Samuel van Hoogstraten: Perspective and Painting Christopher Brown, David Bomford, Joyce Plesters and John Mills

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National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 11, 1987

Samuel van Hoogstraten: Perspective and Painting

Christopher Brown, David Bomford, Joyce Plesters and John Mills


Christopher Brown

The artist

The mechanics of the Dutch art market in the seventeenth century encouraged artists to specialize: having established a reputation as a painter of still-life or landscape, for example, an artist would tend to paint only that subject and indeed to repeat with only slight variations particularly successful compositions. Samuel van Hoogstraten, the artist of the National Gallery's ‘Peepshow’ (No. 3832; Fig.1 and Platei 1, p.64), was one of the exceptions (note 1). We know genre scenes, portraits, architectural fantasies and religious subjects from his hand and according to Arnold Houbraken (note 2), who was his pupil, he also painted landscapes, marines, animals, flowers and still-life. In other respects too, Hoogstraten was unusual among Dutch seventeenth-century painters. He was well-travelled, and lived and worked in Vienna, Rome and London. However, the single most exceptional feature of Hoogstraten's career was that, in addition to being a successful painter, he was a distinguished poet and dramatist. He wrote on religious and classical themes as well as poems and plays on subjects taken from contemporary history: he also composed a number of epithalmia. In the portrait (Fig.2) in the introduction to his treatise on painting, the ‘Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst’, Hoogstraten presents himself in the guise of both painter and poet: the four-line encomium beneath it begins, 'Hoogstraten, die 't penseel verwisselt met de pen' (Hoogstraten who interchanges his brush with his pen) (note 3).
Samuel van Hoogstraten was born in Dordrecht in 1627. He was at first a pupil of his father Dirk van Hoogstraten and after his father's death in December 1640, of Rembrandt in Amsterdam. Hoogstraten seems to have been in Rembrandt's studio from the winter of 1640–41, when he was only thirteen years old, until shortly before April 1648, when he is known to be back in Dordrecht. Rembrandt was at the height of his fame, completing 'The Nightwatch' in 1642. His studio was filled with brilliant young painters: among Hoogstraten's fellow pupils were Carel Fabritius, Con-stantijn van Renesse and Abraham Furnerius. Having left Rembrandt's studio and returned to Dordrecht to work as an independent artist, Hoogstraten travelled to Vienna in May 1651, where he received the patronage of Emperor Ferdinand in. In his portrait in the ‘Inleyding’ he can be seen wearing the gold medal presented to him by the Emperor. In 1652 Hoogstraten was in Rome but had returned to Vienna by the following year. He was back in Dordrecht in 1654 and married there in 1656: he appears to have remained in the town until he left for London at some time before September 1662. The National Gallery's ‘Peepshow’ dates from the last years of the 1650s (note 4): it was painted in Dordrecht before Hoogstraten's departure for England. There was a sizeable community of Dutch artists in London and Hoogstraten was much in demand as a portrait painter. He was still in London at the time of the Great Fire in September 1666: he gives an account of the outbreak of the Fire in the ‘Inleyding’ (note 5). Hoogstraten returned to Holland shortly after, settling in The Hague. He was back in Dordrecht by 1673, serving as one of the Provosts of the Mint. It was during these years, after his return to his native town, that he was working on his theoretical and technical treatise on painting, the ‘Inley-ding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst: anders de Zichtbaere Werelt’ (Introduction to the High School of the Art of Painting: or The Visible World), which was published by his brother Francois in Dordrecht in 1678, the year of Hoogstraten's death.
The ‘Inleyding’ is divided into nine books, each bearing the name of one of the Muses. Each book is prefaced by an allegorical print showing the Muse surrounded by both mythological and modern figures. The allegory is explained in verses which face it. Each book has a particular theme: that of the first, Euterpe, is drawing; that of the second, Polymnia, is anatomy; that of the third, Clio (Fig.3), the supremacy of history painting in the hierarchy of subject-matter; and so on.
Much of the text is conventional and derivative: Pliny and Philostratus, Vasari and Lomazzo, and, above all, Van Mander, are quoted at length, with or without acknowledgement. Many of the sections which are most interesting to a modern reader are those which contain anecdotes about Hoogstraten's own career: exchanges with Rembrandt, descriptions of Fabritius's now lost perspective paintings, his account of the Great Fire of London, a poem written in Vienna in 1651 about his journey from Dordrecht, and so on. Despite the apparently rigorous organization of the book there are a number of these extended asides which provide a fascinating glimpse of Hoogstraten's milieu. There was, however, so little theoretical literature on painting published in Holland in the seventeenth century – the ‘Inleyding’ is the only extended treatise published between Van Mander's ‘Schilderboeck’ of 1604 and Lairesse's ‘Het Groot Schilderboek’ of 1707 – that, for all its ponderous classical references and borrowings from Vasari and Van Mander, it is of undeniable importance as an account of contemporary artistic attitudes and practice.

The peepshow

The peepshow was a shortlived phenomenon in Holland in the seventeenth century (note 6) and is an aspect of Dutch artists' fascination with perspectival and optical devices. The effect that such boxes had on contemporaries can be judged by John Evelyn's account of a peepshow he saw in London in 1656: '[...] was shew'd me a prety Perspective & well represented in a triangular Box, the greate Church at Harlem in Holland, to be seene thro a small hole at one of the Corners, & contrived into a hansome Cabinet. It was so rarely don, that all the Artists and Painters in Towne, came flocking to see & admire it' (note 7). Only six of these boxes, all of which simulate a domestic or church interior, survive and the one in the National Gallery is without doubt the best of them. It is the only one which is signed: the signature is in the form of a letter addressed to 'Monsieur S de Hoostraten a Dordrecht' lying on a chair in the corner of the principal room.
Hoogstraten's interest in perspective and illusion is well documented. In his extensive account of his master (note 8) in volume 2 of De ‘Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en schilderessen’ (Amsterdam, 1719) Houb-raken wrote that Hoogstraten principally worked on portraits, history paintings and perspectives of interiors ('Perspectiven in kamers'). These last, he says, were viewed through a hole made in the side. Houbraken adds that he has seen several of these, in which Hoogstraten has conjured up a whole palace and galleries supported by marble columns in a small space. Hoogstraten himself discusses such perspective boxes in his ‘Inleyding’, describing them, in a memorable phrase, as 'de wonderlijke perspectyfkas', in which a figure the size of a finger appears lifesize. He cites classical, Renaissance and contemporary practitioners of the art of skilful perspective painting, particularly praising his fellow-pupil Carel Fabritius, and he lists writers on perspective, among them Dϋrer, Vredeman de Vries and Samuel Marolois.
Disappointingly, however, he fails to describe a ‘perspectyfkas’ in any detail or to instruct his readers in the method of their construction. After urging painters to read the perspective writers, he says that he knows a short-cut to an understanding of perspective which he will describe when he has the time and the inclination ('de tijdt en de lust'). This tantalizing remark concludes the Seventh Book which is dedicated to the Muse Melpomene and is principally concerned with the effects of light and shadow. We know from Houbraken that Hoogstraten planned a second book, the ‘Onzichtbaere Werelt’ (Invisible World): he may have intended to expand on this subject in that work.
Hoogstraten's only surviving ‘perspectyfkas’ is a five-sided box painted on the inside to show a domestic interior: the sixth side is open to admit light, which was probably filtered through specially treated paper. The letter addressed to Hoogstraten which lies on a chair has suggested to some writers that this interior is intended to show the artist's own house in Dordrecht but in fact it is impossible to reconstruct the ground plan of the interior and the house is likely to be entirely imaginary, although no doubt composed of actual features.
The notion, suggested by Koslow (note 9), that it tells the story of an amorous encounter between the man at the window and the woman reading is entirely fanciful. Such meaning as the box does possess is contained in the scenes painted on its exterior. On the three sides are three small scenes identified by ‘cartellini’ as ‘Amoris Causa’, an artist making a drawing of the Muse, Urania; ‘Lucri Causa’, a ‘putto’ with crown and sceptre pouring gold and silver coins from a cornucopia, while behind is a painter at an easel on which is a portrait of a woman; and ‘Gloriae Causa’, an artist seated at his easel, with a ‘putto’ who has placed a gold chain around the artist's neck and is crowning him with a laurel wreath. These are three incentives of the painter described by Seneca in his ‘De Beneficiis’ (note 10) – Love of Art, Wealth and Fame – and they are also the subjects of the three last parts of the last book, Book 9, in the ‘Inleyding’. Book 9 is named after the Muse of Astronomy, Urania, who represents the artist's striving towards Heaven or the Sublime. It is thefore entirely appropriate that she should represent ‘Amoris Causa’ on the exterior of the box. It is entirely appropriate too that a portrait should stand for ‘Lucri Causa’, as portraiture was considered by Hoogstraten and many of his contemporaries as an inferior genre of painting, which was undertaken simply to provide the artist with money to live. In the hierarchy of subject matter which he outlines in his third chapter, named after Clio, the Muse of History, Hoogstraten ranks portraiture (of which he was a distinguished practitioner throughout his career) very low down: the highest form of art was in his view history painting, that is, the treatment of mythological, classical and historical subjects. The subject of third side of the box, ‘Gloriae Causa’, Fame, was an entirely laudable aim, bringing the best artists just rewards, like a gold chain and medal – such as Hoogstraten himself had received from Emperor Ferdinand and a laurel wreath.
On the top of the box is a slightly risque decorative element, Venus and Cupid in bed. In order to tease the spectator, the scene is difficult to see unless viewed from a particular angle, having been painted in an anamorphic projection.
Although the London box is the only known peepshow by Hoogstraten, other perspective paintings by him are known. A number of large-scale canvases, showing figures in marble columned courtyards, survive: at least some of these form part of a series and may well have been part of a scheme of decoration commissioned from Hoogstraten by the Finch family during his stay in England. However the best-known and most effective of his large-scale perspective paintings is the ‘View down a Corridor’ of 1662 which is at Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire (Fig.4) (note 11). Today this large upright canvas is placed – as it was always intended to be – at the end of an actual corridor where it has the effect, when seen from a distance, of prolonging the corridor. Like the peepshow, it is a highly effective illusion and testifies to the artist's skill in deceiving the eye. It was admired by Samuel Pepys who saw it on 26 January 1663 at Mr Povey's rooms in Lincoln's Inn Fields: '[...] went and dined at Mr. Povys [...] above all things, I do the most admire his piece of perspective especially, he opening me the closet door and there I saw there is nothing but only a plain picture on the wall.'

Notes and references

1. MacLaren, N., ‘The Dutch School: National Gallery Catalogues’ (London 1960), pp.192–95. A new edition of ‘The Dutch School’, expanded and extensively revised by the present writer, will appear in 1988. See also Sumowski, W., ‘Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler‘, Vol.2 (Landau 1983), cat. no.886.

2. Houbraken's account of his master is in ‘De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlandtsche Konstschilders en schilderessen', Vol.2 (Amsterdam 1719), pp.115–70.

3. The whole poem, written by J. Oudaan, reads: 'Hoogstraeten, die 't penseel verwisselt met de pen, /Wildat zyn vaderland hem dus naer't leeven ken, /Min in zyn beeld, dan konst op loutre reedens gronden, /Geroemt in Cesars-hof te Roome, en binnen Londen.'

4. MacLaren, N., ‘op.cit.’; Koslow, S., ‘op. cit.’; and Sumowski, W., ‘op. cit.’ concur in this dating.

5. ‘Inleyding’, p.266.

6. Koslow, S., '"De wonderlijke Perspectyfkas": An Aspect of Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting', ‘Oud Holland’, 82 (1967), pp.33–56. Koslow's article contains a catalogue of all the surviving peepshows.

7. De Beer, E.S. (ed.), ‚The Diary of John Evelyn’, Vol.3 (Oxford 1955), p.165 (5 February 1656).

8. See Note 2.

9. See Note 6.

10. Book 2, chapter 33. A Dutch edition of the ‘De Beneficiis’ was published in Amsterdam in 1672 (Volume 1, p.649). Koslow, S., ‘op. cit.’ notes, however, that Van Mander mentioned these three incentives when discussing a drawing by Cornelis Ketel which illustrates them and so Van Mander rather than Seneca may have been Hoogstraten's direct source.

11. Sumowski, W., ‘op. cit.’, cat. no.895.

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