The Rhetoric of Perspective

“On the left is Gijsbrechts’s Cabinet of Curiosities With an Ivory Tankard, painted from the front; on the right the same subject reworked, showing the back of the door” – Richard Dorment

Quotes from Grootenboer, Hanneke. The Rhetoric of Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in 17th century Dutch Still-Life Painting. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

p. 3

“The discovery of perspective has created a clear-cut caesura between the appearance of reality and the reality of appearance. Perspective makes a particular claim to truth.”

p. 6

“Still life has a particular investment in the ‘art of describing’ because it is purely descriptive: literally nothing distracts from the objectifying representation of mere objects. Not intending to tell as story or communicate a message, still life calls attention to the mere recording of objects, or rather to the artist’s scrutinizing gaze upon these objects. Still life invites us to look at the overlooked, to use Norman Bryson’s phrase, and show how still-life artists were looking for the overlooked as well. They picture the margins of their visual fields, or rather they show scenes that would normally reside in the margins of a major painting. Still-life artists have promoted what used to be called ‘by-work’ in narrative pictures into an independent form of painting.”

p. 8

“His [Gijsbrechts] famous chantourne, a cutout panel of a painter’s easel offers commentary on the status of representation as well as on the provocation of the viewer.” Gijsbrechts paints the same subject over and over revealing “a fascination with the subject matter as much as a preoccupation with recording it.”

p. 15

Why were the Dutch creating such realistic paintings?

“The Dutch genres exhibit a preoccupation with new developments in the science of vision and are themselves like experiments: painting as a mirror, or a map, or the visual world.”

p. 5

“Dutch still lifes in particular are especially preoccupied with virtually scientific modes of describing inanimate objects, flowers, shells, fruits, and other edibles. The genre is a product of Dutch seventeeth-century culture and its expressed fascination with observing and recording reality in a variety of circumstances. The science of vision flourished in the Netherlands, and its investigations resulted in new technologies, such as the microscope and the camera obscura, just as the Golden Age was drawing to a close. The Dutch also were pioneers in mapmaking, another mode of recording the world. Research in sciences other than optics, such as botany, called for scientific modes of illustrating plants and flowers at different stages of growth ad vivum, from life. In the field of philosophy, epistemological questions were approached in the context of optical and technological developments. Within this cultural environment, Dutch artists made meticulously detailed recordings of the visible world their specialty. Painters specialized in particular subject matter and became masters in the representation of church interiors, exotic fruit and flowers, cityscapes, shells, and so forth. The paintings of the Golden Age are testimonies to this preoccupation with a scientific mode of observing and describing every thinkable detail of the visible world.”

p. 19

Still life paintings call “for a different mode of looking. The still life anticipates such a mode of looking by raising issues concerning the nature of its own representation, which do not lead us, as viewers, to interpretation but to a state that is most thought-provoking, namely, thinking.”


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