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Het 'realisme' van de oud-Nederlandse schilderschool. Opkomst en ontwikkeling van de term 'realisme' in Nederland tussen 1850 en 1875

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

The term 'realism' first cropped up in the jargon of art criticism around the mid-nineteenth century, but the course of its integration did not run smoothly. In Holland, Tobias van Westrheene Wz. is credited with having introduced the term for Netherlandish seventeenth-century painting in Jan Steen, Étude sur l'art en Hollande (1856). By 'realism' he meant a manner of painting which one might call 'the realistic method', and which consisted of two components: the naturalistic aspect, meaning that the artist painted what he saw, rejecting any form of tradition, and the individualistic aspect, meaning that he sought to express the individual, characteristic traits of a subject or situation instead of general, timeless ideals. This neutrally descriptive use of the term 'realism' did not catch on immediately. According to traditionally minded critics such as Joh. Zimmerman and J. A. Bakker, Dutch art was 'realistic' in that it depicted only the outward appearance of objects - that which could be perceived with the senses - and not their ideal quality, which could not be seen but only imagined. Other critics, too, including such pundits as C. Vosmaer, P. J. Veth and C. Busken Huet, decided that the term 'realism' expressed this negative judgment; however, because they had a higher opinion of seventeenth-century Dutch art than Bakker and Zimmerman, they did not think that 'realism' was suitable as a general epithet for it. Between 1850 and 1875, references to the 'realism' of seventeenth-century Dutch art usually meant that artists who worked in this manner regarded their own observation as important and rejected tradition. Seeking to compare the specific nature of old Dutch realism with other schools that turned away from tradition, such as the Caravaggi of the seventeenth century or the modern realists, critics preferred to speak of 'true realism'. What distinguished the old Dutch painter was that he did more than merely observe: he observed lovingly. By virtue of this 'true realism' he was held up as a model to nineteenth-century painters. Used in this manner, the term 'realism' gradually lost its negative connotations and became more widely acceptable. By and large, then, there were three reasons for speaking of 'realism' in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. For Zimmerman and Bakker it was the absence of the idealistic aspect, for Van Westrheene and others it was the importance of the artist's perception and his rejection of all traditions, religious constraints or conventions, and lastly it was the loving gaze, which enabled the Dutch painter to reveal the ideal even in daily life. In the first case a new term ('realism') was linked with an older notion rooted in a dualistic aesthetic which was in turn composed of elements going back to the sixteenth century (or even further: to Plato). In the second case the new term 'realism' was equated with 'naturalism' in the way that art critics had used the term since the seventeenth century for painters working in the Caravaggian tradition. And in the last case 'realism' was linked with a new notion of art and the nature of the ideal.


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