Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Steven Nadler's "The Portraitist"

Steven Nadler is Vilas Research Professor and William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy, and director of the George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the 2000 Koret Jewish Book Award for biography, and Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind.

Nadler applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, The Portraitist: Frans Hals and His World, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The truce was a significant moment in Dutch history. The small Republic, really just a coalition of provinces united, if not entirely by religion, then by language and their distaste for the rule of Spanish monarchs, had mustered sufficiently impressive military prowess to fight a European superpower to a standstill. The Dutch, aided by mercenaries, showed themselves a force to be reckoned with. Just as important, the truce gave the Dutch economy some breathing room, not least by allowing Holland and other provinces to redirect resources from defense to commerce. The truce also marks, and essentially allowed for, the beginning of the intellectual and artistic flourishing that distinguishes this period of Dutch culture.

The armistice would last until 1621. Peace on the international front, though, may have allowed for the unleashing of trouble on the domestic scene. In the 1610s, a controversy raged within the Dutch Reformed Church, one that would quickly bleed into the political sphere and have a tremendous effect on practically all aspects of life in the Republic. The upshot was the first of the periodic political upheavals and reversals that occur in early modern Dutch history—the Dutch call them wetsverzettingen (loosely translated as “overturnings of law”)—and that bring a radical redistribution of power among the various political and religious camps. While the turmoil was disastrous for many people, and even deadly for some, it actually brought new opportunities for Hals and his art.

In January 1610, a group of forty-four ministers, all followers of Jacobus Arminius, a theology professor at the University of Leiden and a cleric in the Dutch Reformed Church, met in The Hague and issued a “remonstrance” or petition in which they set forth their unorthodox views on sensitive theological questions. These Arminians, or “Remonstrants,” rejected the strict Calvinist doctrines of grace and predestination. They believed that people had the capacity to contribute, through voluntary action, to their own salvation; and they denied that divine grace was irresistible, incapable of being refused or misused by an exercise of free will. Remonstrants also favored a separation between matters of faith and conscience and matters of civil government. They worried about the political ambitions of their more orthodox opponents in the Church, who sought control not only over the appointment of preachers in the pulpits and professors in the theology faculties but over the membership of city councils. Like many religious reformers, the Remonstrants saw their crusade in moral terms. In their eyes, the true spirit of the Reformation had been lost by the increasingly dogmatic, hierarchical, ambitious and intolerant leaders of the Reformed Church.
As you can see, Frans Hals himself does not appear on this page, which is part of a discussion of the historical and religious background, so it represents a bit of a digression from the main story, which is about Hals’ life and work — that is, his portraits and their sitter/patrons, but also his training, his difficult personality, his life-long financial woes, and his extended family and the troubles they experienced. But since the book is also about “his world,” this historical material is essential to putting Hals in the broader context of the Dutch Republic during its so-called “Golden Age.” It was a turbulent time in the Republic, as different factions within the Dutch Reformed Church clashed over theological and political matters; and this had great consequence for the nation’s economy, spiritual life and, as well, its artists. It was also a period of what seemed like non-stop wars — as Holland and the other provinces fought for independence from Spain, and engaged in several fights with England, France and others. And yet, despite it all, it remains one of the richest periods in history for the art of painting, and portraiture in particular.
Learn more about The Portraitist at the University of Chicago Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Best of All Possible Worlds.

The Page 99 Test: A Book Forged in Hell.

The Page 99 Test: The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter.

--Marshal Zeringue