Entreaty of the Enfilade-
Updated: Apr 19
An Essay on Interior Perceptions- by Brian Keeler
“The Doors of Perception” the title of Aldous Huxley’s 1954 controversial book about insights experienced during the influence of psychoactive substances could be repurposed for a wider use of aesthetic application- namely painting interior views of homes. Adapting Huxley’s book title to art from the Dutch Golden age of the 17th century is the idea here.
And by extension the invitation through an enfilade is considered here as well. An enfilade is a succession of rooms, and a conceptual device used in many of those paintings by the genre painters of Holland in the 17th century. Included in those compositions were doorways that portrayed views leading from quiet interiors of everyday domestic activities; sewing, reading letters, playing music, drinking wine, and even the occasional de-liceing, or de-fleaing. In other words, the less-than-elevating themes regarded as being unworthy of our attention and indeed, not material for our artistic expressions. The light from exterior gardens or streets and canals is often filtering beautifully to infuse the scenes with a sublime delicacy and in effect making a new appreciation, if not making the quotidian into sacramental moments. The light, of course was articulated beautifully by these Dutch Masters and the ones utilizing the enfilade device most effectively were De Hoogh and Vermeer with the former being the main exponent of this structured depiction of space.
I have been enthralled by this construction of space through enfilades and many other qualities of these Dutch paintings since my early days in art school. Millions of others too have found sustenance, emotional healing, solace, inspiration and so much more from viewing these works. One of the examples of the healing or salubrious effects of these works was evident in the practice of one of the judges in the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals. After listening to accounts of grueling cruelty of atrocities he would take his lunch at the nearby Delft Museum, the Mauritshuis and sit in front of Vermeer paintings to restore his spirit.
In my most recent painting, I have taken the concept of enfilade along with the domestic portrayals of De Hoogh and used it for this painting of the interior of our house. This painting, began primarily as an exploration of still life. It expanded into a study of light and of the interior of this 1865 Victorian with a portrayal of my partner, Linda involved with arranging flowers in the distant room- the kitchen. So the floral theme is repeated, with the main actor being the amaryllis in front room and then echoed with tulips being placed in a vase in the distance. The Dutch aspect could be said to be referenced and underscored here with tulips, as that was an essential part of the Dutch economy in the 17th century. There was the disastrous financial debacle of tulip futures running amok during that era- and wonderfully portrayed in the recent movie “Tulip Fever.” That movie interweaves the financial maelstrom along with a portraitist’s life in a fascinating plot with lots of tension and intrigue. I consider the light in this painting to be an actor or agent of change and impermanence that is entering this work. The vase half illuminated and the streaks of afternoon light coming from behind flow into this enfilade to play across the floor, and the white linen cloth and to describe the room’s topography.
Perspective is the glue which holds these works of enfilade together. But the ideas with the Dutch paintings, as with mine, is not to have the viewer race through to or past the vanishing point, but allow time to pause and to rest at various intervals along the way. The doorways are entreaties to enter and enjoy the spatial relationships as we observe the behavior of light on various surfaces. It is very humbling to paint with such masters in mind- but also inspiring. My concern, as of late, has been how far to go with the articulation. My work has been fairly painterly and brushy with my intention to show the calligraphy of the brushwork while describing the scene. But looking at the virtuosity of a De Hoogh with infinite subtlety of hues and delicate modeling, this approach holds sway. So any given painting of my own could easily be given hundreds of more hours.
But back to perspective. The only aspect of process that is evidenced in some of Vermeer’s work is a pinhole that has been found in some of his canvases. This was put there to key the perspective lines – by use of attaching a string and then drawing all the orthogonals from this point. I too have shown the vanishing point on the drawing stage of this recent painting to show and guide my own work. Vermeer is thought to have used a camera obscura but the use of perspective aids like strings were still necessary. I draw mine freehand, as the drawing is an enjoyable and important part of the discovery process. Also it allows for manipulation, adjustments and editing. The aspect of perspective that we take so much for granted today, was a hard won battle by renaissance artists and is summed up in this passage from the book “Eye of the Beholder” by Laura J. Snyder:
The introduction of perspective theory dramtically changed the way paintings were perceived. Previously, a painting was thought of as an opaque two-dimensional surface covered with lines and colors meant to be seen as symbols of three-dimensional objects. After the enunciation of the principles of perspective, a painting was to be considered, in Alberti’s words, a a “window through which we look out onto a section of the visible world.”
Alberti was the Italian architect and theorist of the Renaissance who popularized the idea of a painting as a window. And to apply Alberti’s thinking to my idea here- a painting can also be a doorway- into the area where our lives are lived. And Huxley’s idea of the doors of perception adds another way to inform our exploration of space.
But how about “False Perspective” or “Forced Perspective?” This is an idea with its most famous example in Rome in Palazzo Spada, near Campo di Fiori. This is a fool-the-eye concept, which is a close cousin to the Tromp ‘l’oeil idea in painting. I’ve visited this architectural construction of Borromini several times and his perspective corridor does indeed convince us that we are looking down loggia of 30 feet of so, when it is in fact only a few feet in depth. Such was the thrill, appreciation and delight in perspective from the Renaissance up to Borromini’s time in the 1500’s and up to the Vermeer’s era and indeed, our own. We also think of M.C. Escher’s creative distortions and convolutions of perspective in his etchings in this regard- similar to Borromni’s.
But the new way of seeing is the most fascinating aspect of Vermeer and De Hoogh-but not just the virtuosic technical aspects but the spiritual vision and aesthetic gift. Much has been made of the coincidence of new lenses in Holland of the day through Anthony Leeuenhoek with his microscopic work. It is suggested that Vermeer and Leeuenhoek knew each other and the model for one of Vermeer’s paintings could be this lens maker. Still, the artistic vision and expression always seems to be eclipsed in this praise of devices. There has been much ink spilled also about the mathematics involved. This aspect and all the influence of lenses as to how they widened the optic and vision is also brought out in Snyder’s book mentioned above,“Eye of the Beholder.”
For me, what I find most rewarding and relevant, is the attention to intervals in the arrangements of these works of the Dutch Golden Age artists. You will see in the sketch (shown above) made at the Frick Museum from a Vermeer that I am appraising and appreciating this quality of divisions of space in Vermeer’s painting. The interlocking rectangles formed by the doors, windows, paintings and maps are also part of the geometry and intervals of these enfilade paintings. And when these are contrasted with organic forms like flowers and people it becomes very interesting. I am recalling one of my early painting lessons with Bill Faulkler at the York Academy of Arts when he advised me to do just that- which was to blend and contrast the geometry with the rounded and curvilinear.
In regards to the spiritual aspect of this art it is related to appreciating the universe and God. There is an idea that God created to books, the book of nature and the book of scripture. We sometimes need the latter to assist with appreciating the former. This is from the Snyder’s book;
The apostle Paul had described the universe “which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures great and small, are so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely the eternal power of the Godhead.”
In regards to spirituality in Dutch art of this era, the main thing to note is the apparent secular nature of the imagery. We will keep in mind that most of the art heretofore had been overtly religious with only images of directly Biblical subject matter; Madonna's, images of Christ, saints and other passages from scripture. Here we have a new vision, that shows the common experience and observation of life could be made special and worthy, if not sacred.
As this new painting of mine includes a woman involved in a quiet domestic activity it also relates to those Dutch paintings, which mainly include portrayals of women. In a review in the New York Times of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show of Vermeer in 2001 this aspect of the plurality of the feminine was mentioned. In fact, the reviewer, Deborah Solomon went so far as to refer to Vermeer as proto-feminist. Hmm, not sure exactly what her intent was, but it smacks of forcing and retrofitting 21st century politics into the past. If portraying the dignity and importance of the women in Dutch everyday life was the message, then yes these works do that admirably. And by extension, they also portray the small acts of life and bring a relevance to us all regardless of gender or the time of our lives.
I have been fortunate to see many of these Dutch masters in various museums including the Mauritshuis, The Metropolitan, The Louvre, The Reich, Uffizi and the MFA in Boston to mention a few that have significant collections of these works. When a Vermeer show came to the Met in NYC that included his “The Art of Painting” I drove in three times to see the work. I often sketch in front of these works just to experience them first hand for an extended amount of time.
Well whether through insight of our own, or added by doors opening for us to reveal something overlooked, or through the work of authors and artists of previous eras, or with the aid of lenses to offer a new vision, or through study and kindly suggestions of sages and seers or maybe even fortune and grace, we can be appreciative for light- however it comes to us.