264 Were Dutch artists scientists?

In 1983 Svetlana Alpers proposed that Dutch artists, more than others in Europe, were fascinated by optical instruments such as the telescope and microscope. This hypothesis, which Schwartz always doubted, he now disputes with new evidence. The earliest documented depictions by artists of things that cannot be seen with the naked eye both date from 1623, and neither supports Alpers’s theory.

In 1983 Svetlana Alpers launched a thesis concerning Dutch art of the 17th century that is still being debated, though not enough. In her book The art of describing: Dutch art in the seventeenth century, she argued that Dutch artists, more than any others in Europe, linked their art and craft to “the pursuit of natural knowledge." She writes that it is “not just an amusing coincidence … that the country that first used microscopes and telescopes … had Van Eyck … in its past." And in its 17th-century present artists like Jan van Goyen, Pieter Saenredam and Johannes Vermeer, artists who according to her epitomize a specifically Dutch visual culture. a culture of looking and recording rather than applying theories or artistic formulas.

This thesis always struck me as off the mark. For every one of Alpers’s examples of a typically Dutch describer, I can adduce a Flemish or Italian or French artist who was up to the same game, and earlier. The mother of all optical experimentation in the arts was not, as Alpers suggests, the northern Netherlands, but the courts of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague and the Medici in Florence, and the scientific societies of Rome. These centers are not mentioned in The art of describing.

By linking the use of the microscope and telescope to artistic visual culture, Alpers gives us a means to test her theory. For years I have been asking myself and others the simple question: what are the earliest works of art that show phenomena that cannot be seen with the naked eye? If the makers were Dutch artists, Alpers’s view would be supported, if not it would be weakened.

It has taken me more than 20 years to come across good evidence on the matter. Concerning the telescope, I found it in a Czech research project called “Science in contact with art: astronomical symbolics of the Wallenstein Palace in Prague" (2004). The decorations of the palace, which was begun in 1623, include images of the planets Jupiter, Venus and Saturn with features that were first seen through the telescope by Galileo around 1610. The scholars in the Czech project “infer that Italian artists were responsible for the selection of the astrological and astronomical subject matter of the palace," in keeping with “the clear and long-lasting tendency of Italian art to absorb motifs taken from the exact sciences."

The earliest known drawings of microscopic images, now in the Institut de France in Paris, also date from 1623. They show fungi gathered in the Roman countryside and drawn by artists associated with the famous Accademia dei Lincei. The first Dutch artist to reproduce a microscopic image does not fit at all into Alpers’s romantic picture of Dutch visual culture. Cornelis Bloemaert was an engraver whose work consisted mainly in reproducing compositions by others. He spent most of his life in Paris and Rome. It was there that in 1633 he was commissioned to engrave a seed in microscopic magnification, undoubtedly after the drawing of a microscopist.

To my knowledge, no Dutch artist of the 17th century ever took the initiative to depict phenomena that can only be seen with a telescope or microscope. Is there a reader who does know an example? I – and I assume Svetlana Alpers – would be grateful to know about it.


David Freedberg, The eye of the lynx: Galileo, his friends and the beginnings of modern natural history, Chicago (University of Chicago Press) 2003

Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 23 September 2006

I love writing for my Internet readers, you all know that. But real life does have something to recommend it as well. I must say that my lectures of the past two weeks to live audiences has been very exciting in ways you cannot experience at your lonely keyboard. At the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) 750 people turned up at a former movie theater converted by the College into a lecture hall to hear me talk on Rembrandt. An audience like that gives a speaker a kick you can’t feel in any other way. Same for my talks for smaller but more intense groups at the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU and the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum, Idaho. Particularly gratifying was the observation that my half-hour presentation on Rembrandt’s self-portraits, half of each of these talks, goes down equally well for an arts school like SCAD, a critical audience of specialist colleagues at the Institute and listeners from the general public in a small town in the west.

Now for a break of another kind: a walk in the mountains, thrilling the senses of sight and smell and exercising parts of the body that do not come into their own at the pc. However, not to cut you out of this real-life event altogether, go on Google Earth to 43 40 51N by 114 21 40W, zoom out, look around, be jealous, and then get out of the house and take a walk yourselves, wherever you are.

Responses to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

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