“In forgoing to emulate reality,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in 1925, “painting becomes what it authentically is.” Cubist works and paintings in the other nonfigurative movements that emerged during his lifetime presented “an image, an unreality” — not an imitation of the world but a world unto itself.
Gasset was writing about the increasingly abstract designs of his day, but his remark is surprisingly relevant to a body of work often dismissed as dully documentary: the art of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, with its emphasis on the quiet scenery of everyday life. As art critic Laura Cumming laments in “Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life and Sudden Death,” the still lifes and domestic tableaux of the period have long been dismissed as mere mimicry. Scholars and critics alike have maintained that they are not exercises in invention so much as attempts at “transcription.” But, Cumming protests, what about Rachel Ruysch’s woodland scenes, in which plants that bloom in different seasons nonetheless burst into blossom simultaneously? What about Jacob van Ruisdael’s “The Jewish Cemetery,” which embellishes a “real graveyard” with a wild fantasy of “rainbows, ravening clouds, black water and stricken oaks?”
Dutch paintings, Cumming writes, are not only fictions: They are also “sacraments, or hymns to everyday existence.” They eulogize objects as prosaic — yet as unexpectedly voluptuous — as vegetables and fruit. Adriaen Coorte’s astonishing painting of two “lunar” peaches, luminous against a dark backdrop, is so lavishly attentive to its subject that the fruit seems otherworldly.
Many Dutch paintings are encomia to cities, particularly Delft, where so many of the greatest artists lived and worked. No cobblestone goes unnoticed or uncelebrated. “The washed doorstep, the gleaming flagstone, all those strange ascending steps of the Dutch gable roofs that look like stairways to heaven: the paintings praise every inch.” And plainly, a song of praise does not just reproduce reality: It reinvents it, overlaying truth with the ornament of adoration.
Cumming’s father, the renowned Scottish painter James Cumming, once told her, “Paintings are not substitutes … they are something else altogether.” They are, Cumming concludes, “a land in themselves, a society, a place to be.” “Thunderclap” is her attempt to inhabit their strange and sublime domain.
Part homage to her father and part critical study of Dutch painting, Cumming’s genre-spanning book is first and foremost a biography. Its elegiac meanderings return time and time again to the figure of Carel Fabritius. Taxonomized by art historians as the “missing link” between Rembrandt (in whose workshop he apprenticed) and Vermeer (who owned three of his works), Fabritius is an enigmatic painter — and a master in his own right, as Cumming demonstrates in her tender readings of his work.
She first became captivated by his elusive style when she discovered his small and exacting masterpiece, “A View of Delft, With a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall” (1652), in the National Gallery in London. The painting “shows a man seated in deep shadow at the corner of two streets, thumb to chin and fingers crooked as if nursing the remains of a cigarette, eyes down and pensive; waiting. Two musical instruments lie next to him on a table,” a lute and a viola. Across from him are the spires of the city. The painting is realist yet disconcerting, with “the atmosphere of a memory or a waking dream.” Later, Cumming learned that it was initially intended to be viewed through a perspective box, a device with a peephole that made the images appear three-dimensional. But when she first happened upon her lodestar, she was in her early 20s and new to the city. What mattered to her was that the man, existing somehow apart from the business of life, echoed her own solitude.
About Fabritius’s life, vanishingly little is known. He was born in February 1622, in the small hamlet of Middenbeemster, during the viciously cold “Little Ice Age” that sheathed the Netherlands in a glassy frost. He first married when he was 19, around the time he moved to Amsterdam to begin his tutelage in Rembrandt’s studio. But his wife and two of their three infant children soon died, and he returned to his hometown bereft. His third child perished shortly thereafter. He remarried and moved to Delft in 1650 only to die four years later, a casualty of the catastrophic 1654 explosion caused by a store of gunpowder and known as the Delft Thunderclap. Only about a dozen of Fabritius’s paintings survived, and he was forgotten until the 1800s, when the French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger fell in love with what is now his best-known painting, “The Goldfinch.”
His milieu is better understood than his life, and it was mad for beauty. “Somewhere between 1.3 and 1.4 million paintings were produced by between 600 and 700 painters in not quite two decades at the mid-century,” Cumming writes. People of all classes bought art, and hung it everywhere. “A recent study of Golden Age Leiden” reveals that a printer had “seventy paintings all over his home, from the cellar to the kitchen and on up to the attic.” A doctor and scientist displayed 172 paintings in his house, a brewer 237. Fabritius lived in a society that was positively steeped in pictures. He and his contemporaries did not just see their world: They also saw each other seeing it.
Cumming does not live in nearly as sophisticated a visual culture, but she is a defiant aesthete, and her life is likewise measured in paintings. “Thunderclap” is an autobiography in images that doubles as a tour through the art of the Dutch Golden Age, with the aid of lush reproductions. Cumming begins with the snowscape hanging on the wall of her childhood classroom in Edinburgh, a bustling painting by Hendrick Avercamp: “Look at these people tumbling and skittering and even dancing, eating and holding their family gatherings in the ice-white air: everything they do is heroic.” Later, she and her parents visited the Netherlands, where her father had a fellowship. The family who hosted them gave her a small reproduction of a country scene with a windmill. This image turned out to be from a painting by Jacob van Ruisdael, whose landscapes are pierced with beams of light and stitched with “storm-dark” rivers.
Cumming’s gentle, meditative prose is itself an evocation of the hushed world of the art she loves. Her writing is soft and Sebaldian, with long, lulling sentences. And of course it contains a whole gallery of verbal images, in addition to pictures of paintings. A walnut is twined into “cerebral folds.” A fan casts “stuttering shadows” on the wall. The moon on one sweltering summer night looks like “a fiery peach.” She writes that the work of Jan van Goyen, the great Dutch painter of waterways and oceans, is cast in a “muted glow,” imbued by what the art historian Henry van de Waal calls a “mood of subduedness.” Cumming’s style is also imbued with this mood, and we glimpse the art she discusses through its gauze.
Thus “Thunderclap” does what Fabritius’s sibylline scenes do: It does not redescribe so much as reimagine. Good criticism, like good art, does not leave the world intact. It, too, provides a shimmering new place where we can live and look.
Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post.
A Memoir of Art and Life and Sudden Death
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