Putting 17th-century Dutch realism in perspective; The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, by Svetlana Alpers. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Illustrated. 273 pp. $37.50.
It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence. . . . I turn, without shrinking, from . . . prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her solitary dinner. . . .
IN this passage from ''Adam Bede,'' the 19th-century novelist and moralist, George Eliot links the artist's commitment to truthfulness with a democratic concern for ordinary people. Eliot's affection for Dutch art reflects the prevailing 19th-century attitude expressed by art historian Eugene Fromentin, whom Svetlana Alpers quotes at the beginning of her study: ''We feel a loftiness and a goodness of heart, an affection for the true, a love for the real, that give their works a value the things (depicted) do not seem to possess.''
But the 19th century's admiration for Dutch realism was an aberration in the critical mainstream. In the 16th century, Michelangelo judged northern painters as lacking a sense of grand design and the gift of imaginative conception. In the 18th century, Sir Joshua Reynolds expressed similar reservations about an art whose ''merit often consists in the truth of representation alone.''
In our own time, with its emphasis on nonrepresentational art, realism is no longer considered valuable in and of itself. Critics and historians of art have sought other means of explaining the appeal of Dutch artists like Ruisdael, De Hooch, Kalf, and, of course, the incomparable Vermeer. Alpers cites E. de Jongh as the spokesman for the approach which holds that beneath the seemingly realistic painted images lurk deeper meanings.
Alpers considers this search for hidden meanings a misguided attempt to make Dutch art conform to the Italian idea (set forth by Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century) of what a picture is. Those who judge Dutch or northern art by Albertian (or Italian) criteria are bound to find it deficient.
Alpers's goal is to establish a distinct and equally valid set of criteria for Dutch or northern art, which she calls the art of describing and which she contrasts to the Italian art of narrating.
Alpers suggests that the crucial contrasts between the two modes reflect cultural differences between north and south. The Renaissance Italians thought of man as the measure of the world; the seafaring Dutch were busily measuring the world. Italian interest in time and history differed from Dutch interest in space and geography. Italian artists tended to depict historical or mythological scenes, while the Dutch painted as eyewitnesses to the facts of nature. The Italian picture is like a window on a second world; the Dutch is like a mirror reflecting this one.
Alpers's far-ranging and fascinating speculations raise almost as many questions as they answer. She suggests, for instance, that the contrast between Dutch visual and Italian textual culture reflects the modernizing shift from faith in books (the sources of authority in medieval culture) to faith in Baconian experiment (testing the word of books against the reality of things). But, we might ask, are pictures any more the things they represent than words are?
Alpers's ambitious attempt to provide a non-Albertian aesthetic ranges so widely among cultural crosscurrents that it sometimes loses track of its original aesthetic aim. It succeeds brilliantly in providing a fresh view of Dutch art in a nonartistic context, but less so in explaining the elusive quality of a Vermeer.