Delight in deceit

Delight in deceit

Dutch artist Samuel Van Hoogstraten's illusionistic paintings often defined the object and hoodwinked its viewer at the same time.

Trompe-I'oeil Still Life 1664

Recently, it was reported in the international press that a 64-year-old man found two framed 17th-century paintings in a highway rest-stop dumpster in central Germany and handed them to the police in Cologne. An initial assessment by an art expert concluded that both the valuable oil paintings were originals. No one has claimed the artworks so far. One of the paintings was a young boy’s portrait by Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten (the other being a self-portrait by Italian artist Pietro Belloti).

Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) was a distinguished figure of the Dutch Golden Age. A major exponent of Dutch realist genre painting, he attracted attention for his perspective peep boxes, architectural perspective interiors, and portraits. He was also a master of trompe-l’oeil still life in which realistically depicted objects were painted in life-size. These illusionistic works had a unique capacity to describe the work and deceive the viewer simultaneously. (Trompe l’oeil is ‘to deceive the eye’ in French; it is an art historical tradition in which the artist fools the viewers into thinking that they are looking at real things or objects.)

Van Hoogstraten’s lifelong fascination with perspective and illusionist devices has amazed critics and art historians. “He deployed painting as a medium for thinking seriously and, at times, playfully about art, and for giving his viewers reason to do the same,” explains art historian Celeste Brusati. “His best pictorial experiments reveal how the making and viewing of paintings mobilise the mind through the hand and eye, piquing the senses, the intellect, and the imagination in unison.”

Rembrandt’s pupil

Van Hoogstraten initially studied under his father in his hometown Dordrecht. He left for Amsterdam around 1943 and became a student of the celebrated painter and brilliant artistic thinker Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). As a young painter in Rembrandt’s studio, he explored the theatrical possibilities of the frame in portraiture. (Much later, he was known to advice young painters to put themselves in front of a mirror and emote in different ways, so as ‘to be a performer and spectator at the same time.’)

After training under Rembrandt, he returned to Dordrecht in 1947 and became an independent artist in the 1650s. Rembrandt remained an inspiring figure for Van Hoogstraten all his life. In his famous book Inleyding, he included memories of his time with Rembrandt; his stay in Rembrandt’s studio; and the pedagogical lessons he drew from his time there. His reminiscences are admired as a vital source of information about Rembrandt’s views on and methods of painting.

Besides being a successful painter, Van Hoogstraten was known for his literary prowess. He wrote poems as well as plays that were considered to be the very first novels in Dutch history. Some critics even assert that his literary qualities surpassed his talents in the visual arts. Van Hoogstraten himself believed that poetry and painting were ‘sisters of equal nobility.’

Van Hoogstraten’s magnum opus Inleyding Tot de Hooge Schoole Der Schilderkonst (Introduction to the Academy of Painting; or, The Visible World, 1678) published posthumously is considered to be the most substantial account of painting left by a Dutch artist in the later 17th century. This treatise covered a wide range of subjects, including painting techniques, economics of art, the Dutch art market, technical, strategic, theological and moral issues for painters, experimental philosophy and exploration of ancient artistic traditions and the history of painting.

An attachment to truth

In his writings, Van Hoogstraten emphasised that the science of art was contemplative and practical; and that painting was a universal discipline basic to all the liberal arts. At the same time, he felt there were no permanent rules of art or in universal beauty; nor did he consider the art of painting to be purely liberal and intellectual.

He said that an artist should be strongly attached to the truth, and only represent ‘what exists or, at least, what can exist’. He advised artists to look at nature diligently. “Learn first to take nature in all its richness as an example and to imitate what is in it. The sky, the earth, the sea, the animals, and both gentlefolk and common folk-all serve our practice. The level fields and the hills, brooks, and trees give us work enough … And even with the most ordinary subjects, one can learn how to apply the fundamental rules that are required for the most excellent ones.”

For him, painting was as much art as science. “A perfect painting is like a mirror of nature; it makes things that are not there appear to exist and deceives in a permissible, pleasurable, and praiseworthy way… Certainly the art of painting was of old, and still is, the flower of all arts.” 

Van Hoogstraten was not afraid to state that the artist always painted for money; and that the market or the social and economic realities of the artist’s craft should never be overlooked. 

He said that a ‘good painter’ need not be a ‘good man’; while a bad person could be a very good painter indeed. He ridiculed writers who wrote a lot about painting without ever holding a brush. 

The Dutch maestro achieved financial success and become a rich man towards the end of his career. But he also suffered a serious illness in his last years and died on 19 October 1678 in Dordrecht. 

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox