If the world were fair, Svetlana Leontief Alpers would have won a Nobel Prize by now, just like her dad. After all, Wassily Leontief merely pioneered in "the development of the input-output method and its application to important economic problems," as the Nobel Web site explains -- not research that speaks to most of us. His daughter, now 69 -- two years older than her father was when he got his Nobel in 1973 -- has managed to thoroughly rejig how people think about great works of art. And those are objects that can matter to us all.
Of course, part of the unfairness of the world is that there's no Nobel for people who study art, no matter what insights they've had.
Over the past few decades, Alpers has published a series of books that have revolutionized talk about Vermeer and Rembrandt and other Dutch masters. The standard way of getting at these artists had been to pick apart what their pictures mean -- their hidden symbolism, their political messages, their abstruse theology. Alpers took a different tack. She argued that Dutch culture of the time had a novel outlook on the world that favored sight and optics and all kinds of scientific observation, and that this outlook is echoed in the way its paintings look -- the way someone might argue that watching television has changed both how we view the world and what we like in art.
For Alpers, you don't look through a picture to find meaning lurking underneath. You take in what it looks like and try to see how that jibes with what's happening in the world around the artist.
A brand-new Alpers book called "The Vexations of Art" takes that approach and applies it even more widely. It covers figures as diverse as Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez and Manet. It's already getting raves, including from lay people such as British author A.S. Byatt, who recently reviewed it for the Guardian in London.
As Byatt puts it, Alpers "uses history to make things strange." Her approach has always been to find aspects of art we're likely to take for granted and show how they're the peculiar products of one time and place. Alpers, for instance, once took the Dutch taste for detail-filled still lifes -- which can seem so obviously attractive and worth looking at that there's nothing there to explain -- and connected it to Dutch scientists' belief that looking at the surface of the world and trusting what you see there would give you insight into how things work.
On meeting Alpers, you feel she knows what a rare mind she has. Her manner can be fierce, almost regal, even though she does her very best to hide the fact that she is likely brighter than the person she is with. You imagine her long ago at private school in Cambridge, Mass., the daughter of a leading Harvard professor -- himself the son of academic Russian emigres -- slowly learning to have patience with her less brainy, less sophisticated classmates. Classmates, maybe, who didn't count artists such as Mark Rothko and Herbert Ferber as part of their social set. Who, perhaps, hadn't won the admiration of a leading man of letters -- as Alpers did one summer in Salzburg when she hung out with poet Randall Jarrell. She was 12 and he was 34.
Alpers says she doesn't remember feeling that her childhood was anything special. Which shows just what a peculiar kid she must have been.
Now, at the other end of an impressive career, Alpers doesn't so much demand a certain deference as seem absolutely used to getting it.
On a late-summer weekend in New York, Alpers received a visiting critic, ushering him into the ninth-floor loft she's been living in for five years. It's tucked up under the roof of a converted factory just off Union Square. (She took early retirement from Berkeley in 1994, accepting the generous golden handshake the university was offering to senior faculty. She'd arrived in 1962 with her then-husband, Paul Alpers, who'd landed a job teaching literature.)
Alpers, a smallish, compact woman, wore a tailored summer suit made of fine cotton that was almost seersucker. She had on thick-soled, two-tone heels that might have been by Prada or some other with-it label. Her hair was gray, worn short with a touch of matronly severity but also with a certain sportiness to it.
Overall, Alpers is more stylish than you might expect for a major scholar of Old Master art. A rigorously modern chair by Mies van der Rohe and a biomorphic table by Isamu Noguchi fill one corner of her loft. They face an aggressive oil painting, of a balding man wedged into the corner of an art gallery, by New Yorker Alexi Worth, an emerging artist Alpers has befriended since her move East. (As he tells it, he grilled her after one of her talks, and she took up his challenge.)
In her retirement, Alpers says, she feels drawn to the world of contemporary artists, and more welcome there than in academia. "I am trying -- and everybody who writes about art would not say this -- to give an account of what the artist does. . . . That probably does strike a note with practicing artists." Whereas, she points out with maybe a touch of bitterness, "many of the academic experts have been disappointed or disturbed by what I write." But then, as Alpers says, "you can't write anything first-rate without getting attacked."
When Alpers's book "Rembrandt's Enterprise" came out in 1988, she faced attacks she hadn't expected. She tells how an old-school Rembrandt connoisseur, who was supposed to write a letter of support for her, demurred: "We're busy cleaning up Rembrandt, and you're messing him up again."
For Alpers, Rembrandt wasn't the sensitive, humane soul of old-fashioned art appreciation. She says the view of Rembrandt that makes most sense to her is as "a kind of tough cookie -- not a nice guy."
Her book portrayed him as an eager participant in the cutthroat mercantile world of 17th-century Holland. The look of his pictures, Alpers argued, relates to ideas about a new kind of man: independent, self-made and entrepreneurial, trading in new types of commodities. In Rembrandt's case, the novel trade goods that will guarantee such capitalist independence -- the painter's independence, in life and art -- are pictures painted in a trademark style that's about the raw material of paint, to which value is visibly added by the master's brush. And they sometimes depict just those freewheeling, self-contained individuals Dutch culture was starting to value -- including Rembrandt the entrepreneur himself, as seen in all those famous and very salable self-portraits.
Alpers's work "gets people's attention," says Perry Chapman, speaking on the phone. She's a leading Rembrandt scholar who just completed a year of research in Washington as a senior fellow at the prestigious Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery. "And it outrages people sometimes. The more you know about the subject, the more you want to argue with either the finer points or the broad conclusions. But it's just so wonderfully provocative, and galvanizing, for the field."
And that's from someone who considers herself more or less opposed to many of Alpers's ideas.
Alpers's latest book should keep up the provocation. "Vexations" begins by addressing the apparently banal fact that artists work in a special space we call the studio and asks us to see that space as another strange and wonderful invention, with consequences for the last 400 or so years of Western art. She draws analogies between the studio and the science lab, and talks about the way the world is probed and tested -- "vexed," in the language of early scientist Francis Bacon -- in both. Severed from the world outside, the studio lets artists bring bits of that outside world into a controlled environment where they can be studied and rethought.
When Rembrandt brings a nude into the studio, Alpers would claim, the painting isn't supposed to be about portraying reality as it's found out in the wild, any more than a petri dish captures the real ecosystem of, say, a toilet seat. The painting is about the strangeness of that "experimental" act, and about using its artificial "vexing" of reality to gain insights into both humanity and art.
Alpers's recent work tends to impress -- or provoke -- by virtue of its complex arguments and subtle observations. Thirty years ago, when she was first making a name, her provocations were rather more direct. Her most famous and contentious move was to debunk the hunt for hidden meaning that for years had dominated the study of Dutch paintings, and that still dominates some museums' wall texts and docent talks about them. She insists that what's visible right there on the surface, analyzed with care and in great depth, is what matters most. We need to "fix our gaze, as the Dutch artists fixed theirs, on the representation of the stuffs and makings in the world rather than searching beneath their surfaces," she once wrote.
To take a painting of feasting peasants by Pieter Brueghel, in which there's revelry and celebration both in the picture's subject and its lively style, and then read it as a finger-wagging, symbol-filled rejection of the heartiness it shows -- as signaling a puritanical, sermonizing rejection of the things of this world -- does obvious violence to the look and feel of the artwork, in Alpers's view. It refuses to acknowledge what the picture itself seems to tell us about how much Dutch artists loved the world around them, and loved depicting it. Even if there were old texts that gave such symbolic readings of Dutch pictures -- and Alpers insists that there aren't, and that the moralizing texts that do get cited were never meant to be applied to art -- they wouldn't be worth paying attention to if they ran counter to what a viewer sees and feels when faced with the work. "What's important is the look of the thing. This is not a verbal artifact, it's a pictorial artifact, and words are secondary to the look of it," Alpers says.
Alpers's radical close looking -- near kin to the close reading she learned while earning a BA in literature at Radcliffe and which, as she points out, her colleagues in English departments have been doing for many decades -- has become something of a model in her discipline.
Last April, when the National Gallery held a two-day symposium in celebration of the 25th anniversary of its center for advanced study, Alpers, once on the center's board, was one invitee. Though the crowd included many of the leading figures in art history, no one else received the deference she did. She mostly kept clear of the glad-handing and networking that other big-name scholars got up to at the event. (Alpers says she isn't "clubbable.") But for all the social distance that she kept, every now and then a speaker at the lectern would look up to where Alpers sat, usually toward the back of the auditorium and often by herself, and ask, "Svetlana, would you tell us what you think?"
Such special respect for her opinion dates from 1983, when Alpers was already well into her Berkeley career. In that year, she published "The Art of Describing," the groundbreaking book that shot her to academic stardom. It was sparked, she says, by a eureka moment in front of a reproduction of a famous Vermeer called "The Art of Painting." (She still keeps a picture of that work above her desk in New York.)
The picture shows an artist at his easel, busily painting a young woman who is crowned with laurel and holds a trumpet and a book, and who poses before a huge map of the Netherlands. But instead of hunting for hidden symbols in all the painting's many obscure details, which would have been the accepted thing to do, Alpers says she began to think "that is not about meaning . . . it's descriptive."
The picture's significance and excellence didn't depend on getting its viewers to catalogue, and then decipher, the "meaning" of the scene that's shown in it: what the book and trumpet symbolize, and what that map is really all about. Instead, Alpers came to see this picture, and the entire realist tradition that it's a part of, as coming out of a culture that paid special attention to looking at the world, and to what our eyes can tell us about it. Her book linked Vermeer and his Dutch peers, busy making pictures that seem designed to capture the fabric of reality, to the early cartographers and microscopists, also Dutch, who were digging deep into the way things are and look.
"I didn't look at Vermeer's 'Art of Painting' and think, 'I'd better get working on cartography.' " That's what your standard social historian of art might have done, after noticing that there's a map in the picture's background. "I thought, 'There's something maplike about that [painting],' then looked at cartography. It was a pictorial insight into the picture, into what Vermeer painted, not a cultural insight. And it always comes back to the painting."
That is, the point of looking at Vermeer's society was to understand the art by understanding how it participated in a larger cultural milieu. To understand, for example, how the incident-filled canvas of a Dutch painter seems to parallel the way Dutch cartographers spread information out across a surface, and how Dutch scientists peered closely at the splendors of nature.
"The Art of Describing," with its new, culture-bound but picture-centric way of looking at paintings, made a huge splash.
A book review by Ernst Gombrich, a towering figure in art history and once a mentor of Alpers's -- he taught briefly at Harvard while she was getting her doctorate there -- had some quite substantial criticism of the work but predicted, quite correctly, that because of it "the study of the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century will be thoroughly reformed and rejuvenated."
Even historian Simon Schama, who took serious issue with many of the book's details, said it had "a pungency and intellectual density that set it apart from the more leisurely and cautious conventions of art historical scholarship" and described the "sudden cold shower" that it brought to the study of Dutch art.
According to Mariet Westermann, an art historian from Holland who is now director of the prestigious Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, Alpers's approach is "extremely influential." Even though "The Art of Describing" is now 20 years old, Westermann says, she still assigns it to her students and would be happy to see them someday extend its methods to new areas: Why not a new, Alpersian study of Japanese art?
Though she faults Alpers for the strength of her polemics -- Alpers's writing often seems spoiling for a fight, and that predisposes other scholars to resist its claims -- Westermann values her colleague "as a great defender of art history as a discipline centrally focused on the visual arts, and not on texts, or on all the other stuff that is brought into it from the outside to explain the art, or give us purchase on the art."
As a historian, Westermann says, Alpers can have her flaws -- rival scholars have pointed them out at vast, sometimes pedantic length. But as an inspired and inspiring looker, there aren't many like her.