Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 10, 2017
Thijs Weststeijn Art and Antiquity in the Netherlands and Britain: The Vernacular Arcadia of Franciscus Junius (1591–1677) Leiden: Brill, 2015. 452 pp.; 178 ills. Cloth $161.00 (9789004283619)

Thijs Weststeijn’s Art and Antiquity in the Netherlands and Britain: The Vernacular Arcadia of Franciscus Junius (1591–1677) is a well-researched, thoughtful, and timely argument for the seminal role played by the various versions of Franciscus Junius’s The Painting of the Ancients in Three Books or, in Latin, De pictura veterum libri tres (1637) within the history of early modern Netherlandish art theory and also in the broader European tradition. As Weststeijn shows, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Junius’s text was read and quoted widely across Europe, whether in its Latin, English, or Dutch iteration. Yet, while the English version has received some academic attention in recent years, the Latin and Dutch have been rather neglected, perhaps because of a certain scholarly reticence about the importance of art theory in early modern Netherlandish culture. To correct this, Weststeijn’s chief focus is on Junius’s Dutch version, but he frames his study by carefully situating this author in the distinct yet overlapping early modern worlds of the “Republic of Letters” and the “Republic of Painting.” This, then, is not a book simply about Netherlandish art theory but rather about how that discourse developed in relation to others such as philology, rhetoric, antiquarianism, the merits of vernacular writing, art collecting, gentlemanly conversation, and workshop practice. Moreover, Weststeijn wisely situates his work neither in England nor in Holland but rather in between, in the dense early modern commercial and cultural networks that were centered on the southern reaches of the North Sea yet extended to Spain and Italy in the south and to Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden in the north.

Such a composite approach, which foregrounds social networks and discursive confluences, is an apposite way of exploring Junius’s work. In part, the Latin text is a compilation, a kind of commonplace book in which the author gathered together under his own distinct headings all that he could find about art in ancient texts, ranging from Homer and the Old Testament to the Philostrati and late medieval Patristic works. At the same time, Junius both adapted and commented upon these passages, sometimes paraphrasing or even misquoting them creatively to fit his own aims. Besides, as Weststeijn demonstrates with commendable care, Junius’s two vernacular versions are not simply translations of the original Latin. Especially the Dutch edition of 1641, written in Junius’s native language, was much augmented; it is forty-five pages longer than the first English version, published in 1638. This includes a number of new quotations, culled from authors such as Xenophon, Horace, Seneca, and Quintilian. But there are also new points, such as a comparison of the rules of art to those of navigation and a disquisition on the etymology of the Dutch word for painting (“schilderen”) as having its roots in shield-decoration (“schild-cieraet”). At the same time, in this version Junius practiced a certain self-censorship by removing all references to depictions of Christ so as not to offend Dutch Reformed sensibilities.

Weststeijn’s arguments are satisfyingly complex, and it is thus difficult to do them justice in a short summary. First, the introduction asserts that Junius’s work is “a key to the interplay between philology and the art of painting in the seventeenth century” (7). As a central agent in that play, Junius was unable to conceive of the art of his age as somehow modern, as distinct from or even opposed to the classical tradition. Instead, it was “Antiquity . . . redigested and Arcadia . . . relocated to the shores of the North Sea” (6). This sets up one of Weststeijn’s core arguments: that Junius’s treatise elucidates nothing less than the conceptual framework for the lifelike or mimetic qualities powerfully associated with early modern Netherlandish painting, both then and in modern scholarship. Chapter 1 locates the origins of Junius’s Latin text in his employment as secretary and curator for Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel. Howard was undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated collectors of art in seventeenth-century England, a patron of Dutch and Flemish artists and an antiquarian of some ability himself. It was this distinct environment which generated Junius’s engagement with ancient art theory; it was a way of bestowing intellectual weight on Howard’s collecting. Weststeijn’s second chapter focuses on Junius’s texts themselves, exploring in detail their various formats and arguments and also their impact on later Dutch art theorists such as Samuel van Hoogstraten and Gerard de Lairesse.

