History of Photography

Dr. Peter Hagerty (PhD)

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History of Photography Studies  
Seminar : The Art of Describing - Dutch 17th century Painting.


Why is Dutch 17th C. painting relevant to any history of photography?


1. Many late nineteenth century photographers cite this school as models for their own practice. Nineteenth century photographers like H.P. Robinson and the marine photographer F.M.Sutcliffe acknowledged their debt to Dutch art. Many pictorialists and symbolist photographers also drew inspiration from it.

2. It is a largely descriptive practice and subjects are from "real life". The work of the Dutch school, it's pictures, both prints and paintings, reflect Dutch society particularly domestic life in an almost documentary style.

3. Painters during this period made superb optical studies of light, notably in the observations of reflection, lustre and the chiaroscuro of light and shadow.

4. Nearly 200 years before the invention of photography, this was the first generation to have good lenses. Astronomy and microscopy are both dependent on the excellence of lenses and mirrors. The camera obscura, without lens, had been used by astronomers since the 15th century to observe eclipses of the sun.

The narrative art of Italy has its defenders, the challenge is to explain the Dutch 17th century art of description.

Svetlana Alpers (1983)


The Dutch astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler is the first to employ the metaphor of "the picture on the back of the retina." He write in his Parolipomena (1604) that,

"Vision is brought about by the picture of the thing seen,

being formed on the concave surface of the retina."

Kepler also writes that:

"Sight itself is distorting [the image is back to front and upside down],

I leave it to the natural philosophers of how it is put together

by the retina and the nerves."


The English writer John Evelyn while visiting Rotterdam in 1641 noted in his diary a description of the popular market in pictures....

"blacksmiths, cobblers etc. will have some picture or other

by their forge or in their stall."

The Dutch were eager to adorn their houses with pictures, the evidence of this is often included in many paintings of the period, for example "The Lacemaker (1664) by Caspar Netscher, where the print on the wall behind the impoverished, young lacemaker suggests that all classes in Dutch society had an interest in prints as decoration and description.


The 17th century was also the beginning of the scientific age


1543 Nicolas Copernicus publishes "Concerning the rotation of the Celestial Spheres" describing a heliocentric model for planetary orbits.

1590 Anton Van Leeunhoek's (Dutch) work leads to the invention of the compound microscope

1600 William Gilbert (British) publishes his great work "The Magnet"

1608 Hans Lippershey (Dutch) invents the telescope

1614 John Napier (British) publishes his first table of logarithms, the original instructions are in latin.

1628 Van Leeunhoek identifies unicellular organisms including spermatozoa.

1628 William Harvey (British) publishes his theory of circulation of blood.

1632 Rembrandt(Dutch) paints "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp".

1633 Galileo (Italy) condemned by the inquisition, recants his support for Copernicus' heliocentric theory.

1637 René Descartes (French) philosopher publishes "Discourse on Method".

1663 Christian Hugens (Dutch) makes the first clock to undergo sea trials.

1664 Robert Boyle (British) publishes "Colouration" the science of dyes and dyeing.

1665 Isaac Newton (British) takes his degree and during the next two years finalises the theory of differential and integral calculus. Wilhelm Liebnitz (Germany) independently invents similar theories of calculus.

1666 Robert Hooke (British) suggests two instruments based on a fixed and a moving mirror for measuring altitudes, the theodolite and the sextant.

Improvements in Printing

During the 16th century the new technology of etching replaced the woodcut. The etching plate has a surface of, for example wax, which is drawn on, marking down to the bare metal. Nitric Acid is then used to eat into the metal surface to produce the furrow or trench.

This is a chemical means of achieving an effect, previously done by hand, cutting away wood (the woodcut) or metal (hand engraving). Chemistry is becoming part of the industrial process.


Dutch Landscape Painting



Constantijn Huygens wrote that the number of good Dutch landscape painters "is so great that it would fill a book".

Representative artists from the early 17th century include:

Myndert Hobbema (1638 -1709) A talented artist who age 30 gave up painting on marrying a burgomaster's maidservant and became a wine gauger. A demonstration of how difficult it was to earn a living in the competitive business of painting.

Philips Konick (1619 - 88) A painter of panoramas over an apparently endless Dutch countryside.

Isack van Ostade (1621 - 49) Beloved of the Christmas card manufacturers

Jacob van Ruisdael (1628 - 82) In a lecture to the Royal Academy the British painter John Constable described him as the "greatest of all Dutch landscape painters"

Essais van de Velde (c.1590-1630) one of the founders of the Dutch school of realistic landscape.

A New Vision


Fromentin (b.1820), a French painter and writer remarks of the following qualities in the Dutch landscape paintings by Jacob van Ruisdael :

1. The circular field of vision.

2. The painters grand eye to everything that lives.

3. An eye with the property of the camera obscura.

It was in such a spirit that Samuel van Hoogstraten could refer to the image cast by a camera obscura as a "truly natural painting."

The purely descriptive quality of Dutch art during this period raised the frequently asked question- Where is the Art- when images are situated at the threshold between the world and our perception of it?


For the 17th C. the assumption was that the discovery of the world and our crafting it are one.

( Alpers,1983)


Dutch Marine Painters


The Dutch also had the taste for pictures which in differing degrees, represented the physical world and extended beyond natural landscape. Particularly marine artists who represented, through painting, Dutch craft for their owners. Some painters further developed the genre to make landscapes of the marine.

Jan van de Cappelle Cappelle's father owned a dyeing business which Jan worked in, he was therefore independently wealthy. Cappelle's style is based on Simon de Vlieger who came to Amsterdam from Nottingham

Albert Cuyp

Jan van Goyen

Jan Porcellis demonstrates the demand and competive nature of the work of marine painting. In 1615 Porcellis agrees to paint 40 boards of marine subjects at 2 boards per day.

