The Rhetoric of Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still-Life Painting

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"Comparing realistic still-life paintings to trompe l'oeils, Hanneke Grootenboer shows how deceptive images playfully call attention to the limits of our perception. Challenging our vision, such images invite us to philosophize on the radical yet subtle differences between truth and deception." Connecting contemporary critical theory with close readings of seventeenth-century Dutch still-life, trompe l'oeil, and anamorphic imagery, The Rhetoric of Perspective puts forth the claim that painting is a form of thinking and that perspective functions as the language of the image. Aided by a full-color gallery, Grootenboer demonstrates how these deceptive images skillfully articulate the complexities of the visual and, consequently, gain new relevance in the context of recent interest in visual theory.
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Editorial Reviews

James Elkins
"This is a lucid, sustained meditation on one of the most difficult ideas that the twentieth century produced about painting: that an image is somehow a form of thinking or a model of thought. Grootenboer follows her theme through its tangled genealogy in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, and Damisch, weaving in examples of Dutch still-life painting. This book should be required reading for those interested in the conceptualization of painting."
Christopher S. Wood
"A remarkable book. The Rhetoric of Perspective is one of the soundest pieces of post-structuralist writing that the discipline has produced. The prose is lucid and crisp and, at times, poetic. Grootenboer's reading of these paintings generates a striking argument about perspective with implications far beyond the seventeenth-century Dutch field, indeed beyond disciplines of art history."
Mieke Bal
“One always wonders how a classical subject, so often recounted, analyzed, recast that it becomes boring, can be vitalized and made all exciting again. Grootenboer manages this for Dutch still-life painting with amazing brilliance. This is a profoundly innovative book, bringing both still life painting and the scholarship about it an entirely new second life. A must-read book for all interested in painting.”
Times Literary Supplement - Keith Miller
“The book represents an elegant and honourable synthesis of some difficult writers. It is clear where they are often aggressively theoretical, and reasonable where they are declamatory. It has, in short, the same sort of patient intellectual integrity that Grootenboer attributes to the still-life painters themselves.”
Art Libraries Society of North America - John Hagood
“A fresh turn with the thoughts and methods of Heidegger, Pascal, Barthes, Lacan, and Merleau-Ponty . . . . Tightly focused and yet broadly significant, The Rhetoric of Perspective represents a bold act of ‘historiographic experimentation’. . . . Admirably, the book enacts some of the very traits of its subject — moderation, modesty, and restraint—about specific images that in turn generate a persuasive clarity about greater ideas. Grootenboer advances, in a sterling exposition, the worthy project of understanding the genre of still life. . . . A book respectable in every detail.”
Times Literary Supplement
The book represents an elegant and honourable synthesis of some difficult writers. It is clear where they are often aggressively theoretical, and reasonable where they are declamatory. It has, in short, the same sort of patient intellectual integrity that Grootenboer attributes to the still-life painters themselves.”

— Keith Miller

Art Libraries Society of North America
A fresh turn with the thoughts and methods of Heidegger, Pascal, Barthes, Lacan, and Merleau-Ponty . . . . Tightly focused and yet broadly significant, The Rhetoric of Perspective represents a bold act of ‘historiographic experimentation’. . . . Admirably, the book enacts some of the very traits of its subject — moderation, modesty, and restraint—about specific images that in turn generate a persuasive clarity about greater ideas. Grootenboer advances, in a sterling exposition, the worthy project of understanding the genre of still life. . . . A book respectable in every detail.”

— John Hagood

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226309705
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 246
  • Sales rank: 1,085,436
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Hanneke Grootenboer is lecturer in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.

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Read an Excerpt

Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30968-2

Chapter One

Introduction: Realism and the Problem of Description in Diderot and Schopenhauer

In 1636 Pieter Claesz. painted Little Breakfast (plate 1). A table covered with green and white cloth displays a modest arrangement: a pewter plate holding a herring cut in pieces, another plate with some pepper, and a wafer glass with beer. On the right side of the table lies a roll of freshly baked bread, flanked by a crushed hazelnut shell and, on the left side, a knife, its handle projecting over the table's edge. While the meal of fish and bread is an austere one, the table is neatly covered: the white cloth is impeccably clean and well ironed, as the trim creases reveal. The breakfast is simple, the display sober. That is all there is.

