The 'Golden' Compass
Dutch Cityscapes Point to Liveliest of Details
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009
In 1667, a Dutch artist called Jan van der Heyden painted a grand view of Amsterdam's newly built town hall, declared the Eighth Wonder of the World -- by Dutchmen, at least.
But when you first come across that picture in "Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age," a fascinating new show at the National Gallery of Art, you wonder what young van der Heyden had been smoking when he painted it. (This is Amsterdam, after all.) The hall's great cupola looks thin and drawn, as though a Monty Python hand of God has given it a squeeze.
Yet his cupola looks odd only if you stand directly in front of the picture, as we've been trained to do with modern images: snapshots, TV screens, newspaper photos, almost any image made with a lens, in fact.
View this distinctly unmodern, pre-photographic picture as it was meant to be seen, from very close, and from a point more or less lined up with the eyes of the horse at its far bottom right, and its cupola seems not just normal, but stunningly real, almost as though it's sitting high above you in the air.
A few hours spent with the 48 paintings in "Pride of Place," the latest groundbreaking show from curator Arthur Wheelock, suggests that we might want to hunt for a proper, up-close viewing spot for every image. That's not what this exhibition is officially about; it's more focused on the urban world its pictures show. But it highlights something more profound: that over the past few centuries, we've lost all clue of how to look at classic Dutch pictures. Literally: We don't know how to use our eyes to take these pictures in, where to stand to do it and what to look for once we've got to where we need to be.
(Interestingly, when van der Heyden sold his picture south, to a Medici duke, he included some kind of device you could attach to the frame to set your eye at the right point of view. It seems that Italians, like us, needed help with looking at the pictures by their Dutch contemporaries.)
A wall label says that, by showing his scene from so close by, van der Heyden "distorted the perspective of the cupola." That's not right. He hasn't "distorted" his cupola. He's depicted it exactly as it would have looked for Amsterdamers standing on the right edge of the square, with the town hall rising to their left as they stare straight ahead. The cupola only seems distorted to us, in the 21st century.
Once we come close enough to see his "Town Hall" through "period eyes," van der Heyden's scene takes on an eerie depth and realism. The town hall's imposing neoclassical facade seems to loom up to the left of your body, almost hemming you in; the gorgeous evening sky truly seems to hover overhead; the people scattered across the bottom of the painting seem to flow right through a space that you're in, too.
Other pictures similarly force you to move sideways. When you first come across Daniel Vosmaer's view of the skyline of Delft, as glimpsed through the archways of a pavilion on the city's edge, it looks tremendously bizarre. Its sea of weirdly angled lines risks giving you the spins. The scene was painted as though observed from low down and way off to the left, and its image needs to be viewed from there to make sense. Move to that position (the picture's well up on a wall all to itself, and you only have to come within two feet to make it work) and Vosmaer's view becomes extravagantly illusionistic. Its tiled arcade wraps around you, and Delft feels like a real place you could step out to.
Well more than half this show's cityscapes -- as well as a surprisingly large percentage of Dutch still lifes, domestic scenes and architectural interiors -- are constructed with a view from off to one side. They're not always as blatant about it as van der Heyden's "Town Hall" or Vosmaer's "Delft," but once you're attuned to the technique, it pops up again and again. (Look for the receding lines in a picture's floor tiles, or paving stones, or architecture: Instead of being focused on a point in the middle of the horizon, like the photo of receding train tracks that's always used to explain perspective, they center on a point that's way farther over to the left or right. Only paintings can easily do this. The still photographs our modern eyes are trained on almost always show what's dead in front of them; TV and movie cameras always do.)
