The shift from early modern 'Art of Painting' to 'Painting as Modern Art'

5 Collections

In early modern Europe, 'art' (ars, const) was a body of knowledge, a systematic ordering of what was known about painting (or building, or writing, or music - J.S. Bach, Kunst der Fuge, etc) and had to be learned if you want to become a painter (an architect, a writer, a musician): how to produce colours out of pigments, how to put them together, given their family relationships, how to make an arrangement on the flat plane of all kinds of bodies, small or large, dead or alive, and show their volumes and specific textures, using lights and shadows and understanding that following these rules can create beauty. To become a good painter, talent was necessary. Above that the student had to practice, copying traditional examples, training their eyes and their memories, as well as their minds and hands. So, mastering the art of painting, implied following the rules: accepting the fundamental connection between ordered knowledge, talent and permanent exercise.Only then a new work of art could be generated that obeyd as well as varied on the conventions.

Since the nineteenth century Modern art has made its appearance, which is based on rather different, sometimes even contrasting criteria. Originallity, personal intentions and a social, economical, political, cultural, historical message or interpretation have priority.

Remarkably however, the early modern art concept has not disappeared nowadays. In fact it is a natural part of the western sediment, known and used as a kind proverb, underlining the specific knowledge, training and talent that are at stake, for instance in sport or music. Recently, this graving for skills, practice, precison, rules, order, discipline, etc, comes to the surface in all kinds of fields outside the Modern Arts.

The Art of Comparison implies comparing a large variety of heterogeneaous images in a disciplined way: based on a body of knowledge that includes the history of art (and image) concepts, using well defined analytical instruments to  describe and indicate, to order and to classify formal similarities and differences in images, in order to clear up the genealogies that make up the westerns sediment of images in which we are embedded up till to day. Understanding the patterns that have been carved in the European past, will help us to see and understand the path dependence of image production in general. It will also enlighten the way in which the signifying practice works, shed light on the way in which connotations, ideas, and conceptions are cued within an overall system of visual forms that generate our mental horizon.

Developing and using a growing image data base will show in the end in a very precise way how the visual environment in which we live is organised: although without a center, moving in an ordered way, controlled by mechanisms that go beyond human consciousness. Understanding this mechanism, so different from the more central and rational way in which words are processed, implies understanding its direct impact, its authoritarian quality and its power to fix and to exclude, in other words, to take into account that images are processed by other parts of the brain.


Heidi de Mare, 'Johannes Vermeer: migratie van een icoon', in: J. van Eijnatten, F. van Lieburg, H. de Waardt (red.), Heiligen of helden. Opstellen voor Willem Frijhoff. Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam (2007), pp.  198-214, beeldmateriaal

Heidi de Mare, 'Vroegmoderne verwantschap in woord en beeld Het gebruik van het werk van Cats, De Hooch en Van Hoogstraten als historisch bronmateriaal', in: P. Stokvis (red.), Geschiedenis van het privéleven. Bronnen en benaderingen. SUN/ OU (2007), pp. 299-346