What is to be seen here? What does this still life have to offer us, aside from a well-composed view of essentially nothing? The table with its humble objects is surrounded by an empty background of an indefinable color, lacking any signs that might signify its being a wall. We may assume that the table is situated indoors, and that it is placed against a wall; but it could just as well be floating in some indefinite no-man's-land. Lacking a view of the table legs, there is no indication of where, or even if, the table is grounded. Moreover, the monochrome colors of the painting underscore the futility of the presentation, as if the painting wishes to excuse itself for the simplicity of its performance.

This painting does not seem well equipped to confront us with a typical dilemma from art history. In fact, however, it very effectively encompasses debates in Anglo-Saxon art history regarding the question of whether banal daily life objects should be considered primarily symbolic or primarily realistic. Clearly not telling a story, Little Breakfast is purely descriptive, merely providing an effect of the real, to use Barthes's famous phrase. As critical studies of this panel have shown, notmuchcan be said about Claesz.'s serene painting, precisely because there is so little to see. We are thus left with the question of the significance of this panel's insignificance.

Still lifes in general, and Claesz.'s breakfast in particular, possess the rare quality of raising the issue of the nature of their own representation. Their combination of a high level of lifelikeness, an absence of narrative, a shallow space, and an almost serene silence have filled scholars and writers throughout the ages with mixed feelings of admiration and irritation-admiration because of the artist's virtuosity in rendering a nearly perfect image of reality, and irritation because the image has nothing more to offer than a meticulously painted recording of meaningless daily life objects. Such discussions of still lifes offer us interesting examples of how they have confronted scholars with the simple yet disturbing question of what still lifes are "about."

Significantly, this is a question that traditionally has remained largely unaddressed in most writings, especially before Ingvar Bergström's Dutch Still-Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century, published in English in 1953. Two such analyses that I will consider, which confirm the way in which still lifes have provoked viewer reactions that sharply contrast with responses to other genres, are Denis Diderot's reaction to the still lifes of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in the Salon of 1765 and Arthur Schopenhauer's irritation toward Dutch breakfast still lifes in his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation (1818). Both philosophers are representatives of (and partly responsible for) the dominant discourse that, until just a few years ago, silenced still lifes rather than opening them up to discussion.

These two instances of still lifes' appearance in art theoretical writings also raise the issue of realism in a particularly interesting way. Diderot finds himself speechless in front of Chardin's still lifes because of their natural description of reality. His response introduces the problem of the status of narrative painting relative to descriptive painting, which I will discuss in light of his notion of the "hieroglyph" and its relation to peripateia. By contrast, Schopenhauer's disapproval of Dutch breakfast paintings derives from his extreme bodily reaction to their naturalness, "proving" the characteristic truthfulness of breakfast still lifes: they strongly appeal to a realistic mode of reading that considers the painted as real. I present both texts here to elaborate how the non-narrative still-life genre foregrounds the problematics of realism.

Diderot and the Failure of Words

In 1759 Denis Diderot began to write about the Salon exhibitions that were held in the Louvre in Paris every two years. Diderot's art critiques were published in the Correspondance Littéraire, an exclusive journal with a small elite group of subscribers who lived outside of France. Given that his handful of readers were not able to see the artworks on display in the Louvre, Diderot took up a most ambitious enterprise in attempting to offer his readers full descriptions as substitute. For that purpose, he invented what he called the hieroglyph. The hieroglyph is a textual vehicle that was supposed to transmit Diderot's immediate viewing experience when standing in front of the artworks in the Louvre to the imagination of his readers. The hieroglyphs-detailed descriptions punctuated with Diderot's intensely personal, often highly emotional response to artworks-were intended to evoke mental images that Diderot called tableaux. Such tableaux, or paintings, would emerge before the mind's eye of his reader as substitutes for the actual artworks. In the course of reading, Diderot's hieroglyph was supposed to efface itself in order to serve solely as a transparent channel for the tableaux, or mental images.

Attempting to capture in words a material work of art in all its aspects, Diderot loses himself in endless digressions that include thorough ekphrases, philosophical reflections, literary intermezzos, and highly personal affective responses. The result is that the reader of the Salons can easily do without the original artwork from which Diderot's flow of words springs. In fact, the artworks themselves often turn out to be shockingly boring in comparison to Diderot's fascinating hieroglyphs. An exceptionally gifted writer, Diderot's verbal caprioles eloquently and effectively compete with the pictures inspiring them. Regardless of how prosaic, playful, and picturesque his descriptions may be, however, they ultimately remain incapable of fully translating a picture into words. So, in the course of writing the Salons, Diderot admits that language, when faced by painting, is doomed to fail in immediacy. Such explicit confessions notwithstanding, Diderot's persistent lengthy digressions could be read as implicitly continuing to argue for the superiority of language over painting.

