Citing the repetition of motifs and subjects in Dutch Golden Age art as evidence of a conservative, market-driven conventionality has long been a commonplace, yet the nature of convention and repetition is not in actuality self-evident. Angela K. Ho's Creating Distinctions in Dutch Genre Painting: Repetition and Invention offers a fresh interrogation of repetition as an artistic strategy. Responding to ideas of “product and process” innovation explored by John Michael Montias and others, this book reevaluates the dynamic roles played by both collectors and artists in shaping notions of novelty, artistry, and value. Three prominent fijnschilders (fine painters) are treated as case studies for their development (largely through repetition and iteration, but also technical finish) of highly successful visual brands: Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, and their younger contemporary Frans van Mieris the Elder, who borrowed from their models. Ho problematizes repetition as an economic strategy (designed to minimize labor) and reframes it as a self-conscious and virtuosic artistic performance, one that coexisted with the needs of connoisseurs to develop and display their own skills. The result is a thoroughly argued book that serves as both a complement and a challenge to existing literature on Dutch genre painting.
Ho begins by establishing the desirability of repetition for artists and the liefhebbers (connoisseurs) who negotiated their membership in elite circles through mastery of terminology, motifs, and styles, and the display of good taste—all ever-shifting markers. The first chapter works to overturn presumptions of the innate value of novelty, instead making a case for the interdependence of repetition and innovation—manifested in a “sophisticated interplay between familiarity and difference” (20) that was more desirable to the connoisseur than novelty alone. In other words, Ho suggests convincingly that continuity and iteration of motifs, rather than wholly unexpected invention, offered the most efficacious route for liefhebbers to showcase their mastery of artistic dogmas (of the type contained in Vasari, Alberti, or Van Mander) and their abilities to recognize and evaluate works of art.
The following three chapters focus on the formation of signature motifs in the oeuvres of Dou, Ter Borch, and Van Mieris, respectively. Ho argues that the success of Dou's window-niche pictures as authorial marker arose from the unique conditions of the collector's cabinet: viewed within profusions of art, luxury goods, and naturalia, they quickly drew attention while generating interplay and dialogue. Moreover, Dou's works were often viewed alongside other Dous, offering the possibility for particularly nuanced readings of that valuable “familiarity and difference.” Like Dou, Ter Borch's reputation also rested on meticulous technique—his renderings of satin fabrics—but Ho examines his satin-clad figures primarily as elements of a “modular approach to composition” (121) that produced tantalizing narrative ambiguity. Repurposing stock figures from the popular merry companies of Codde, Duyster, or Buytewech, and placing them into new contexts, Ter Borch “subverted [viewers’] expectations” (125) and produced novel images from familiar ones. Lastly, Ho examines Van Mieris's emulations of both Dou and Ter Borch as aligned with period theory on selective imitation and the painter's exercising of good judgment, a form of heuristic imitation that required viewers to “evaluate the present work in relation to its models” (151). This gains new urgency in discussion of Van Mieris's late works, long derided as mannered excesses; Ho counters these familiar accusations by focusing on Van Mieris's late adaptations in handelingh (handling), including the rendering of nocturnal effects and polished textures of marble and flesh. His shifts correspond to similar moves by his peers toward stylization and heightened attention to finish, and Ho contends this represents an overall shift in collectors’ tastes rather than “a personal case of creative decline” (176).
The centrality of liefhebbers’ desires to their manifestations in artistic production is reinforced throughout, at times threatening to eclipse analysis of other factors. However, Ho balances attention to aficionados with close readings of paintings and a keen eye for stylistic and technical signatures. The result is a book that often hovers attentively over the connoisseur's shoulder but lingers longest and most satisfyingly at the painter's side.