Wilhelm van de Velde (the elder) and Wilhelm van de Velde (the younger 1683-1707) Both father and son painted seascapes. Whilhelm, the younger, specialised in portraits of ships. In 1672 the elder moves to London and is employed by Charles II for "taking and making Draughts of seafights" and the younger for "putting the said draughts into colours"; each were paid �100 per year.


The Documenting of Architecture and Townscape.

Alpers also describes the complex relationship of the media of drawing and painting in the visual arts of the period, and describes that

"In many Dutch pictures there is peculiar absorption into each other of painting and drawing that is characteristic of Netherlandish artists." (Alpers,1983)

The English painter Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) in his "Discourses", delivered to the Royal Academy (R.A.) between 1769-89, frequently deprecated Dutch artists saying that their "realism was based on truth to detail and admitted the mean and the commonplace." Reynolds preferred the "ideal" attitude of the great Italian masters of the Renaissance.

In contrast to the British attitude, many contemporary Dutch authors were against Dutch artists "having a manner of their own"

Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) Lived in Amsterdam and notable for painting "every brick" in his architectural subjects. His painstaking technique was learned in apprenticeship to a glass painter. Joshua Reynolds described van der Heyden's work as "A great breadth of Light combined with a very minute finish".... and he "Has very much the effect of nature seen in the camera obscura". He painted more than 100 identified places in Holland as well as Brussels and Cologne. Circa 1660 der Heyden devotes himself to the lucrative business of improving the firefighting procedures and street lighting of Amsterdam n.b.1666 Great Fire of London

Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) painted cool dispassionate views and "devoted himself to painting perspectives, church halls, galleries using elaborate preliminary drawings executed using measurements and plans". Similarly Emmanuel de Witte (b.1618-) painted landscapes and portraits but mainly church interiors his work is characterised by excellent detail and rendition of strong sunlight.


"The point is not that you can not tell Dutch drawings apart but they do practice a notion of correct drawing as much as capturing or receiving what is seen."

(Alpers, 1983)



Painters of Realistic Still Life


Optical realism and the representation of fine surface detail is characteristic of Dutch painting of this period, particularly the genre of still life. representative artists include:

Willem Kalf (1619-93) still life painter notable for "Still Life with Nautilus Cup"(1662)

Jan van Huijsum (1682-1749) still life painter "Hollyhocks and other Flowers in a Vase (1710)

The representation of flowers has continued into the 20th century, notably as models for many photographers, including Karl Blossfeldt and Robert Mapplethorpe.



Genre Painting


"genre"[French]- "of a kind" or "of a sort.

Dutch genre painting refers to pictures of scenes from everyday life. Many pictures may also have had emblematic or moralistic connotations for their 17th century audience, although these are not obvious to a modern viewer. For example Ter Borch's painting "Boy Ridding his dog of Fleas" (1665 ) was part of a series on "The Five Senses" and "Boy Ridding his dog of Fleas" signified touch. Frans van Mieris' "A Lady Looking into a Mirror" (1662) belongs to a tradition of the representation of superbia (the sin of pride) from the series on vanitas or the seven deadly sins.

Jan Steen (1625-79) Steen a painter of everyday life included domestic interiors and also many scenes of low life which "neared debauch" - a very popular subject. "Skittle Players Outside an Inn" (1662), a small glittering panel has a strong documentary quality. Also descriptive is "The Morning Toilet" (1663).

Johannes Vermeer (b.1632 ) The greatest Dutch genre painter of cultural life his works include "The Astronomer" (1668) and "The Geographer". Vermeer was friend of the Dutch biologist Ludwig van Leeuwenhoek a 17th century scientist. Vermeer's painting "Gentleman[music master] and girl with music"(n.d.) includes an illustration of printed music sheets and music is again featured in "Lady sitting at the Virginals"(n.d.). His most famous work "Soldier and Young Girl Smiling" (c.1670) includes a map of Holland on the wall. Most significant in this painting is the foreshortening of the figure closest to the painter, this is attributed, although without evidence, to the use of the camera obscura.

Pieter de Hoogh (1629 - 1665) made many scenes from the comfortable daily life of the Delft middle classes e.g.."The Courtyard of a House in Delft" (1658). There is again no hard evidence of the use of the camera obscura by de Hoogh. It was considered bad faith for a painter to rely on the camera - therefore nobody admits or records it. The camera obscura was seen as the untutored (Dutch) craftsman's shortcut means to perspective.In other words it is only if you can not draw a correct geometric perspective (as the Italians could) that you copy it with the camera obscura.


In summary


During the 17th C. "The camera obscura becomes a source of style." (Alpers,1983)

"The camera obscura is also used as a metaphor by Reynolds and Fromentin to suggest the particular style of Dutch art and how it differs from the established art of Italy and the Academy." (Alpers,1983)

And that there is often a difficulty in telling the work of different artists from each other, "It is as if visual phenomena are captured and made present without the intervention of a human maker." (Alpers,1983)


Further Reading

Alpers S. The Art of Describing, Dutch Art in the 17th Century (London; John Murray,1983)(Penguin 1989)

Harker M. The Linked Ring, The Secession in Photography 1892-1910 (London Heinemann/Royal Photographic Society, 1979)

Harker M. Henry Peach Robinson, Master of Photographic Art 1830-1901 (London; Basil Blackwell,1988)

Hiley M. Frank Sutcliffe: Photographer of Whitby (London; Gordon Fraser, 1974)


History of Photography

Dr. Peter Hagerty (PhD)