9. Venus at her Toilette

Object type: Jan van Kessel the Elder, Kunstkammer with Venus at her Toilette

Materials: Oil on boards

Location: Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.

Location in MIAC: DESIGN

William Marshall, title page to Eikon Basilica (1649).  Photo by curator.

There is a remarkable number of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings that share a basic design: a single subject, seated, contemplates one or more objects while illuminated by sunlight streaming through a window.  Sometimes the arrangement is clearly intended as a sacred image, as in the case of the so-called martyr-portrait of King Charles I (see right).  But more often they are clearly secular, in one way or another, intended to convey something about the character of the person they display.  Examples of this sort are glorified still lifes, and they include hundreds of works from Dutch and Flemish studios, allegories of the senses, nearly all of Vermeer’s studio paintings (including The Astronomer, below), satirical engravings in the Hogarth mode, and so forth. 

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer (ca. 1688).  Source: wikimedia commons.

There are enough of these images that I have found it useful in my notes to invent a name for them, calling them cabinet portraits.  I mean “cabinet” in the historical sense of a study or private space; cabinet portraits are portraits of individuals, historical or fictional, in spaces intended to reflect upon them.  They are as much the portraits of private individuals as of private spaces—each reflecting on the other.  Each depends upon an instantly identifiable metaphor; interiority is phrased as exteriority, the content of one’s mind and character as the content of one’s study or space of work.  To understand a painting like this, it is necessary for the metaphor to be intuitive; we have to be able to glance at the contents of a space of work or play and seamlessly intuit lessons about the person installed there. 

Paintings like these bubble up around the mid-to-late seventeenth century.  This was (not coincidentally) about the time that people started having enough wealth to own things in private, and when, in a related development, they started thinking of themselves as owners.  This is a well-documented development, tabbed Possessive Individualism by C.B. Macpherson; the idea is that we own things in a literal sense, but also that we own our time, or our labor, or our faculties of reason, capacities to work, ideas, and rights.  Possessive individualism depends in other words upon the folk psychology that speaks of mental activity in terms appropriate to a study, library, closet, museum, or workshop.  Of course, we make these substitutions all the time; it is just that images such as these are its particular art form.  They make the exchange between private individual and private property resonant, bringing everyday objects into luminescence as emblems of a moral or intellectual order.

This principle helps make sense of Jan van Kessel’s Venus at her Toilet—one of a number of similar portraits produced, factory-style, in the studios of 17th-century Holland.  Here, the Goddess of Love, attended by Cupid, turns away from a large, oculus-like twin windows.  Though the eyes of the room look out on the world, onto the crowded shipping lanes that were just then bringing the world to Holland, the sitter looks instead at the compact treasures of imperial accumulation which are heaped in her cabinet.  She in other words looks at representations, miniatures that are husbanded up for her contemplation.  In this sense, the arrangement is formally identical to other dark rooms, with openings to let in light.  It stages a version of the common metaphor for mental activity, the mind like a “dark room” with little openings to let in images of things.  It is a picture of a camera obscura.

It is indeed possible that artists like Jan van Kessel—and many of the leading lights of the Dutch Golden Age—used camera obscuras as part of their basic routines.  There is evidence to suggest that painters and engravers, as well as natural historians and collectors, employed the camera obscura in order to get accurate outlines of things (see Reynolds's Camera Obscura).  Some well-known public figures, like painter David Hockney (Secret Knowledge), have gone so far as to ascribe Vermeer’s dazzling precision almost entirely to his use of the camera obscura—although his evidence remains extremely circumstantial.  It seems likely, however, that such devices were sometimes useful for taking the outlines of things, especially of landscapes or individual objects.  Some camera obscuras were in fact marketed with this end in mind—William Storer's “Royal Delineator,” for instance (see below)—and more than one natural historical treatise has insisted on their usefulness.

William Storer, Royal Delineator, Science Museum, Blythe House, 1775-1785. Object No. 1924-474. © Science Museum.

William Storer, Royal Delineator, Science Museum, Blythe House, 1775-1785. Object No. 1924-474. © Science Museum.

Was the camera obscura used as a gadget in the painter’s studio?  The jury is still out.  But it is clear that it turns up in a different way—as a motivating principle of an image, as its form.  It is as though Van Kessel has painted a working camera obscura, with all its parts, in order to capture something about a private individual in a public idiom.  The remarkable thing about a painting like this is how many hands might have been involved.  Van Kessel was working in a hotbed of artistic production, a lodestar for talented painters looking for bits and pieces of work.  This much is clear from the arrangement of the image—each object picked out in its own space, sometimes in subtly different perspective or with its shadows cast slightly awry.  In some cabinet portraits, fish or flowers which are out of season with one another appear in the same frame, each evidently produced from the life; the implication is that the painting, which appears to capture a moment of intellectual activity, was in fact assembled over months or years.  The corporate character of images like this is likewise clear from the brushwork; one artist has executed the instruments, another the female nude, another the statuary on shelves, and so forth, each specializing in a different component which becomes a single image.  Put differently, a painting designed to stage the mind of an individual, or to tell something allegorical about the workings of an individual’s mind, was almost certainly the production of a complex collaboration of painters.

William Say, after Henri Jean-Baptiste Fradelle, Belinda at her Toilet, ca. 1820.  (c) Trustees of the British Museum.

            This basic pattern doesn’t only turn up in the visual arts; it also turns up in poetry, which, as the contemporary saying had it, is “a speaking picture.”  Perhaps the most famous example is in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock—which I mention because Pope himself thought of the mind as a not just a bit like a camera obscura (see Exhibit 8).  Van Kessel has staged Venus at her toilette; Pope, perhaps in conscious allusion to the wealth of paintings like Van Kessel’s, has staged his heroine at hers.  Pope’s heroine is Belinda, who is also a “goddess,” and the scene looks like this (see left-- click on image to expand).

I mention this at length because it helps highlight what cabinet portraits are good at—which is modeling something like judgment, or the operation of one or more of the senses.  They aren’t particularly good at modeling emotion, or the passions, because they install a difference between mind and objects, self and other, as part of how they work.  And Pope himself knew this as well as anyone, which is why The Rape of the Lock offers a second cabinet, a winding, intricate maze of fancy, which descends differently into what can only be called Belinda’s interior.  This is the so-called “Cave of Spleen,” and tracing its inward journey is part of what inspired my work on the next cases in this museum: on digression and inwardness.  Modeling the mind as a clean, well-lighted space only gets you so far.  It leaves out virtually everything that is interesting to a poet, painter, or, indeed, critic.  It is in pursuit of the rhetorics of inwardness, of the embodied metaphors by which we come to terms with ourselves, that most of this museum was assembled.