When we admire genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age for their realistic representation of everyday life, we may be responding as much to the spell of the 19th century as to the artistry of the 17th. It was in the 19th century that 'realism' began to be used as a description of such images, and one of the earliest uses of the French term in an aesthetic sense comes from an 1846 study of the Dutch and Flemish painters. (The word migrated to England in the following decade.) And while the identification of genre painting with common and domestic scenes can be traced back to Diderot, only in the 19th century did the phrase settle into its present meaning as the representation of everyday life. When Hippolyte Taine evoked the 'national instinct' of the Dutch for the 'representation of real men and real life, just as their eyes saw them', or Eugène Fromentin pronounced Dutch painting 'the portrait of Holland, its exterior image, faithful, exact, complete . . . with no embellishment', they were helping to establish a way of seeing that has bedevilled art history ever since. 'Holland has imagined nothing,' Fromentin notoriously announced in 1876, 'but she has painted miraculously well.'
LRB 20 January 2005 | PDF Download