The Age of Scientific Revolution—Art History

The Age of the Scientific Revolution changed the way people essentially thought. Descartes “discovered that he could doubt everything except that he was doubting” (Davis 496) and explains in Discourse on Method: “whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that . . . remarking that this truth ‘I think, therefore I am’ was so certain . . . that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by skeptics incapable of shaking it” (502).

Descartes (image from here)

Descartes first proves his own existence and then seeks to prove the existence of God. His approach is called Cartesian skepticism, meaning to doubt everything. Therefore, people no longer accept what they had been told. However, just because an individual had faith in science did not necessarily mean that they had no faith in God.

After the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the Treaty of Westphalia, “the United Provinces of the Netherlands . . . expanded their authority” (Gardner 673). Territorial boundaries changed in addition to granting greater religious freedom because “This treaty . . . marked the abandonment of the idea of a united Christian Europe” (Gardner 673). This reconciliation between Christianity and science is evident at the dawn of the Golden Age of the Dutch republic. The Dutch, who were very prosperous and cosmopolitan, were interested in tolerance, other areas, and ideas, which is evident in their art.

Art related to the development of the Scientific Revolution. Scientists experimented, prompting greater intellectual freedom. Free thought led to greater religious toleration, especially by the Dutch. For example, Johannes Vermeer was Catholic in Protestant Dutch Republic. His genre painting Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), where the woman holds “empty scales in perfect balance, ignoring pearls and gold on the table, is probably an allegory of the temperate life” (688). Thus, the woman thinks about her life, free from worldliness and in search of balance.

Woman Holding a Balance (image from here)

Additionally, Calvinism was influential by its emphasis on modesty. This period became the embarrassment of riches. For example, Frans HalsCatharina Hooft and Her Nurse (c. 1620) depicts the ostentatious versus the modest. In this time of greater freedom of thought and experimentation, “the traditional conventions [of portraiture] became inappropriate and thus unusable,” so “Hals produced lively portraits that seem far more relaxed than traditional formulaic portraiture” (Gardner 681). There is evident interest in the detail and fidelity to nature. The nursemaid dresses almost puritanical, contrasting black and white, while the baby has a beautiful lace. This says much about the tension of the classes and the pious versus the ornate in Dutch society.

Hals’ Catharina Hooft and Her Nurse (image from here)

Landscape paintings, such as Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem (c. 1670), reflect life experience. Art in the home was important; however, the paintings usually were not biblical or historical, but rather they were genre or landscape, since “Most Dutch families owned and worked their own farms, cultivating a feeling of closeness to the terrain” (686). Haarlem was one of the major cities in the Netherlands, and the viewer could recognize the church and the sea. By depicting the bleaching of linen and clusters of homes, this piece becomes a celebration of work, industry, or the common way of life.

van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem (image from here)

Here the artist “not only captured the appearance of a specific locale but also succeeded in imbuing the work with a quiet serenity that becomes almost spiritual” (688). The sky is given great attention, since it covers more than two-thirds of the painting. Van Ruisdael is observing the world around him and valuing the virtue of honesty and sincerity. The realm of the sky stresses the openness of religious tolerance and the recourses in the reality of this great age of exploration and development. The people were inquisitive and nationalistic, which is displayed in their art.

Art could moralize, as with Flower Still Life (c. 1726) by Rachel Ruysch, because “As living objects that soon die, flowers, particularly cut blossoms, appeared frequently in vantias paintings” (Gardner 690). The Dutch Republic is surrounded by flowers, and flowers are taken seriously in a commercial way and made into an enterprise. Here flowers are depicted in different stages of bloom and decline along with caterpillars and bugs, thus brining greater naturalism. After the first flush of beauty, the cut flowers eventually decay and reveal imperfections. This still life moralizes, since the viewer should not value that which is transient, whether it be flowers, food, clothing, or wealth. Instead, the viewer should focus on humbler or simpler things. Still life paintings made more money though, suggesting that still life art relates to their world being described and what the buyers wanted.

Ruysch’s Flower Still Life (image from here)


3 thoughts on “The Age of Scientific Revolution—Art History

  1. I love how you describe the art and the relation not only to the happenings of the times, but it’s relation to real life! I enjoy immensely reading your blog!

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