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Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht During the Golden Age.

Joaneath Spicer, ed., Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht During the Golden Age

New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Walters Art Gallery and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1998. 206 b/w + 90 color pls. + 48O pp. $75. ISBN: 0-300-0339-9.

The book Masters of Light accompanied an exhibition of the same name shown during 1997-1998. As an overview of and introduction to the important, but much neglected, study of painting in Utrecht, this catalogue succeeds in providing a wealth of valuable and excellent scholarship for both the novice and expert in studies of Dutch art.

The first section of the text is comprised of eight essays introducing a variety of topics dealing with socio-cultural conditions in Utrecht, as well as with its art production. Joaneath Spicer provides an introduction including a brief chronology of painting in Utrecht; but she primarily presents the five thematic categories employed in the organization of the catalogue of the exhibition, the second portion of the book. Jan de Vries's essay provides an excellent historical introduction to the city of Utrecht from an economic perspective that is enlightening for later references in the text to both class structure and art patronage. Marten Jan Bok's exceptional essay on the general art community in Utrecht will likely be the most useful for future scholarship in the field. His important conclusions regarding the institution of successful art business practices in Utrecht as a vital component of artistic decision-making are crucial to our understanding of both the style and subject matter of these works.

The second portion of the book contains the catalogue of the exhibition and a collection of artists' biographies. The thematic categories employed in the organization of the catalogue are Body and Spirit: The Impact of the Counter-Reformation; The Wisely Led Life; Pleasures and Duties: Contemporary Life; Noble Ideals: Arcadian and Mythological Imagery; Fantasies of Arcadia and Eden: Landscapes of the Imagination; and Artifice and Reality: The "Still" Life. Most of the catalogue entries, written by ten different scholars, are devoted to history painting with much less attention to portrait, landscape, and still-life painting. The biographies, also written by Marten Jan Bok, are helpful for readers first being introduced to Utrecht painting, since a single artist may be discussed in different sections of the catalogue.

While this book is admirable in many respects, it also has certain problems. Some of these are minor and relate to necessary decisions regarding selection. Choosing to emphasize subject matter rather than style, for example, means that it is difficult to follow stylistic developments in the art community generally, but also within the oeuvres of specific artists. In addition, the sparse treatment of some subject categories, but also the complete omission of certain popular genre and allegorical topoi may make readers question why the organizers did nor limit the discussion to history painting alone. Similarly, the emphasis given to international influences -- Caravaggio, Manfredi, Raphael, Spranger, the Carracci, Claude Lorrain -- means that discussions of Netherlandish tradition are sometimes neglected or ignored.

More problematic, however, is the absence of an introduction to the entire text. There is a distinct need for this type of essay in the book due to the large number (seventeen) of contributors. In particular an introductory discussion of the essays is needed, because they stand out as rather abrupt and unrelated contributions to the text generally. They could have been much more helpftd to the reader had they been linked to the overall themes and purposes of the exhibition catalogue. An introduction would have also been an opportune place to include a theoretical perspective to the text. The novice to studies on Dutch painting, for example, will not understand why certain flower still-lifes, according to the catalogue, were imbued with a great deal of symbolic import, while others were only appreciated for their beauty. Even if the reader had been informed that the readings of these images had been influenced by a postmodernist perception regarding the relativity of viewer context, this would have been a hel pful foundation for understanding the variability of the readings. Finally, a summarization was needed regarding the purposes and patronage of these paintings in connection with the Important factors of class, religion, gender, etc. Such general conclusions drawn from this mass of scholarship would have provided an important position for further debate and discussion in the field.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:PEACOCK, MARTHA MOFFITT
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:728
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