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Art and the Culture of Love in Seventeenth-Century Holland.

H. Rodney Nevitt. Art and the Culture of Love in Seventeenth-Century Holland.

Cambridge Studies in Netherlandish Visual Culture. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xviii + 302 pp. index. illus. bibl. $80. ISBN: 0-521-64329-5.

This book admirably fills a long-standing need for a critical interpretation of scenes of merry gatherings. In three substantial chapters framed by guiding and perceptive introductory and concluding remarks, Nevitt guides the reader-viewer through the imagery and its accompanying literature of courtship, merrymaking, garden parties, amorous encounters, and moral associations in Dutch art of the first half of the seventeenth century. On one hand, this imagery seems to have defined, and heightened, the youth culture of the early republic, but on the other hand, this material was enjoyed and collected by both young and old--it was not limited to the singles set by age and interest. The artists and authors presented mix well-known names--Jacob Cats, P.C. Hooft, Hals, Rembrandt, and, tangentially, Vermeer--with less-familiar ones: Willem Teelinck, J. van Heemskerck, Vinckboons, Buytewech, Molenaer, and others. However, by bringing in as reference points Shakespeare and aspects of French culture, this study has an international scope applicable in some measure to the art and culture of Europe.

In Dutch culture, moral messages often are mixed with visual pleasure. With respect to the songbooks, which often serve as keys to interpretation, the author examines the literary, social, and cultural framework, and underscores the need for cautious interpretation, since "the demands of morality and the enticements of pleasure were closely intertwined" (20). The moral dimension, whether overt or covert, underpins the conclusion--which concerns the fleeting qualities of youth and beauty and the inevitability of death--with the advice to spend time wisely rather than foolishly.

A main strength of this study is that it considers the literary material of marriage manuals, songbooks, poetry, and emblems in conjunction with close visual analysis as keys to interpretation. Another strength is that the author emphasizes how the visual material may have been regarded and interpreted in its time. Those who read the songbooks were encouraged to identify with the characters of the texts; the readers and listeners were also the performers. These songs often are dialogues among lovers, and, like the images, present a range of attitudes among the men and women involved. A number of songs and images concern the art of conversation and its counterpart, silence, with portrayals of men and women as shy, tongue-tied with infatuation, or melancholically unhappy (79). A third strength is the range of interpretations proposed, and their presentation as intentionally fluid and ambiguous. Rembrandt's two landscape etchings with lovers contain a variety of associations from a recognizable setting for lovers, to fishing as an analogy for love, and the marginalized obscurity of the lovers within the landscape. The artist has crafted an image with both "erotic and aesthetic connotations" (217).

The author extends and refines the methodological groundwork of several scholars. In a landmark study of 1976, E. de Jongh set forth a dialogue between viewer and art work, based upon the purpose of art according to Horace, to instruct and give pleasure; de Jongh also established a method of interpreting Dutch art rooted in the symbolism of seemingly quotidian activities, often with erotic themes. E. J. Sluijter has analyzed aspects of Dutch art that simultaneously admonish and seduce the viewer through mythological and biblical subjects. Nevitt suggests that the meanings presented in amatory subjects may not be so clear-cut, and, instead, present multiple meanings.

Marriage, as the blissful culmination of courtship and the orderly remedy for chaos, is well-represented in paintings by Hals and Molenaer. The reader might wish to read Nevitt's essay that further discusses the epithalamium, or wedding poem (see "Rembrandt's Wedding Feast of Samson" in A. Chong and M. Zell, Reframing Rembrandt, Zwolle, 2002, 49-71, especially 60). Such poems may be understood as presenting codes of behavior for bride and groom. Many of these poems were written especially for certain occasions and often carried personal references for the participants; such poems further demonstrate the interdependence of literature and social occasion.


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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Golahny, Amy
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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