Even pictures that barely hint at their perspective may ask you to sidle crab-wise up to them. Look from straight ahead and several feet away at Aelbert Cuyp's great image of the Maas River at Dordrecht, from the National Gallery's own holdings, and the wide-beamed ship at its far right seems almost as round as a barrel. Take the ship in from much nearer but far over to the left, from about the point of view of the important officials being rowed to it, and this lead ship suddenly slims down, projecting out toward you and almost ready to pass by. The great Maas, instead of looking like a pool in the painting's foreground, now seems like a long channel that your gaze runs down as it skims along the ranks of Holland's specially assembled fleet -- the real naval assembly, from July 1646, that is the main subject of the painting. Come near, and Cuyp's celebrated clouds, which he's designed almost receding in perspective to the left, seem to soar above you, up and out of view. They stop seeming like a perversely vacant zone across the top of his canvas, as they're often described.
Get close, and move over, and this picture's water, boats and skies go from being a series of stripes rising up across a painted surface, as we moderns tend to think of them, to taking shape as a world receding into depth.
Entering that world is, I think, the true point of these pictures. They aren't meant only as wow-cool demonstration pieces, like Imax 3-D. (Though the Dutch did have a liking for such things. They went crazy for elaborate peep-show boxes whose trompe l'oeil insides were meant to be viewed through a tiny hole -- proving, if nothing else, that the idea of a single, "correct" viewing point for pictures was commonplace in Holland in these years.) The cityscapes in "Pride of Place" are meant to appeal to a Dutch taste for coming into the very closest contact with their new, lavish, stuff-filled urban reality -- a new kind of bourgeois world that Netherlanders had been building since around 1600, as this show takes pains to explain.
The urban views in "Pride of Place" aren't "paintings" at all, in our modern sense of artistic compositions meant for distanced, aesthetic contemplation. They are more like storage cupboards for all the fascinating plenty that's included in an urban reality. And they offer just the kind of one-thing-after-another experience (a "paratactic" one, to use the term of art) that the grandest Dutch collectors favored. The artworks that they bought would often have been kept in so-called Wunderkammern, "chambers of wonders," alongside an almost order-free assortment of stuffed crocodiles, corals that look like praying hands, and marvelously carved peach pits. In Baltimore, the Walters Art Museum has re-created such a chamber.
The kind of exploratory viewing that Dutch pictures invite also brings them into contact with other objects included in this show: precious books, allegorical prints and atlases of urban maps meant to illustrate the special love of cities in 17th-century Holland. The way these period artifacts present their teeming contents parallels the way this show's paintings work. In both cases, their matter comes distributed throughout, and you have to take time to pull out every separate particle of fact, coming close enough to dig around for them. That's just how we aren't trained to view a picture, now. Think of a little snapshot held at arm's length, or an image in a book, or even a color reproduction of an Old Master painting projected on a screen at the front of a classroom: We take them in at once, from edge-to-edge, as a kind of integrated package. As a completely legible surface, more than as an artificial world with things buried inside.
So now, with all this in mind, it's worth taking another look at even the most normal-looking paintings in this show, by such well-known figures as Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen. All you have to do is come close -- a few old images survive that show Dutch viewers with their noses almost up against the paintings they're admiring -- and everything about them starts to change.
A seemingly straightforward picture such as Jacob van Ochtervelt's "Street Musicians in the Doorway of a House" offers a whole new experience. From a distance, the home's marble-tiled floor seems almost tipped up toward us, as though you'd have to walk uphill to get out the front door; the tiles in its near corners don't even seem quite square. That floor also seems to take up more than its fair share of space in the picture's composition. Come much closer to the picture, however, and all of this comes right: The floor now seems below you, extending forward at 90 degrees to your body; the angles of its tiles suddenly correct themselves; what looked like an excess expanse of floor disappears. And most important, you're now injected right into van Ochtervelt's whimsical scene, with your attention -- and your identification -- forced to oscillate between the satin-clad burghers and the beggars at their door. The picture's composition now takes place in space and across time, from near to far and side to side as you slowly explore its scene, rather than all at once across its flat surface.
For once, we're letting these pictures do the work their Dutch masters had in mind for them. They get us to plunge deep inside a crowded world, full of stuff to be explored, rather than simply standing back to take in a pretty picture.