Art of the Everyday
Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel
By Ruth Bernard Yeazell
Princeton University Press – £34.95
There’s something about the way Art of the Everyday has been written, which takes the reader right inside the canvas of Dutch painting. Upon reading two chapters in particular, ‘Low Genre and High Theory’ and ‘Proust’s Genre Painting,’ one feels so immersed within the writing, that by proxy, the paintings themselves feel almost within reach. It’s as if one is no longer reading about art, but rather, within the art itself.
Might this be because of the nature of Dutch painting? Or the genre of writing, which in this book at least, it is so eloquently compared?
Ruth Bernard Yeazell has gone along way into making us realise, as well as understand, the nigh binary correspondence between Dutch art and the realist novel – two entirely different mediums of artistic expression, which somehow, reflect the other by way of abstract contrast and sympathetic connection. Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid for instance, could just as easily have stepped out of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles; while assorted characters in Marcel Proust’s Albertine Disparu read as if they belong in the same room as Gerrit Dou’s The Spinner’s Grace.
Such comparison, is given considerable thought, when in ‘The Novel As Dutch Painting,’ Yeazell writes: ‘’Broadly understood, of course, the domesticity of Dutch painting was one of the principal reasons why it became a paradigm for novels on both sides of the Channel – their common subject matter perhaps owing something to the fact that seventeenth-century Dutch artists, unlike their Italian counterparts, characteristically worked, as novelists did, at home. But like British novels after them, Dutch paintings were particularly influenced by the ideals of household virtue and marital companionship that began to circulate in the domestic conduct books of seventeenth-century Europe – many of which, as it happened, first travelled to Holland from England.’’
As this scholarly and (thankfully) audacious, yet highly readable book makes clear, there is indeed an evident linearity that runs betwixt the realist novel and Dutch Art. Having spent a great deal of my childhood in Amsterdam, I regularly visited the Rijksmuseum and stood in awe at what I saw before me. Upon reflection, the most pronounced quality was and still is, the uncluttered simplicity of Dutch art. So much of it remains inadvertently recognisable, which to a degree, reinforces said simplicity by simply consigning it to that of memory.
When the authoress writes in the aforementioned chapter ‘Proust’s Genre Painting,’ the above is invariably clarified and expanded upon: ‘’If Balzac’s tale implies that art resembles memory by capturing images of our past lives in paint, Proust’s essay reverses the direction of the comparison and suggests that memory itself sometimes works like a Dutch painter. And what we remember at such times are not distinctive scenes but typical ones: while the decisive moments in our histories are presumably memorable by virtue of their difference from our customary routines, we can only preserve the dailiness of the past, the essay implies, by both selecting and generalising – fusing a number similar scenes or acts in the representative images that constitute ‘the Dutch painting of our memory.’ These are the genre paintings in the mind’s picture gallery because they are ‘’without solemn events, sometimes without events at all’’ […].’’
Replete with seventeen colour plates and fifty-five black and white figures, let there be no doubt that Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel is an august, and extraordinary contribution to the world of literary theory and the art-historical.