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Levenspelgrimage of vrome wandeling? Claes Janszoon Visscher en zijn serie Plaisante Plaetsen

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

Josua Bruyn's article 'Towards a Scriptural Reading of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape Paintings' (1987) elicited a great deal of criticism for both its method and its occasionally sweeping conclusions. To a certain extent this criticism is understandable. It does not however mean that recently initiated, cautious attempts to peer below the surface of the painted landscape should be aborted. It is still highly unlikely that the landscape was the only Dutch 'genre' without any intentions other than to beguile the eye. Following Wiegand and Falkenburg, each of whom has researched and interpreted the work of a single artist (Ruisdael and Patinir respectively), the author, too, focuses on one artist. Claes Jansz. Visscher is generally regarded as the publisher and artist who decisively influenced the acceptance of the landscape as an autonomous work of art without a narrative or moral tenor. One of his first publications of his own work was the series Plaisante Plaetsen of about 1611, consisting of an allegorical title print, a view ofZandvoort with the list of contents, followed by ten small landscapes in the environs of Haarlem. The author offers an iconographic analysis of the first two sheets, comparing them with Visscher's religious views, as far as these can be deduced from his life and work. Visscher was an orthodox Calvinist, and his ideas about the place of art and the artist in society were presumably formed by John Calvin's dogma. There are two ways of looking at this. In the first place Calvin, obedient to the Second Commandment in Mosaic Law, purged public worship of Divine or human representations. He did see a task for art outside the church, but only if it had a didactic, edifying character. However, another aspect of Calvin's teachings suggests that art and religion are compatible. His dogma hinges on a view of earthly reality which, unlike that of mediaeval theology, is not negative but positive: a visible reflection of the invisible divine presence. Accordingly, instead of shunning the world and nature, man should enjoy and indeed investigate them in order to gain knowledge of God's creation and thus of God Himself. This idea of creation and the concomitant mission to investigate were of great significance for the development of empirical science. The same now applied to art, inasmuch as it pursues the visual examination of nature and its registration on the flat surface. This implies works of art done 'from life' rather than 'from the mind', and generated the tradition of the empirical, 'topographical' landscape art which flourished in seventeenth-century Holland alongside the landscape which was a mental invention composed of separate elements. Seen against that background, Visscher's two representations may be interpreted as follows: 'This series is intended as a monument to Haarlem. The city boasts not only a glorious and devout past but also most pleasant surroundings. They can compare with Classical landscape, but have a character of their own, and may therefore be praised both in Latin and Dutch. The city may bask in the knowledge that God directs the radiant light of his mercy on her, as the sun shines upon Haarlem's dunes. But Haarlem's glory does not render her haughty: the thorntree in her coat of arms is a reminder that all earthly things are transient. Let the sight of this city and the knowledge of her history thus incite the beholder to sobriety and diligence. Should this mean that you have no time to visit the pleasant spots in the surroundings of Haarlem, these pictures offer you a walk on paper. Be mindful that your own conduct in life match the tenor of this print. 'I, Claes Janszoon Visschcr, the printer of these views, am an educated and versatile artist and a God-fearing man. My work as an artist may be seen as the portrayal of what 1 have read in the book of creation. With my art I open a window on God's nature as it were, not only in the form of these lifelike memories of my walks around Haarlem, but on God's creation as a whole, as its chief elements are condensed in this panorama which also contains a reference to my own name and emblem.' The moment at which these two representations were published suggests that they were intended as a visual programme, not only for this modest series of prints but for Visscher's entire activities as an artist and publisher of prints. His approach to nature, incidentally, is wholly in keeping with that of the poets of his day, who presented their pastoral verses as paeans to creation and the Creator. The notion of a pious walk on paper stayed alive throughout the seventeenth century. In 1685, for instance, a book of meditations on God's nature was published, and reprinted many times; it took the form of walks around Haarlem, illustrated with six landscapes done 'from life', including a view of Haarlem in the manner of Vermeer's celebrated panorama. The above interpretation does not preclude a particular didactic or other associative value in individual landscape motifs. Even then, however, and perhaps first and foremost, they are depicted as the object of (pious) enjoyment. In all these cases a message is conveyed. It is the artistic formulation of the message that determines the work's quality. Seen in this light, the painted landscape in the seventeenth century was not intended primarily for artistic enjoyment but was meant to inspire personal meditation, even if for art-lovers the latter tended to recede into the background in practice.


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