Sunday, February 12, 2006

Doorsien, and why Vermeer doesn't employ it

I should alert you from the beginning that what follows probably isn't going to set the art history world ablaze. It's just one of those "ah-ha!" moments that, for me at least, gives me a handle on thinking about a painter whose works I love and, as long-time readers know, have posted about before.

Doorsien is a Dutch word that literally means "plunge through." Here is a description of how doorsien works, from Karel van Mander's 1604 book, The Painter's Book:

Our composition should enjoy a fine quality, for the delight of our sense, if we there allow a view [insien] or vista [doorsien] with small background figures and a distant landscape, into which the eyes can plunge. We should take care sometimes to place our figures in the middle of the foreground, and let one see over them for many miles. (quoted in Hollander, An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, 8

In my Humanities class on Wednesday, I spent a little time talking about doorsien in relation to this painting by Pieter de Hooch, The Linen Closet. Those of you who actually click on the "Read More" buttons you see in the posts here might remember my having blogged about this painting not long ago. You can clearly see doorsien at work in this painting: the views through the windows and door allow the viewer's eye a passage through the foregrounded space out into, depending on our route, the larger world or into the neighbor's house across the street. As I was discussing it in class, I found myself remembering my first real in-person exposure to Dutch painting, this 2001 exhibition in New York, and being struck by how different the Vermeers looked from the paintings of his contemporaries. Everyone was there to see the Vermeers and I was too, but I hadn't seen many of them before, just a few of them, and that trip would serve as my introduction to the other painters. Many of the other paintings exhibited the same technical mastery that the Vermeers showed, and the subject matter was the same or very similar in each (the galleries were arranged thematically, the Vermeers not set apart from the others). But the Vermeers were easily identifiable, even from across the room. I had assumed before going that they would all look pretty much alike, but they could not be more different. What differed was Vermeer's treatment of these scenes, specifically his rendering of interior space. To be specific, Vermeer's contemporaries, more often than not, employed doorsien; Vermeer didn't.

Vermeer comes closest to employing doorsien in this painting,
A Maid Asleep.We can see through a door into another room and, on the opposite wall, the frame and barest edge of a mirror. That far room has light from a window coming into it but, as is typical with Vermeer's interiors, we can't see the window itself, much less what lies beyond it.

What's the effect of this? Below the fold is my "ah-ha!" on this.

The space depicted in de Hooch's painting has a fluidity to it--for me, anyway, that space is so fluid that I find myself looking through the door and window as much as I do at the women and the small boy (yes--a boy, according to what I've read). For the viewer, the boundaries between interior and exterior are exceedingly blurred here. We note these people, find them pleasant enough, but that's about as far as it goes. In Vermeer's painting, all is interior. The eye isn't allowed to roam; we see, through the door, that there's not much to see except, via the mirror, that room and the room the maid is in, and so we don't worry about it anymore. So, we are compelled to contemplate the maid. And more: we wonder at her weariness, at her life. I find myself wondering just what the quality of her sleep is. I don't wonder at the quality of wakefulness of de Hooch's figures. Vermeer's maid's solitariness, the fact that the outside world is Outside, creates in this painting an intensity and, above all, an overwhelming sense of intimacy and privacy that the de Hooch just doesn't have. We are quiet; we don't want to disturb; we will tiptoe away quietly as soon as we're through contemplating. But that might not be for a while.

Somewhere in some online reading on doorsien a while back, someone wrote that it is such a prominent feature in Dutch painting because distinctions between public and private space were still very much in flux. Perhaps. But I personally don't think one has to look at too many of them before one realizes that Vermeer, at least, understood those distinctions very well.

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Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am off topic, but in my mind.... This "doorsien" concept merely is a way of turning the 2-D world of a canvas into a 3-D world for the reader's(viewer's) enjoyment. It's not about the interior/exterior...It is about establishing the subject in a fully fleshed out world. It is about understanding and organizing the space depicted in the painting.

John B. said...

