September 6, 2011

On Dutch Golden Age Painting: The Brilliant Essays of Zbigniew Herbert

Torrentius, Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle, 1614; oil on panel; 20.5 x 19.9 inches.

This is how it happened. Years ago, during my first visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, ....I came upon a canvas by a painter unknown to me.

...How to describe this inner state? A suddenly awakened intense curiosity, sharp concentration with the senses alarmed, hope for an adventure and consent to be dazzled. I experienced an almost physical sensation as if someone called me, summoned me.

This is how Zbigniew Herbert described his first encounter with Torrentius' sole remaining painting. Reading a poet's words about art of the past is very different from reading those of a scholarly treatise. There is passion, and philosophy, a compassionate view of the world, and there are words that elevate and illuminate. A Polish poet and essayist, Herbert takes us on a deep tour of Dutch 17th century painting in his 1991 book Still Life with a Bridle. In the title essay, Herbert writes about the tragic life and brutal death of the artist, in the process describing the society that could not accept someone who lived and worked outside its norms. And yet Herbert also admires the norms; he aims to write about Dutch 17th century painters in a down to earth way, not romanticizing their lives:
The old masters – all of them without exception – could repeat after Racine, "We work to please the public." Which means they believed in the purposefulness of their work and the possibility of interhuman communication. They affirmed visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness, as if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars, the permanence of the firmament, depended on it.
Let such naiveté be praised.

I remember that during my visit to the Rijksmuseum years ago, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of paintings of a certain subject matter by a certain artist. Oh, I liked them much better if I saw only one or two church interiors by de Witte, instead of a half dozen. But Herbert's essay "The Price of Art" helps to put this production in a larger context.

Gerard Terborch, Fatherly Admonition, c. 1655

Herbert writes of the difficulty of writing about art:
I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language – as voluminous, as receptive as hell – in which court verdicts and love novels are written.
But I read his prose and am transported, even knowing the paintings he describes. I am also envious of his ability to call forth words, to shape sentences into such vivid and true images. He writes about Terborch in an essay "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and describes the painting above in a lengthy paragraph, of which the following is an except:
Terborch, who painted with such reticence gray and black portraits, gives us in "Fatherly Admonition" a concert of coloristic mastery in difficult chromatic compositions: red, black, matte white, the subdued red of the bed curtain, the low deadly black of the model's collar, and the light, dazzling, joyful white of her dress. Whenever I try to recall this painting of Terborch, I close my eyes and see first of all the heroine of the scene, a "beauty with her back turned" who brightens the darkness like a candle in a precious candlestick, while other persons, objects, details remain unclear, blurred and wavering.

Jan van Goyen, Dunes, 1629

A road through a village, a ferry floating down the river, a hut among dunes, clusters of trees and haystacks, travelers waiting for a ride – these are the typical subjects of van Goven's paintings. Canvases with no anecdote, loosely composed, flimsy and slim, with a weak pulse and nervous outline, they quickly leave their imprint on the memory...When I first saw van Goyen's painting I felt I had waited a long time for just this painter, that he filled a gap in the museum of my imagination I had sensed for a long time.
How beautifully Herbert describes what I would call the "almost-not-thereness" of van Goyen's paintings.

Aelbert Cuyp, Young Herdsman with Cows, c. 1665

What we see in Dutch paintings are everyday things, ordinary views. Herbert wonders about this preference in the essay "The NonHeroic Subject"; why were there so few pictures of war, of battles and heroes, considering that Holland had been through an Eighty Year's War with Spain, finally concluded in 1648. He conjectures that the Dutch were of a "bourgeois-peasant world", for them "war was not a beautiful craft".
On the contrary, what was most important was to save: to protect, to spare, and carry from the storm a sane head and one's belongings.
That the spirit of Erasmus, the 16th century
philosopher from Rotterdam, who valued the virtues of moderation and gentleness above everything else, took power over this small nation.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654, 13.2 x 9 inches

This small painting, painted in the last year of a short life, is the most perfect of pictures: the golden color; the balance of forms against the flat textural expanse of wall; the bird quiet, expectant, calm yet tethered by a delicate chain. It comes close to breaking my heart. Is it at all about freedom, that for the Dutch, Herbert writes,
was something as simple as breathing, looking, and touching objects. It did not need to be defined or beautified. This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and what is small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary. They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shopkeepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.


  1. Wonderful post. I like to read writers on painting, but I haven't been aware of Herbert. I'll find his book. Thanks, Altoon.

  2. thanks so much, Helen. I loved this book.

  3. Your posts always teach, but this one raised the level once again. Beautiful words and paintings. Again, Thank you

  4. You're very welcome, Deborah. I don't really mean to teach, but more to share my thoughts, my world, which helps me to see and understand more clearly. So I guess I'm teaching myself in the process.

  5. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the Dutch Golden Age. One of my favorite artist is Albert Cuyp. I am fascinated by this painting River landscape

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