Chapter 3, one of the most fascinating parts of the book, addresses the close relationship between Junius’s own search for appropriate vernacular terms for art theory and the broader philological engagement with Germanic languages that developed in northern Europe in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This chapter closes with a perceptive discussion of Johannes Rysbrack’s sculptures of Saxon gods for the park at Stowe as a late outcrop of this tendency. The fourth chapter then traces how Junius’s ideas were further disseminated by his close friend and brother-in-law, the well-known scholar Gerardus Vossius. In 1650 Vossius published a didactic treatise entitled De graphice, sive de arte pingendi, much of which was based on Junius’s work. Finally, in chapter 5, Weststeijn considers how Junius conceptualizes the act of viewing as a meeting of minds on the surface of the painting, in which the viewer must seek to recreate the original experiences of the painter. Viewing is thus to be an active and imaginative endeavor. Across all of these chapters, Weststeijn is not just engaged with Junius’s text but also with how it helps to elucidate certain key works of Dutch seventeenth-century painting. For example, there is a sustained and persuasive analysis of Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661–62) as a work made in a suitably rustic “Germanic” style, to fit with the subject matter and also with the new Teutonic philology.

In general, the thematic structure of the book works well, but there are a few problems. For example, it is strange to give first mention of Thomas Howard’s recusant connections in the conclusion. The fact that both of his parents were committed Roman Catholics—and that his mother, the redoubtable Anne Dacre, deplored his conversion even as she understood that it was essential for restoring the family fortunes—meant that Howard had to fabricate a kind of alternative ancestry via his art collecting. The argument in chapter 1 would have been strengthened considerably had it been acknowledged straightaway that this was one of the motivations behind Howard’s engagement with the arts. It would also make much more sense of Weststeijn’s discussion of the famous portrait by Daniel Mytens, where Howard is posed in front of a fine collection of antique sculptures.

Weststeijn’s analysis of this work, together with that of Howard’s wife, Alethea Talbot, points to another avenue which the book could fruitfully have explored: that of gender. Weststeijn sees the two portraits as evidence that the collecting of ancient and modern art were of equal concern to the couple. That, however, would fly in the face of standard early modern attitudes, whereby masculinity was almost invariably privileged over femininity. To this it should be added that Junius’s own text is replete with gendered language: as Weststeijn notes, in painting he condemns “effeminate embellishment” and excessive color and proposes instead that brushwork should be “masculine,” ideally tending toward the monochrome (184). Although this point runs as a theme through much of the book, it is never openly addressed, and this is a pity, given that Weststeijn has offered thoughtful arguments elsewhere about color and gender in Dutch art theory (“The Gender of Colors in Dutch Art Theory,” Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Frits Scholten, and Perry Chapman, eds., Nederlands Yearbook for History of Art 62 (2012): 177–201).

In sum, Weststeijn’s book offers much thought-provoking textual and visual analysis, but perhaps there is still a sense that too much is claimed for Junius. Indeed, his work set an important precedent for writers ranging from Giovanni Pietro Bellori to Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Yet the main focus of Weststeijn’s book is still on narrative paintings, with only a few forays into genre, portraiture, and landscape, and very limited reference to still life. As this implies, Junius’s theories cannot be made to subtend all of the Dutch “art of describing,” the phenomenal output of non-narrative painting across the early modern period, although Weststeijn suggests that this was so (297). Perhaps the problem is precisely in numbers: the levels of painterly production in the so-called Dutch Golden Age were so high that it is impossible to fit all of it into one overarching theoretical system. That said, Weststeijn has shown convincingly that there was a lively and richly complex Latin and vernacular tradition of art theory in and around the early modern Netherlands, and, in that, he has made an important contribution.

Margit Thøfner
Research Associate, Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia