Classicism vs Naturalism: French and Dutch art in the 17th century

headshotAs a special treat, I turn my blog over to Annie Whitehead, indieBRAG honouree and author of Alvar the Kingmaker and To Be A Queen. Annie’s novels are set during the Early Medieval period, but her knowledge of history extends centuries beyond her chosen era to include the 17th century.

In this article, she illuminates the differences between two opposing artistic traditions of the 17th century, Classicism and Naturalism. Enjoy!

 Artistically, the period of Richelieu and Mazarin saw the rise of French Classicism. Patronage of the arts was strong; Fouquet (the Superintendent of Finances in France), in particular used his money with exceptional taste. He gathered round him a team of architects, sculptors, painters, poets, dramatists and musicians, who made Vaux-le-Vicomte the greatest art centre of its period, and after his disgrace they became the nucleus of the culture of Versailles.

Nicholas Poussin

Although Classicism and Rationalism were the great invention of the age, culture was not uniform. In the field of painting, different tendencies ranged from the pure classicism of Nicholas Poussin (pictured above) to the naturalism of Louis Le Nain (his Peasant Family is pictured below). Many painters visited Italy and were particularly influenced by Venetian art. Paris was open to influences from Flanders and Holland, which led some artists in the direction of naturalism. The French spirit was, however, strong enough to make out of these elements an art which, though varied, was united in its fundamental principles.

PWI90079 The Peasant Family, 1642 (oil on canvas) by Le Nain, Antoine and Louis (d.1648) & Mathieu (1607-77); 61×78 cm; Louvre, Paris, France; Peter Willi; French, out of copyright

The majority of Dutch painters and the greater part of the public were much less impressed by the achievements of the rest of Europe in art and literature. They had not enjoyed the humanist education and were much less immediately aware of the classical and renaissance heritage, and were consequently hardly conscious of any ‘inferiority’.

The style and content of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century was not dictated or determined by the regents or even by the richer merchants but by the middle levels of society, including even artisans and the more prosperous peasants. Few of the Princes of Orange were notable for their interest in or knowledge of the arts. Protestant Holland had almost no place for official painting. Freed from the patronage and tutelage of the Church of Rome as well as from the shackles imposed by sovereigns and courts, Dutch artists refuted the grand manner together with the restrictions of the traditional iconography.

The Dutch artist was interested in the aesthetic value of his own work, but his main object was to produce works that would that would sell and give him an income from which he could live. Moreover, he did not produce for a small, highly cultivated elite; his work was aimed at his social equals or immediate superiors – artisans, shopkeepers, small tradesmen, modest merchants.

Pieter de Hooch – Woman with a Baby on her Lap

Surprisingly, perhaps, French painting in the seventeenth century produced its most remarkable and typical works not in Paris, but in Rome, since it was in Rome that Poussin and Claude (Lorrain) spent almost the whole of their active lives. In one sense these artists belong not to the French school but to that of Rome or the Mediterranean. Seen from another point of view, however, Poussin at least is the key to the whole later evolution of French art. In him are summed up all the qualities traditionally associated with French Classicism. His influence was to be predominant in French art from his time up to our own, in the sense that many artists took him as their ideal, and an almost equal number reacted against him, which was in itself a tribute to his importance.

Claude Lorrain: La Roman Campagna, 1639

Poussin spent forty years in Rome, but most of his clientèle lived in Paris. As he advanced in age his circle of patrons and friends consisted mainly of merchants and bankers, civil servants and lawyers. The public hailed Poussin’s moral subjects and judicious classicism as a pictorial manifestation of their most cherished ideals.

Poussin: The Inspiration of the Poet (detail), 1630

Of his early paintings, the ‘Inspiration of the Poet’ (detail above) is one in which Poussin obtained complete originality. Here the classicism is so marked that many critics have dated it much later. In the 1630s, he produced a series of paintings with ancient mythology as the theme; the stories of Bacchus, Narcissus, Apollo and Daphne, Venus and Mercury. His love stories are usually sad – Narcissus, Apollo and Daphne- and entirely lacking in any sensual quality. They are treated as themes for elegiac meditation rather than for romantic emotion.

Poussin: Landscape with a Calm

When, in the 1640s, Poussin turned his attention to landscape, (example above) he applied the same methods as for his figure compositions, and the result was ordered and uniform. In the pair of landscapes illustrating the story of Phocion, (shown below) a theme taken from Plutarch, Poussin has built up a landscape of the greatest solemnity, in which the wife collects the hero’s ashes after his unjust condemnation to death. The calm and sombre scene has just the heroic character which the story demands. Poussin manages to apply principles of mathematical order to the confusion on inanimate nature. The spatial composition is carefully planned and mathematically lucid.

Poussin: Burial of Phocion

In the background the houses, temples and rocks all conform to principles of clarity and parallelism. Even the sky falls into the same scheme; it does not lead the eye off to infinity, but is closed by layers of clouds.

 The subjects of paintings were very important to educated critics in the seventeenth century. From this point of view Dutch painting was very deficient: it lacked nobility. The sheer insignificance of the subject matter chosen by Dutch painters surprised many foreign contemporaries. Even Rembrandt was attacked towards the end of the century for the lowness of many of his subjects. Such attitudes are understandable when one considers the emphasis placed in the didactic function of all the arts at this time.

 The real subject matter of the paintings of the Dutch school was the physical world surrounding both the painter and his public. While much of Dutch art was primarily concerned with man in relation to his environment – in peasant pieces, in figures in a landscape – there was a marked tendency, notably in some of the greatest artists, towards making a landscape or the interior itself more important than any figures which might be included. In the landscapes of Jacob van Ruisdael, or Hobbema, (Hobbema’s Avenue at Middelharnis, below) people are often either totally absent or quite insignificant, and the same could be said for many townscapes or church interiors.

Minder Hobbema: Avenue at Middelharnis

Whether the chief subject of Dutch paintings was people, animals or their physical surroundings, the simple everyday nature of the content prevented them from being properly appreciated by men whose approach to the arts was determined by a humanist education of the Renaissance.

Art in France became institutionalised with the founding of the Royal Academy in 1648. The teaching was deeply rooted in Italian art theory. The classical theory, derived from Aristotle, held as its central doctrine that the synthesis accomplished in a work of art must result from a rational and selective process. Sebastien Bourdon said “When a painter has made a drawing from the living model he should make another study of the same figure on a separate sheet and should try to give it the character of an ancient statue.” In the hands of such men, art almost became a logical discipline.

Bourdon: Finding of Moses

Poussin, obsessed by his moral and rational approach to art, clothed his convictions in puritanically severe forms and almost offensively hard colours. He summed up his attitude to art in his letters, in which he said that painting deals with human action, and above all with the most noble and serious human actions. It must present those according to the principles of reason; that is to say, it must show them in a logical and orderly manner, as nature would produce them if she were perfect. Painting should appeal to the mind and not the eye; hence it must not bother with trivialities, such as glowing colour, which is only a sensuous attraction, but must only use colour and light as means of expressing the action of the picture.

Rembrandt’s approach went completely the opposite way. The deeper the feeling, the more silent become his figures. He did not need Poussin’s statuesque figures and classical compositions to express an ecstatic state of mind. In his later pictures there is complete silence; the extremely simple figures melt into space and the whole space seems to vibrate with emotion.

Rembrandt: The Prodigal Son

The Baroque and Classicist styles required of a painter a wider horizon than most Dutch artists possessed. Most of them painted as they did because that was how they had learned to paint. They were ready to modify their basic approach in responses to changes in popular taste, but they were not well equipped for rapid and radical changes in style. They were only imperfectly aware of a wide variety of possible styles and academic traditions and the theories behind them. Secondly, to paint in the complex style demanded by educated taste required a knowledge, particularly of classical mythology, which they neither possessed nor could easily obtain. This is not true of all – as Richard Dunn* pointed out, when Peter Lely went to England he had no trouble affecting an advanced Baroque style and there were artists who painted in Holland who used a Baroque manner. However, they weren’t popular and didn’t sell.

Lely: Boy Dressed as a Shepherd

The terms Baroque and Classicism fail to include the works produced by the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century. The social backgrounds of the Dutch painters and the limited education which they consequently received, meant that they were to a great extent isolated from the artistic fashions dominant in the rest of contemporary Europe.

 The French artist of the seventeenth century symbolised the aims of the Absolutist government, by giving a pictorial manifestation of its principles, namely order by example, in this case classical example. They relied heavily on commissions, and patronage by the bourgeoisie, anxious to conform with the new ideals and culture, whilst gaining personal prestige. The Dutch meanwhile, merely made a living by catering for the tastes of ordinary people. They did not rely on patronage, and took no direction from the principles of a central government. They painted life and nature as they saw it to make a living and they did not aspire to any high-minded ideals.

Vermeer: The Milkmaid

When I was a child, I lived for a short while in a small village in South Limburg, in the Netherlands. Researching this subject, originally as part of my university studies, I stood by the aforementioned Hobbema painting and thought I recognised the landscape. Middelharnis is very near where I used to live, and I can vouchsafe that the landscape had changed little in the intervening 300 years. Naturalism indeed.

Further reading:

Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700 – Anthony Blunt

Culture and Society in the Dutch Republic during the Seventeenth Century – JL Price

And if you can, do, as I did, visit the National Gallery in London.

*Richard Dunn, lecturer and supervisor to whom I originally presented a seminar paper upon which this article is based.

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now. She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. History remains her first love, two periods in particular: Early Medieval, and the 17th century.

For more information about Annie, visit her website, Casting Light upon the Shadow. Her novels, To Be a Queen, and Alvar the Kingmaker are available at Amazon.


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