genre" paintings (italicised, because there is no better word to describe them, although no definition I know that is not slightly disparaging). I haven't yet answered the question, but, as often happens, I've come up with a few potential answers to different questions. Jonathan Israel has published extensively in this area and he should know a thing or two. So I noticed a recent review by him with interest. What claims did he make for the 17th-century United Provinces?

Friday, 19 July 2013

Going Dutch: the book

I'm sorry, Lisa, but if you are going to write a book that attempts to engage my sympathies, in a word, if you are going to try to persuade me with your writing, then I reserve the right to notice how my sympathies are being manipulated. In my last post I pointed out how the effect of the writing, which was often powerful and engaging, was severely diminished by the appalling copy editing of the book. But today let's look at the content itself. Here too I am uncomfortable with the basic premise of the book, I'm afraid to say.

Now, I'm no expert in 17th-century Dutch history, or English history, for that matter, but given that Ms Jardine's chosen subject is the relation between the United Provinces and England, would it not be an idea to consider the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism, between supporters of monarchy and supporters of republicanism, during this period? The Netherlands appears amazingly to have jumped from republic to monarchy with surprising ease during this period, while England was switching (perhaps more painfully) back and forth at the same time. Yet in this book we seem to be locked in a study of royalism, even unthinking royalism. We examine the royalist exile courts in The Hague. Our guide is Sir Constantin Huygens, who describes the future Charles II in 1654 as "the King of Great Britain", to the displeasure of at least one of his correspondents. That sounds pretty royalist to me. Yet Sir CH managed to have a senior role to both the Statholder of the Dutch Republic and immediately afterwards to William II - sounds a bit like Talleyrand to me, quite an achievement, to serve both masters with fundamentally different principles. How did he manage it? Does Ms Jardine examine this flexibility of attitude on the part of Huygens? Apparently not.

There is another intriguing story that I think this book misses. I started reading this book because I had been reading about 17th-century Dutch art. It doesn't take long when looking at Dutch art of this period to notice an interesting opposition, or at least contrast, between two concepts of art in the Dutch Golden Age. These two concepts seem to have co-existed. One of them was the classical, Italianate tradition represented by Rubens in Antwerp (significantly in the Spanish Netherlands). The other, less dramatic, but no less powerful, is what is feebly referred to as Dutch "genre" painting of the United Provinces. If you want to over-simplify it, the first school has the bodies big and buxom, while the second has the bodies much, much less imposing (or even non-existent), and seen within an interior or a landscape where the "background" is as important as the actors. This second school had no real equivalent in Italy; perhaps no equivalent elsewhere in Europe. Yet these paintings were popular, and the artists well-known. Jardine does not seem to be concerned about the possible political implications of the two schools. Were the Italianate paintings monarchist while the genre paintings were republican? It seems a theory worth investigating, at least. But in this book, it seems a matter of no concern. Commissions for big pictures, both in England and in Holland, are always Italianate  - not suprising that the English court taste appeared to be for classical (Van Dyke, Rubens), but suprising that the republican United Provinces looked for the same kind of thing when decorating big town halls in Amsterdam and The Hague. There are some mentions of the genre paintings; but overall I feel it is a topic that has been missed in a general haze of royalism that envelops this book. This is not a serious examination of forms of government in early modern Europe; this is the 17th-century equivalent of the Financial Times weekend edition, an uncritical and unquestioning close-up of the rich nobility at play.

In fact the book appears to be written in an apologetic tone for the court party of both countries. It is a strange perspective, a bit like that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, since we readers understand so little of what is really going on. I know this is not a straight account of political history, but there are those (e.g. Jonathan Israel) who make the grand claim that the United Provinces was the seedbed of the Enlightenment, the most advanced liberal state in Europe in the 17th century. If it was, I don't get the feeling from this book.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Going literally Dutch: the editing

Lisa Jardine's well-produced book Going Dutch (HarperCollins) looked appealing the moment I saw it in the bookshop. It has an elegant cover. It is printed in full colour throughout, and to prove the point, it has a different coloured rule for each page per chapter. Not that such a feature would influence me, of course.

The book opens tremendously well, with the 1688 invasion of England that is never referred to by the British as an invasion. I knew little about the details, and Jardine captures the reader's attention by jumping in at the most dramatic point in the story. I have no problems with the author's jumping around chronologically if it helps the drama of the telling. But now I am around half way through the book, I am starting to notice a few places where the manner of the delivery and presentation are starting to become annoying.