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Illusion and Eternity in Pieter Janssens Elinga’s “Room in a Dutch House”

The painting Room in a Dutch House by the 17th century Dutch painter Pieter Janssens Elinga in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is a wonderful example of genre art. The painting reveals the original talent of the artist with subtle coloristic vision, uniqueness of lighting solution, ability to depict an almost substantial atmosphere, delicacy, and accuracy in conveying the general mood.

Information on the life and artistic career of Elinga is available from the encyclopaedic work on Dutch painters by Alfred von Wurzbach, a renowned art critic of the late 19th - early 20th century, who, while working in the city archives, recovered some information about the life of the artist. The information gleaned by von Wurzbach revealed that Pieter Janssens Elinga was born in 1623 in Bruges. It appears that he studied painting with his father, the artist Gisbrecht Janssens. He painted still lifes influenced by the works of Willlem Kalf, one of the leading Dutch painters of his time, then later devoted his work to the theme of domestic life and the search for new spatial and perspective solutions (Wurzbach, 1906).

Figure 1. Willem Kalf, Pronk Still Life with Holbein Bowl, Nautilus Cup, Glass Goblet, and Fruit Dish, 1678. [Oil on canvas]

A general understanding of the way of life of Elinga and his contemporaries is helpful in analysing the narrative of Room in a Dutch House. Historian Paul Zumthor in his work Daily Life in Rembrandt’s Holland describes the worldview of a common Dutchman in the middle of the 17th century (2010). Their lives were influenced by such events as the creation of the Republic of the United Provinces, and then the recognition in 1648 of the independence of the Dutch Republic, which led to significant changes both in the socio-economic life and in the character of the entire Dutch culture. In connection with the spread of Calvinism — a branch of Protestantism that objected to rich decorations and religious art — all picturesque and sculptural images of saints and relics were removed from churches. Also, unlike other European religious movements, Calvinism did not use art as a means of propaganda, and by the middle of the century, biblical stories were almost completely ousted from paintings (Kooi, 2019). In turn, as Calvinism gained support mainly from the lower classes, the weakened nobility could no longer ensure the development of monumental art — the demand was for small easel paintings. The main buyer of works of art was a representative of the middle stratum of the urban population. A new hero in the historical arena, the Dutch burgher, bought paintings in large quantities to decorate home interiors and wished to see them as a reflection of his own life (Zumthor, 2010).

The 17th century is referred to as the Golden Age of Dutch painting. It also saw a rise of interest in the natural sciences, which affected the development of pictorial art. The fascination of many Dutch genre painters with optics and perspective led to the use of camera obscura — a dark room or a portable box with a lens at one side that projects an image onto the opposite wall — when working on paintings, as well as the creation of the so-called "perspective boxes". The latter was a pinhole camera, the inner walls of which were painted as home or church interiors. The images were deliberately distorted to create the illusion of three-dimensional objects when looking inside the camera (Dmitrieva, 2013).

Figure 2. Pieter Janssens Elinga, Perspective Box, ca. 1670. [Oil on panel]

Pieter Janssens Elinga was the author of one of the six "perspective boxes" that have survived to this day. By building an angular perspective that is unusual for his work (Verweij, 2010), endowing objects with distorted proportions, carefully writing out every detail, the artist achieves the most accurate three-dimensional perception of the image when looking through the camera's eye. The use of the camera obscura and the work on the creation of "perspective boxes" significantly influenced Elinga's painting style. Working with optical experiments, the painter began to move away from the laws of linear perspective and was more guided by a personal understanding of a scene that seems to be accidentally glimpsed. In Room in a Dutch House a more relaxed fragmentary image of space is created instead of a frieze-style composition. Due to an optic illusion the observer is given the opportunity to get closer to what is happening inside the painting; consequently, a sense of belonging is created. Thus, Elinga develops the principles of the domestic interior genre and achieves impressive realistic persuasiveness.

Room in a Dutch House is an oil painting on canvas in a small square format. It reveals the attention to detail, the meticulous jeweller's technique close to miniature, characteristic of the work of Elinga. Not a single impasto brushstroke can be distinguished from the painting layer; in the drawing, the artist tries to be true to nature, pays special attention to the light atmosphere, conveys space and perspective with great skill. In the detail of the chair standing at the left edge of the window one can feel Elinga's signature style as a creator of "perspective boxes". Unexpectedly depicted in axonometric projection, it stands out above the plane of the floor and wall. The illusion of volume of objects is also achieved by the artist through shadows that appear on a sun-drenched section of the wall, which indicates an additional source of daylight, close to the foreground of the picture. Despite the lack of opportunity to utilize aerial perspective in the image of a small room, the picture does not seem flat.

Figure 3. Pieter Janssens Elinga, Room in a Dutch House, ca. 1668-1672. [Oil on canvas]

The part of the neighbouring space visible through the half-open door is shown as if from a higher point of view, creating the impression of a small cozy living room built around the viewer. This detail also informs the audience of the unique layout of the narrow Amsterdam houses of the time, where all the rooms were located on different levels, creating an intricate system of rooms in which one had to go up and down from floor to floor, from the attic to the top floor, from floor to staircase, from the stairs to the cellar. Interior painting gained popularity in Holland in the 17th century largely due to the fact that it complemented and balanced the narrow, improperly planned premises of elongated houses. This explains the popularity in Holland of paintings that mystificated three-dimensional space (Dmitrieva, 2013). The interior, created by Elinga, develops from decoration into a part of the real space. The audience is invited to "enter" the picture and allowed to observe the life of the local inhabitants.

