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The Whitewashed Image: Iconoclasm and Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscapes

Amy Powell, University of California, Irvine
Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, 2011–2012

During the Iconoclastic Fury, which swept the Netherlands in the late summer of 1566, churches were purged of images, altars stripped, and walls whitewashed. Although it subsided quickly, the breaking of images paved the way for the revolt of the Netherlands against the Spanish Catholic monarchy and the rise of Calvinism as the official (although not the majority) religion of the Dutch Republic. Because the Reformed Church did not permit the use of religious images, the northern Netherlands saw a dramatic curtailment of church art patronage beginning in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Deprived of ecclesiastical commissions, artists began to produce works for private patrons and, more important, for the open market, selling relatively inexpensive paintings to a largely urban middle class. The most popular type of painting sold on this open market was the landscape.

In “The Whitewashed Image,” I look at how the memory of iconoclasm shaped Dutch landscapes in the century or so after 1566. In certain landscapes by Hercules Pietersz Segers (c. 1590–c. 1638), Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), Jacob van Ruisdael (c. 1628–1682), and others, the gestures of iconoclasm—now hardened into a set of static marks, above all, scratches and whitewashes—experienced an afterlife. In appropriating this small but significant new repertoire of negating marks, seventeenth-century artists were certainly not carrying on the Protestant tradition of censoring icons. After all, the objects of their negation were their own secular images. Instead they turned these marks against the illusion of three-dimensional space—the very armature of the genre of landscape.

In the post-iconoclastic period, I suggest, the genre of landscape became a primary site for working through the tensions that had erupted in the image breaking of the sixteenth century. Why landscape? More than any of the other secular genres that flourished along with it (still life, portraiture, genre scenes), landscape was vexed by the very issue at the core of the Protestant critique of images—namely, where to draw the line between the visible and the invisible. Every landscape has more or less to do with distance in general and that degree of distance in particular at which human vision reaches its limit and the visible world fades into the invisible.

Certain seventeenth-century Dutch landscape makers (of various religious denominations) internalized the Protestant critique of representation and the visual procedures associated with it: not only scratching and whitewashing but also distancing, darkening, and deforming, among others. In addition to being negative, these procedures are self-reflexive. If iconoclasts insist on the difference between the image and what it represents, these landscape makers concede their point, persistently reminding the viewer of the incommensurability of the image and what it purports to show: “[Isaiah] teaches that God’s majesty is sullied,” John Calvin writes, “by an unfitting and absurd fiction when the incorporeal is made to resemble corporeal matter, the invisible a visible likeness, the spirit an inanimate object, the immeasurable a puny bit of wood, stone or gold.” In certain post-iconoclastic landscapes, for instance, Hercules Segers’ Rocky Landscape with a Path, we discover that the iconoclast’s exposure of the materiality of the image reveals not only “wood, stone, or gold” but also the marks the artist makes and the (flat) surface he or she makes them on. In other words, iconoclasm had the unintended effect of freeing the mark from its subordination to representation. Unlike the marks of the image maker, which largely disappear into pictorial illusion or pattern, the marks of the image breaker are meant to be seen as such, that is, to be legible as marks.

It has been argued that the iconoclasms of the Protestant Reformation led to greater self-awareness among European image makers and that they imparted this self-awareness to their images. Individual artists heroically took it upon themselves—so the argument roughly goes—to create self-justifying works of art when and where the Catholic Church ceased to provide that justification for them. But the exact mechanisms by which iconoclasm contributed to the early modern phenomenon variously known as “the self-aware image,” “metapainting,” or simply “art” remain somewhat obscure. In “The Whitewashed Image,” I hope to trace more precisely the relation between the breaking of icons and the rise of the modern work of art. In the genealogy that has begun to emerge in my work, more of the brokenness of the old image shows up in the new than a triumphant story of the birth of art in the early modern period would have us expect; and the self-consciously authored work of art is haunted by the anonymity of the iconoclast.

Center 32 (includes image not shown here)

Seghers, Hercules
Dutch, 1590 - 1638
Goyen, Jan van
Dutch, 1596 - 1656
Ruisdael, Jacob van
Dutch, 1628 - 1682