Oud Holland

Review of: 'Samuel van Hoogstraten’s introduction to the academy of painting' (2021)

June 2021

Review of: Celeste Brusati (ed.), transl. Jaap Jacobs, Samuel van Hoogstraten’s introduction to the academy of painting; or, the visible world, Los Angeles [Getty Research Institute] 2021

Jaap Jacobs’ new English translation of Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst; Anders de Zichtbaere Werelt [1678] (Introduction to the academy of painting; or, the visible world), edited by Celeste Brusati, is one of the most eagerly awaited works of seventeenth-century Dutch art history.1 The result of years of work on this source of the Dutch seventeenth century; the result is impressive. Consisting of 413 pages, the book opens with the acknowledgments (p. VII) and the translator’s note (p. VIII-IX), followed by an introduction (pp. 1-43) by Celeste Brusati; the translation itself (without the original text), a glossary (pp. 390-396), which can also serve as an index for Dutch terms, biographical notes on the two contributors (p. 397), illustrations credits (p. 398) and the index (p. 399-413). With the exception of a photograph of the Perspective of an open gallery (‘The Tuscan gallery’) – painted by the artist in England and opening the introduction – the only illustrations are reproductions of the original prints included in Van Hoogstraten’s treatise.

Written with verve and precision, the introduction clearly sets out the content and main issues of Van Hoogstraten’s text. Celeste Brusati recalls Van Hoogstraten’s peripatetic career (pp. 4-8), spent in the Dutch Republic, but also in the Holy Roman Empire, Italy and Great Britain. She explains the difficulties encountered by the painter in writing his book, which can make it difficult to read (pp. 8-11), in particular because of its, often digressive nature (pp. 11-14). She mentions the encyclopaedic nature of the Inleyding (pp. 14-16) and rightly questions the criticisms levelled at the text – sometimes suspected of being a confusing compilation of commonplaces, and anecdotes. She points out that this montage, more logical than it seems, provides a truthful grasp of Van Hoogstraten’s artistic thoughts, made up of surprising associations of ideas (pp. 16-18) and title page inventions (pp. 18-20). As Brusati points out (pp. 26-30), in her continuation of Svetlana Alpers’ studies of the importance of experimental philosophy in seventeenth-century Dutch art;2 Van Hoogstraten’s theory brings the art of painting into the realm of ‘the practical sciences’ (werkdadige wetenschappen), as the Dutch painter explains: “[t]he practical sciences require exercise and action as well as understanding. For those that lack in experience and do not strive for it will remain bunglers, even though they know everything that pertains to the art” (p. 73 [Inleyding, p. 17]).3 The art of painting is an activity that is both mimetic and ideal, visual and epistemic; “painting describes and deceives, and is at once simulating and dissimulating” (p. 22). Because he is thus interested in both the theoretical and practical challenges of his art, Van Hoogstraten discusses matters often considered shameful by art theorists; the education of the artist’s body, his relationship to trade and money, the need for him to submit his artistic choices to the demands of his clients, etc.

Left: Cover of Samuel van Hoogstraten’s introduction to the academy of painting; or, the visible world.

Middle: Samuel van Hoogstraten, Self portrait, c. 1647, oil on canvas, 102 x 79 cm., Hermitage Museum, Moscow, inv. ГЭ-788.

Right: Samuel van Hoogstraten, A perspective view of the courtyard of a house, 1664, oil on canvas, 263 x 277 cm., National Trust, Dyrham, inv. 453771.

This introduction is followed by the translation itself. From the opening, Jaap Jacobs tries to stay as close as possible to the original text, both in form and content. He reproduces the presentation of the book in the manner of a facsimile, including the title pages, the marginal notes and the anatomical tables. Yet the original pagination is mentioned in small bold characters, in square brackets, in a fairly small font, which makes it difficult to locate the passages quickly. The translation is remarkable for its clarity and precision. In his introductory note and glossary, Jacobs clarifies his choices, underlining the different possible meanings for each concept. However, Jacobs has not retained the numerous capital letters that often arbitrarily punctuate words. He redraws some sentences, in order to avoid the numerous series of sometimes lengthy propositions that characterise Van Hoogstraten’s style, though this make the reading a bit more cumbersome. And, he does not keep the italics that mark proper names and certain specific notions, whose function was to facilitate the identification of the auctores and the memorisation of the main arguments.

It is unfortunate, in addition, that the terminological comments are reduced to a bare minimum in a few philological notes and in the glossary, whereas Van Hoogstraten often made very personal use of certain, seemingly obvious terms. We know, for example, that the notion of “universality” (algemeenheyd) has a central place in the Inleyding.4 The art of painting is a, “universal science of the imitation of all visible things” (p. 16 [70]), and its universality, “refers to the comprehensive purview that defines painting as a field of knowledge (algemeene wetenschap)”, to the “artistic ideal of general mastery of all aspects of painting and the visible world it encompasses” (p. 390). Brusati points out that the argument is rhetorical (p. 23). Van Hoogstraten encourages his colleagues to become universal (“we will encourage alert minds to become universal”, p. 126 [p. 69]) in order to emphasise the liberal nature of the art of painting and to promote the practice of historical painting in the Dutch Republic.