There is one instance in the Salon of 1765, however, when Diderot finds himself speechless in front of a work of art. Considering still lifes by Chardin, he suddenly loses his ability to digress. The brilliant writer, who, brimming with enthusiasm, easily dwells on a landscape painting (by Joseph Vernet, for instance) for over twelve pages, sees himself confronted with some crockery and fruit, the beauty and realism of which take not only his breath away but apparently his words as well. He praises Chardin's creations for their unequaled color and perfect harmony, but he can only offer his readers a poor substitute:

I am going to say one thing about Chardin, and here it is: select a spot, arrange the objects on it just as I describe them, and you can be sure you'll have seen this picture.

Without even trying to create a hieroglyph, Diderot proceeds to describe several of Chardin's works by merely naming the objects they display. Hardly anywhere in his Salon of 1765 is his writing so plain and formal as it is here. Notwithstanding his thoughts on the superiority of language over painting, Diderot acknowledges defeat in front of Chardin's canvases, resisting any possible inclinations to overcome his speechlessness. Indeed, he refuses to shift to a more suitable register of language, a flexibility he has demonstrated extensively in other commentaries and that could have assisted him in "finding" words. Considering Diderot's amazing capacity for producing text, his incapacity to write on Chardin's still lifes is suspect, to say the least. His resistance is all the more surprising if we realize that Chardin, whom Diderot calls "the greatest magician," is one of his favorite painters. The problem is that Chardin's still lifes pose a serious threat to Diderot's hieroglyphic system of writing because they are purely descriptive.

Diderot's invention of the hieroglyph relies heavily on the notion of peripateia in painting, the arrested single moment, or "pregnant moment," as Gotthold Lessing calls it, representing the entire story in one scene. Both Lessing and Diderot explain the arrested moment in painting as a combination of not one but two instances of visualization. The first moment of visualization concerns the painter, who has only an instant at his disposal, "no longer than the blink of an eye," that is supposed to convey the entire story. According to Diderot, peripateia is effective only when the viewer can "absorb the picture with a blink of his eye." Similarly, Lessing writes that the pregnant moment as well as the point from which it is viewed, if correctly chosen, ought to give the viewer free rein to the imagination: "The more we see, the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see." Diderot's hieroglyph is closely related to the pregnant moment insofar as it is his desire to see "more" that drives him to digress.

Despite his admiration for Chardin, Diderot cannot possibly elaborate on his work because still life lacks peripateia. Still-life painting presents, in fact, the opposite of a pregnant moment: it is not a frozen moment in time, precisely because time does not seem to pass in the spectacle it puts on display. A basket with strawberries or a plate with peaches will remain just as they are, and their staging assumes neither that there exists a moment "before" nor a moment "after." Still life presents objects in a purely deictic way, so the only thing that Diderot can say about them is that they are "there." Moreover, duration in still life is simultaneously a representation of what it endures, namely, time. Chardin's simple depictions of fruit and kitchen utensils present an image of time, as if they were painted stills, similar to a film still. Whereas landscape painting shares with still life its non-narrativity, Diderot shows us that it fundamentally differs from still life because it does provide the viewer a space and a time in which to dwell. In a famous section, entitled "Promenade Vernet," Diderot gives himself over to a "walk"-for more than forty pages-"in" Vernet's landscape paintings. The fact that still life is purely descriptive and thus lacks any narrative does not suffice as an explanation for Diderot's remarkable silence with regard to Chardin. If he can create a story out of a non-narrative landscape, then what is it in still life that resists being forced into a temporal structure?