The idea of finding happiness in simple everyday occurrences, confidence in the future, peace, harmonious orderly life, involuntarily and inevitably resonates in the mind with the hackneyed proverb “my home is my fortress”. Room in a Dutch House is not a documentary reproduction of a genre episode, but a poetic glorification of everyday life and the warm atmosphere of one's home, folded into a system of clear images. The Dutchman of the artist's time wants to feel that nothing threatens the security of their home and their country, that they are spared from outside interference in their daily lives. This is manifested both in the choice of the theme of the work, and in the details that are characteristic of the time, such as large simple furniture almost devoid of decoration that was common in traditional Dutch homes. Fashion moves away from noble Spanish and French canons towards simple national clothes. Attention is focused rather on the texture of the fabric, its density, strength, warming properties, but not on decorative qualities. The Dutch prefer to wear discreet, neat dress in modest colours, and its cut is determined not by fashion trends, but by the weather conditions of their native land (Zumthor, 2010). Moderation reigns in everything — a return to the roots, to an original and understandable quiet life.

Figure 4. Peter Mattinson, A 17th Century Dutch Style Canal House, 2014. [Wooden model]

Elinga, who created his early paintings under the influence of Willem Kalf, understood and applied allegorical language in his later genre works. The artist's contemporaries recognized the symbolism of emblematic still lifes, and an attentive viewer could easily read the message embedded in the image. Fruit depicted in a still life, in addition to an allegory of wealth and prosperity, could be a call for moderation or a reminder of the frailty of life. The transience of earthly life is also suggested by the gold of autumn foliage outside the window and, presumably, by the sunset hour chosen by the artist as the setting for the scene. The maid herself is the embodiment of piety. An orderly arrangement of everyday life is the religious ideal of Protestantism (Zvezdina, 1997).

It should be noted here that the disappearance of biblical scenes from the paintings of most Dutch painters of the 17th century did not mean a sharp break in the connection between religion and art. On the contrary, instead of being at the forefront, religious images moved into a more deeply intimate area of the artist's spiritual worldview. Art historian Mikhail Ivanov, investigating this issue in the example of Pieter de Hooch's A Mistress and her Maid (Elinga’s works have long been erroneously attributed to Pieter de Hooch), emphasises the "ritual significance" of the figures (Ivanov, 2012). Simple scenes from everyday life are presented to the viewer in the form of a ritual, and this is the main method of poetising daily life in genre art. Everything has meaning and value as a result of work and a virtuous life, as a blessing given from above.

Figure 5. Pieter de Hooch, A Mistress and her Maid, ca. 1660. [Oil on canvas]

Fascinated by illusionistic painting techniques, Elinga skillfully built intertwined spatial relationships between real and depicted interiors. Room in a Dutch House is an excellent example of such artwork, where the master takes into consideration the space beyond the boundaries of the picture, forcing him to interact with the observer. The objects in Room in a Dutch House are not isolated from their environment, they are interacting with it. However, the very reality of the picture has properties that are different from real life. It is characterised by malleability: it seems as if time flows more slowly and acquires an almost physical weight. Not aiming to instruct the beholder, the painter, nevertheless, points to unshakable values, which allows the audience to plunge into the contemporary era for the artist. The painting has a characteristic soft melody, clear rhythm, unique proportionality of all elements of the composition and a special spirituality. The artist turns to the language of allegory to leave the viewer with a parting word. The picture serves both to organise the space of domestic premises, and to harmonise feelings.

An analysis of the figurative structure and style of Room in a Dutch House reveals the peculiar characteristics of Elinga's artistic method. The individuality of the painter's creativity finds its expression in the poetic interpretation of the scene, in the sensitive reproduction of the light and atmosphere, carefully and delicately selected details in nature and the desire to establish a lively interaction between the space of the picture and the viewer. These features of the painterly style put Pieter Janssens Elinga among the most outstanding artists who worked in the genre.

Bibliographical References

Dmitrieva, A. (2013). Illjusionisticheskie prijomy v gollandskoj zhivopisi XVII veka. [Illusionism techniques in the Dutch paiting of the 17th century]. In Trudy Istoricheskogo Faculteta Sankt-Peterburgskogo Universiteta, No. 16 (pp. 130-144). Saint-Petersburg: Saint-Petersburg State University Press.

Haak, B. (1984). The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the XVII Century. London: Thames and Hudson.

Ivanov, M. (2012). Konfessionalnye rusla evropejskoj zhivoposi. [Confessional paths of European art]. Zvezda, No. 2 (pp. 188-194). Saint-Petersburg: Zvezda.

Kooi, C. (2019). Calvinism in the Early Modern Netherlands and the Dutch Atlantic World. In R. Holder (Ed.), John Calvin in Context (pp. 401-408). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108687447.046

O’Neil, J. P. (1988). Dutch and Flemish Paintings from the Hermitage. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Second printing.

Verweij, A. (2010). Perspective in a box. Nexus Network Journal, 12/1 (pp. 47-62). doi: 10.1007/s00004-010-0023-7

Wurzbach, A. (1906). Niederländisches Künstler-Lexikon, auf Grund archivalischer Forschungen. Wien-Leipzig: Halm und Goldmann.

Zumthor, P. (2010). Povsednevnaja zhizn Gollandii vo vremena Rembrandta. [Daily life in Rembrand’s Holland]. Moscow: Molodaja Gvardija.

Zvezdina, J. (1997). Emblematika v mire starinnogo nturmorta: K probleme prochtenija simvola. [Emblematics in the world of an old still life: To the problem of reading a symbol]. Moscow: Nauka.

Visual Sources


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Eugenia Ivanova

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