However, he does not just take up the constantly repeated ideas of Karel van Mander or, more specifically, of Vitruvius. On the one hand, if he favours universal painters, Van Hoogstraten also readily admits that excellent artists are, “only suited for a few particular choices” (pp. 129-130 [pp. 73-75]). On the other hand, he articulates the “intriguing proposition” that the art of painting “could not but be linked to the others” (p. 23), being, “the single discipline that is most related to every other one” (p. 24); “[t]his treasure chest will never be overloaded. But when it has already taken in many things, it will steadily yawn for more, especially because, as Cicero says, the liberal arts have a common bond and are connected with one another as if through common kinship” (p. 126 [p. 69]).

Van Hoogstraten’s proposition becomes less intriguing when compared to another passage in which Van Hoogstraten approaches the distinction between universal and specialised painters from a quasi-psychological and anthropological point of view: “[q]uick minds […] are suited to the general art of painting. But the slow to particular parts”; “[a]lthough quick minds are rich, nimble, and sharp, they are rightly compared to a razor blade that is delicate and made of thin metal, yet bends easily. Likewise, those that are sluggish and slow in understanding are like an axe that, being tough and heavy, cleaves everything it encounters” (p. 70 [p. 13]). This idea that talents can be classified according to their different natures – the identification of which makes it possible to direct them towards different professions or specialisations – is not new; we find it notably in the Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and the Spanish doctorat Juan Huarte (1529-1588), both quoted by Van Hoogstraten (p. 64 & 129 [pp. 4-5, 73]). Yet it also allows Van Hoogstraten to mark his difference from Vitruvius. He did not consider universality as a higher ideal, which every artist striving for excellence should achieve. Everything depends on the field in which this artist wishes to excel:

“[a]ccepting and adopting immediately the rules of instruction, provided they are truthful, saves considerable time, whereas a doubting pupil will stand still and remain incapable of assessing accurately what is true. Yet for any particular part of the art, I would rather accept a more melancholy mind, for he will be more resigned to press on until the end with the topic that he intends to learn and not be inconstant and capriciously switch from one to the other” (p. 70 [p. 13]).

There is no doubt that this distinction reflects the specific artistic situation in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, where the artistic genres were more various than in the rest of Europe, and which Van Hoogstraten does not wish to delegitimise in principle – all the more so as he himself practised them in his works. But it also reveals a singular approach to universality, articulated around what we could label as the mental, visual and technical mobility of certain artists who are able to demonstrate sufficient versatility to meet the diverse expectations of their clients.

Jaap Jacobs also chooses to offer different translations of the same term, depending on the context. This can be understood from a pragmatic point of view, even if such decisions are not always justified. One example, briefly mentioned by Celeste Brusati in her introduction (pp. 16, 26) is the notion of schilderachtig; at page 135 [p. 78], Jacobs translates the marginal note, “’t Vonnis van Paris seer schilderachtich vertoont”, in reference to Apuleius’ account of the Judgment of Paris, as, “The Judgment of Paris represented very pictorially.” Perhaps Van Hoogstraten is thinking of the Judgment of Paris drawn by Raphael and engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, directly derived from the description of the Asinus Aureus. A few pages later [p. 145], however, Van Hoogstraten again refers to “den schilderachtich Apulejus”, translated as “the painterly Apuleius”. And when Van Hoogstraten refers to Ludovico Ariosto as a “schilderachtigen Poëet” [p. 285], the translation gives “painter-like poet” [p. 285]. These different translations eliminate the association of the Dutch term schilderachtig with the Italian notion of pittoresco, adapted in most European languages, such as French (pittoresque), and English (picturesque).5 Thanks to Boudewijn Bakker, we know that a description is not only schilderachtig because it has “pictorial” or “painterly” qualities, but also because of its expressive qualities, and the feeling of life that emanates from it, which can be compared to the specific impression given by a painting executed with a lively paintbrush.6

Jaap Jacobs is, of course, aware that the word schilderachtig can refer to what is regarded as “suitable for a picture” (p. 394). But why, in that case, does he never use this translation, particularly for the quoted passages, preferring instead to associate it with synonyms which only very partially convey the intrinsic polysemy of the term“painterly” [p. 8, 83, 136, 153, 196, 207, 218], “painting-like” [p. 138, 287], “as if painted” [p. 83], “as if in a picture” [p. 303], “painter’s” [p. 46], “pictorial” [p. 52, 92, 176, 188, 263]? Twenty-first century English is probably not sufficient to convey the specific meanings of the terms used by Van Hoogstraten, some of which belong to the jargon of seventeenth-century Dutch painters, or to what Barbara Cassin calls, the “untranslatables”:

“To speak of untranslatables in no way implies that the terms in question, or the expressions, the syntactical or grammatical turns, are not and cannot be translated: the untranslatable is rather what one keeps on (not) translating. But this indicates that their translation, into one language or another, creates a problem, to the extent of sometimes generating a neologism or imposing a new meaning on an old word."7

Van Hoogstraten does not proceed any differently. Around the notion of analogia, for example, he uses both an adaptation of the Greek term in Dutch (analogie) and some expressions centred on some of its different meanings, such as the equivalence between the size (gelijkmatigheyd) and the shapes (gelijkvormigheit) of parts of the human body or the tints of a painting (p. 390). To give readers the possibility to measure the discrepancies between the original text and the translation, and what this translation inevitably does to the meanings of Van Hoogstraten’s words, perhaps it would have been preferable to mention systematically in square brackets and in italics the most complex specific Dutch terms. This effort has been made occasionally by Jaap Jacobs, but without any real consistency – for example, on pages 80 and 83, the term handeling is specified in brackets, but not on pages 130, 252, 257, and 267 to 272.

A final remark concerning the philological notes and the index. The concern to avoid colossal proportions in the book probably explains the choice made by the editor and translator to limit these notes to the strict minimum and to the most important, and to place them at the end of each of the nine books of the treatise. The choice, however, is regrettable, as it would not have been difficult to mobilise the bibliographical research already carried out, and does not facilitate the reading of the translation.8 As for the index; some references are missing. A quick survey allowed me to note, for example, that one occurrence of Vitruvius was missing [p. 60] and that Marsilio Ficino [p. 5] and the Spanish humanist Pero Mexia (Pedo Mejía, 1497-1551) [p. 39] – although cited by Van Hoogstraten – do not appear in the index. These few reservations obviously do not call into question the exceptional value of this translated edition of the Inleyding, which will certainly establish itself in historiography, completing a new major ‘Van Hoogstraten moment’ in seventeenth-century Dutch art.

Jan Blanc
University of Geneva

1. Two translations of the Inleyding had previously been published: one in French (Samuel van Hoogstraten, Introduction à la haute école de l’art de peinture, 1678, ed. J. Blanc, Genève 2006.), and the other in English, by Charles Ford: (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/grondt/inleyding-tot-de-hooge-schoole-der-schilderkonst-anders-de-zichtbaere-werelt-rotterdam-1678). While the latter translation had its merits, a new English translation was necessary, based on a systematic study of Van Hoogstraten's career and works, but also on an in-depth reflection on artistic terminology. This review will mention in brackets, both the pagination of the modern edition, and the original pagination of the Inleyding.

2 S. Alpers, The art of describing: Dutch art in the seventeenth century, Chicago 1983.

3 J. Blanc, ‘Van Hoogstraten’s theory of theory of art’, in The universal art of Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678), painter, writer, and courtier, T. Weststeijn (ed.), Amsterdam 2013, pp. 35-51 (p. 42); J. Blanc, ‘Rembrandt and painting as a mechanical science in Dutch seventeenth-century art’, in Knowledge and discernment in the early modern arts, S. Dupré and C. Göttler (eds.), Basingstoke 2017, pp. 267-295 (pp. 282-287).

4 C. Brusati, Artifice and illusion: The art and writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten, Chicago, 1995, pp. 4-9; T. Weststeijn, The visible world: Samuel van Hoogstraten’s art theory and the legitimation of painting in the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam 2008, pp. 86, 89; J. Blanc, Peindre et penser la peinture au XVIIe siècle: la théorie de l’art de Samuel van Hoogstraten, Berne 2008, pp. 117-118, 180-182.

5 See, for example: W. Aglionby, Painting illustrated in three dialogues, London 1686, 23–24; A. Bosse, De la manière de graver à l’eau forte et au burin et de la gravûre en manière noire avec la façon de construire les presses modernes & d’imprimer en taille-douce, Paris 1745, xxiv-xxv.

6 B. Bakker, ‘Schilderachtig: Discussions of a seventeenth-century term and concept’, in Simiolus 23, no. 2/3 (1995), pp. 147–62.

7 B. Cassin (ed.), Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: dictionnaire des intraduisibles, Paris 2004, p. xvii. See, also: B. Cassin (ed.), Dictionary of untranslatables: A philosophical Lexicon, Princeton 2014.

8 H. Czech, Im Geleit der Musen Studien zu Samuel van Hoogstratens Malereitraktat “Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst, anders de zichtbaere werelt” (Rotterdam 1678), Münster 2002.

Jan Blanc, 'Review of: Samuel van Hoogstraten’s introduction to the academy of painting; or, the visible world', Oud Holland Reviews, June 2021.