I thought a long time about your observation; I was pretty close to agreeing with you. You're right that doorsien has to do with the viewer's enjoyment, but what van Mander is getting at is the painter's directing just how the viewer experiences the space depicted in the painting. For example, a Raphael painting of a Madonna with a vista in the background is doing something very different than de Hooch is here. For Raphael, those faraway houses and trees are just intended to break up the horizon. Our attention is on the Madonna and her Son, as it should be with such a painting. For de Hooch, the goal is not merely to create the illusion of depth but to invite the eye to move into that space, as though that space beyond--even far beyond--the foregrounded scene is just as commanding of our attention as that scene.

I hope I'm actually saying something different from what you are; if I'm not, I hope you'll (come back and) elaborate on what you mean.

John B. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I thought about what I wrote alot too!...after I wrote it I wondered of I was too rash in reducing doorsien to a mere device used in illustrating space. I think I was right and wrong at the same time. You are saying something different. You are answering the "Why lead the viewer's eye around the canvas?" question and I stopped short of that.
I think there is more than one reason to employ doorsien in a painting: 1- Employing doorsien demonstates the painter's ability to understand and render space (considered the mark of a good artist in this time period)and 2- The objects included generally have symbolic meaning and give us clues to the subject's world, social status, and also illuminate the storyline. Any painting with more to look at and interpret will invite the reader to spend more time with the artwork.
I tried a google search online for doorsien and found only your post at the House of Leaves forum. Did you know that it only allows the administrator to edit or post to that thread now?

jmb said...

Your readers need to go look at all the Vermeers and de Hooch's in the exhibit you mentioned to see your point. I also went and looked up Vermeer in some of my reference materials and found an interesting mention that he may have employed using mirrors to create his compositions (similar in ways to other artists in history who have used the camera obscura). The painting by Vermeer called "The Artist's Studio" is one where you can easily imagine he used a mirror or series of mirrors to create his canvas. I also think Vermeer's work is reminiscent of Carravagio's in composition. The sleeping maid is actually drunk, don't you think?
You are absolutely correct when you suggest that Vermeer's work differs in regard to the use of "doorsien" compared to his contemporaries.

John B. said...

Thanks for your generous comments.
Although I didn't actually post on the House of Leaves thread you mention, nothing came up that told me I couldn't. Had you logged in?
As for the woman in Vermeer's painting being drunk . . . I've read that, too; the presumption, based on similar paintings of obviously-drunken maids by other artists and the presence of glasses (one overturned) in Vermeer's painting, is that the maid has (over)indulged. But the very same commentary I've read says that Vermeer has DEemphasized those glasses (one has to look closely to see them. His reasons for doing so are unclear: does he intend for the viewer to focus solely on the woman and thus feel sympathy for her (my personal response to this painting), or does he want to compel the viewer to look for underlying causes for the maid's sleeping and THEN find the glasses? Good question. It's that very uncertainty that makes gazing at Vermeers such a marvelous, enriching game.

Anonymous said...

I did try to log in and edit. But I often have "technical difficulties" at the HOL website. It's kind of hard to explain (and off topic)....
anyway, maybe I'll try again later.
I do think upon reflection that maybe the book, House of Leaves, does have some "doorsien" elements at play in it.

Ariel said...

The concept is new to me, but my initial reaction is that doorsien for the sake of doorsien seems underwhelming. Now if the 'outer world' held some crucial clue to the painting's meaning, perhaps it would be different. I like your take on the compelling intimacy of the Vermeer, John.

John B. said...

Apologies for the delay in responding.
Thanks for the kind comments on my comments on Vermeer. It's hard to write about his work.
You're right that if doorsien is nothing more than an ornamental device, it isn't worthy of extended comment. Some people speculate, therefore, that what we can see through the windows and doorways is intended by the painter to offer a subtle commentary on what is foregrounded. But if so, what? I don't know. Or, rather, I don't yet know enough to say one way or the other.
So, then: de Hooch paints beautifully; I'm drawn, when I look at his work, to that fluidity in his treatment of space that I mentioned earlier. And I like the possibility that the idea of doorsien might be translatable to the discussion of certain kinds of novels--specifically, those that seek to create the illusion that they are about actual events or people (House of Leaves being one of them). But looking at Vermeer is much more demanding. His paintings are less complicated in their treatments of space, which means the figures--their expressions, their activities--require our attention as de Hoochs' do not. He doesn't let us wander off as de Hooch does. We WILL look.