8 Light of Experience


berckheyde haarlem

Gerrit Berckheyde, The Market Place and the Grote Kerk at Haarlem, 1674, National Gallery, London


..and today


Clark says the market place looks much the same but a revolution has taken place: the revolution that replaced Divine Authority by experience, experiment and observation. When we begin to ask, 'does it work?' or 'does it pay?' instead of 'is it God's will?' One of the first questions answered  should  have been: trying to suppress opinions which one does not share is much less profitable than trying to tolerate them. Alas, a belief in the divine authority of our own opinions afflicted Protestants and Catholics alike. They continued to persecute each other up to the middle of the 17th century.


                       Rembrandt, Staalmeesters, 1662, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The men in the image above are the first visual evidence of bourgeois democracy - where a  group of individuals can come together and take corporate responsibility; they can do so because they have some leisure, money in the bank, and represent the social application of the philosophy that things must be made to work. And the interiors of their homes, as painted by Pieter de Hooch around 1660 shows the same reasonable and balanced life style.

hooch hooch2
Pieter de Hooch, A Woman Drinking with Two Men,
1658, National Gallery, London
Pieter de Hooch, A Mother and Child, c. 1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

"Rembrandt was the great poet of that need for truth and that appeal to experience which had begun with the Reformation, had produced the first translations of the Bible, but had to wait almost a century for visible expression. The most obvious link between Rembrandt and the intellectual life of Holland is the first commission he undertook when he moved from Leiden to Amsterdam." p 203

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson, Mauritshuis, The Hague

The event can be dated to 16 January 1632: the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, of which Dr. Tulp was official City Anatomist, permitted only one public dissection a year, the body of an executed criminal.

Vermeer used the utmost ingenuity to make us feel the movement of light.

Walking through a museum looking at second rate paintings can become tiresome; your feet began to ache and your thoughts turn to locating the museum cafe, then a jewel - you spot a Vermeer on the wall and your sunken spirits soar and your feet no longer hurt.  The light, the clarity, the charm of a Vermeer.

milkmaid Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid c. 1657–1658
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, c. 1665
The Royal Collection, St. James's Palace, London

 (Obviously the wrong image has popped up, but it is so amusing I decided to let it stand. -JJ)

music lesson


David Hockney got his drawers all in a bunch some years ago and publicly claimed that Vermeer used a camera obscura to paint;  thus Vermeer cheated. Hockney seemed not to notice that even if he did use an optical devise he still had to paint the picture. I suspect a bit of jealousy or even envy on Hockney's part. Clark says he thinks Vermeer looked through a lens into a box with a piece of ground glass squared up, and painted exactly what he saw. Rembrandt and Vermeer may be unequaled, but other northern painters can share some of the glory. 

"Pieter Saenredam is the scrupulous master of church interiors. The precision with which he places each accent, the small, black windows, the pews and the diamond-shaped hatchments reminds me of Seurat. In some of Saenredam's pictures the balance is too obviously tilted towards reason rather than experience." p 211

church interior
Pieter Saenredam, Church Interior, National Gallery, London

 Saenredam wanted to record this time of change by documenting his country’s buildings. Many artists before him had specialized in imaginary and fanciful architecture, but Saenredam was one of the first to focus on existing buildings. His paintings are often of medieval churches, which had been stripped bare of their original decorations after the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation. After having made precise measurements, and precise sketches and drawings of a church, he often kept them ten years or so until he could give them a stillness and finality. His emphasis on light and geometry is brought out by precise attention to every detail. 

Clark inserts information in this chapter about Descartes and Newton, although he admits he does not have a clue about Newton's Principia that formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists' view of the physical universe for the next three centuries.

Most laymen only know the story where an apple falls from a tree and strikes Newton, who jumps up and says, "Eureka, gravity". Let me see if I can do any better than that. Well before Newton everybody knew that apples fall to the ground, the question was 'why does the moon not fall to the ground?' What Newton worked out was the math to explain why the moon stayed in the sky. Here is a simple image that might help.  Orbit  If you desire details Wikipedia says it all, under the topic Isaac Newton.

"There is no doubt that in its first glorious century the appeal to reason and experience was a triumph for the human intelligence. Between Descartes and Newton western man created those instruments of thought that set him apart from the other peoples of the world." p 220

9 The Pursuit of Happiness                            Contents