In literary theory, description often has been considered to be the handmaid of narrative. Mieke Bal dismantles this logocentric hierarchy between narrative and description by arguing that every description is a narrative. She prefers to approach signs of the real not by assigning them to a category, such as description, but as elements within narration. This tactic may indeed be applicable to non-narrative landscape painting. Diderot, however, reveals that the still-life genre resists Bal's argument by refusing to be turned into a narrative. The signs of the real cannot function within narration, because still lifes do not tell a story. Indeed, while most descriptions in Diderot's Salons are turned into hieroglyphs and therefore contain a temporal structure that is reflected in the production of text, Chardin's still lifes actually arrest Diderot's continuing flow of words. Chardin's images are unchanging, they endure, and for that reason can neither be turned into a hieroglyph nor captured in a temporal narrative structure. Diderot's failing words betray that the complexity of still lifes resides precisely in the difficulty of saying something about them to begin with. I believe that what still lifes communicate is not a story, but a theory, that is, a form of thinking in visual terms.

Schopenhauer's Appetite

Half a century after Diderot's description of Chardin's still lifes, Schopenhauer discusses still lifes in an entirely different manner in The World as Will and Representation, but is likewise confronted with a truth in painting that disturbs him. He first mentions the Dutch still life as an example of pure objective observation. These still lifes encompass for the philosopher the peacefulness and silence reminiscent of the mood of the artist, who must have lost himself in the reproduction of his own scrutinized observation of these objects. This peaceful silence elevates the viewer and offers him the opportunity to escape from his enslavement to the will by placing himself in a situation of pure knowing. The will is for Schopenhauer the impulse that slavishly drives human action and reason, imprisoning man in the suffering it causes. The only way out of human suffering is to free oneself from the will, an escape that is enabled by aesthetic contemplation.

In general, Schopenhauer seems to highly appreciate Dutch still lifes as ways of escaping from the enslavement to the will, yet he finds great fault with the representation of edibles typical of Dutch breakfast painting. Attempting to formulate the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, Schopenhauer suggests that the sublime finds its genuine opposite in what he calls "the charming." The charming lures the beholder away from pure contemplation (Schopenhauer's ideal state of mind) because it promises immediate gratification and thus agitates rather than elevates the will. Schopenhauer knows only two examples of the charming in the entire history of art. It goes without saying that the painted nude is an outstanding example of the charming, distracting the viewer from contemplating the beautiful by arousing feelings of lust. More surprisingly, however, Schopenhauer's second example concerns the breakfast still life:

The one species, a very low one, is found in the still life painting of the Dutch, when they err by depicting edible objects. By their deceptive appearance these necessarily excite the appetite, and this is just a stimulation of the will which puts an end to any aesthetic contemplation of the object. Painted fruit is admissible for it exhibits itself as a further development of the flower, and as a beautiful product of nature through form and color, without our being positively forced to think of its edibility. But unfortunately we often find, depicted with deceptive naturalness, prepared and served-up dishes, oysters, herrings, crabs, bread and butter, beer, wine, and so on, all of which is wholly objectionable. [italics mine]

The work of Claesz., Heda, and other painters of laid tables is here declared anti-aesthetic, because the dishes are so naturally rendered that they make Schopenhauer's mouth water in spite of himself. In his attempt plainly to dismiss these paintings as art, Schopenhauer explicitly compliments the artists on their ability to render their set tables with extreme realism. For Schopenhauer (who wrote his masterwork before the invention of photography), the truth he finds in breakfast still lifes is so strong that it directly affects his body. It is not the edibles themselves, however, that arouse Schopenhauer's appetite so much as their "deceptive appearance."

The breakfast still life thus serves as the example par excellence of bad art, barricading the pathway to beauty by means of its realism. At the same time, other still lifes are foregrounded as instances of the peacefulness that an elevated mind can experience by means of an equal level of realism in portraying meaningless objects. Schopenhauer thus celebrates the realism typical of Dutch still life, but only insofar as it is a painted lifelikeness. When, in his perception, the realism of edibles seems to cross the border between the painted and the real, he despises their banality. This dualism in Schopenhauer's discussion both echoes the general opinion of art theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and anticipates current art historical debates regarding the significance of realism and the dilemma of whether realistically, unmotivated objects in painting should be considered as real, or as symbols that mask meaning.


Excerpted from THE RHETORIC OF PERSPECTIVE by HANNEKE GROOTENBOER Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : the thought of painting 3
Ch. 1 The invisibility of depth : Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, and the lure of painting 21
Ch. 2 Truth in breakfast painting : Horror Vacui versus the void and Pascal's geometrical rhetoric 61
Ch. 3 The rhetoric of perspective : Panofsky, Damisch, and anamorphosis 97
Ch. 4 Perspective as allegorical form : Vanitas painting and Benjamin's allegory of truth 135
Conclusion : the look of painting 167
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