The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters

Image of The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
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This book offers subjective facets of the Dutch Golden Age (circa 1566 to -1688 or as late as 1713))——the personal stories of 17 major artists as distilled by a highly cultivated and sensitive American as he tries to understand art, life, and himself.

Author Benjamin Moser, born 1976 in Houston, Texas, went to the Netherlands at 25 and stayed there 20 years. His Afterword final chapter reflects on his return to Houston and how comfortable he felt speaking again in his native tongue,  eventongue, even though he has published in Portuguese and French as well as in Dutch.

To appreciate your native land, Moser suggests, go abroad. Having earned a bachelor’s in history at Brown University, he went on to obtain a master’s and a Ph.D. at the University of Utrecht. In 2009 he was awarded Brazil’s first State Prize in Cultural Diplomacy for introducing the novelist Larice Lispector to an international public with his book Why This World? In 2019 Moser received a Pulitzer Prize for his authorized biography of Susan Sontag. In 2020 he published a book about his favorite Dutch artist,  Fransartist, Frans Hals op de tweesprong. If you do not like the idiosyncrasies of tThe Upside-Down World, his book, know that some critics have portrayed Moser as a virtual force of nature.

Moser’s first chapter deals with one of the best-known Dutch artists, Rembrandt. Not only were his paintings dark, so was his inner being. He was notorious for not paying his bills; worse still, he got a long-time mistress committed to an insane asylum when she claimed that he jilted her for another woman. His paintings made him wealthywealthy for a time,  but his lifestyle ended his life in poverty. Though Moser is a bibliophile,  hebibliophile, he makes no reference to the 750-page book Rembrandt’s Eyes by Columbia University historian Simon Schama (Knopf, 1999).  

Moser features another well-known painter, Johannes Vermeer, born in Delft in 1632,  in the same month as Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a father of microbiology, and just one month before Baruch Spinoza, was born in Amsterdam—a free thinking scholar expelled from the Jewish community but who would equal in philosophy the others’ achievements in art and science. As it happened, all three showed an interest in optics, with Vermeer famous for his renderings of light as it poured into the window of the front room of his house filled with ten or more children.

This book presents many vignettes about the history of the Dutch Golden Age and its artists,  but  omits any there is no systematic exposition of the broad context in which these artists emerged. Weighty factors included the influence of Italian artists of the Renaissance; the divisions among Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and other splits within these faiths; Calvinist iconoclasm and Catholic Inquisition; the toll of Bubonic plague; the 80-year war of the Netherlands versus the Spanish Hapsburgs; the 30-year war that killed half the population in some parts of Europe; the wealth accumulated by the Dutch West India and East India companies as tiny Netherlands pioneered Europe’s slave trade and established colonies from Ceylon and Indonesia to the Caribbean and the lands from Pennsylvania and Manhattan to southern Cape Cod.

Moser says nothing about the influence of the leading humanist Erasmus or about Hugo Grotius, a father of international law, born in Delft in 1583. However, he quotes Grotius on the exuberant, carnival spirit with which Dutch took to the ice in those winters days (before global warming): “Here, nobody speaks of rank, here we are open and free.” Four hundred years on, Moser writes, the pictures of winter fun by the deaf prodigy Hendrick Avercamp have never been excelled by any other painter. Moser includes one picture of winter fun on the ice by Pieter Bruegel the Younger but nothing by his father, Bruegel the Elder, a far greater artist than his son. Nor is there anything about Peter Paul Rubens except that he thrived in Brabant,  (birthplace also of Vincent Van Gogh).

While Moser does not give us the big picture in one place, his quite subjective notations throughout the book lead us to contemplate some of the biggest ideas. For example, he notices that museum visitors—even if they rush by a Rembrandt—are usually stopped by the charisma (Greek for grace) of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Moser then thinks about “beauty,” a term often applied to the subjects of his biographies of Susan Sontag and LClarice Lispector. Beauty is not superficial, according to Moser, but does it emanate from the body or the mind? He believes it an internal quality that emits charisma both in real life and sometimes even in  photographsin photographs.

Moser got to know a whole galaxy of fine artists, including the doomed Fabritius, killed at an early age in an explosion; the anguished wunderkind Jan Lievens; the translucent churches—interiors and exteriors  of Pieter Saenredam; the animals and muddy barnyards of Paulus Potter; Pieter de Hooch’s cozy hearths; and the twisted trees of Jacob van Ruisdael, arising from the flat landscapes of the low country’s human-made environment,  (as described in the final pages of Goethe’s Faust.).

Moser’s penultimate portrait is of a woman artist, Rachel Ruysch, who applied her knowledge of science to luminous paintings of flowers. Unliked many other artists, she achieved instant respect and financial security. She had a long and happy marriage and bore ten children,

Each of Moser’s chapters on his 17 chosen artists is lavishly illustrated with color renderings of their work (alas, only 12.5 x 16 cm., in size). One of the most interesting is a photo of Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, before and after its restoration. Another depicts is one of Vermeer’s few landscapes—a painting of Delft that Marcel Proust regarded as the greatest painting in the world, with its patch of yellow wall amid much larger, brownish structures,  a detailbeauty cherished by Proust and other sensitive observers.