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Eye light;The big picture

(Photograph) - We call this kind of painting trompe l'oeil (French for "deceives the eye"). A flattened perspective creates an illusion of solidity on the two-dimensional plane. In Holland in the 17th century, the so-called Delft school used newly-refined oil paints (which allowed for precise lines) to experiment with fashionable ideas about optical problems.

The philosophers Spinoza, Leibniz, Newton and Descartes were all writing about light at this time; artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer made great pictures out of shifting light, shade and perspective.

Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), pupil of Rembrandt and teacher of Vermeer, spent most of his life in the Dutch town of Dordrecht. In his theoretical writings about art, Hoogstraten scorned the "easy exercises" depicting papers and combs against panels or walls. Yet he was not above gaining "honours" by such work for powerful patrons, nor above celebrating the status thus gained, as this picture shows.

Each item denotes the high degree of culture and wealth enjoyed by the artist. The golden medal was awarded to Hoogstraten in a ceremony at the Austrian Emperor's court, while the pearls, pin cushion, filigree scissors and hat pin adorned his wife, Sara Balen. The combs and wig-powder brush llustrate fastidious hygiene, reserved for the well-off; the bound book and handkerchief refined taste; the quill pen, clasp or paperknife with Egyptian head and letter point to an education, while the printed pamphlet from England is on a political subject (the Rump Parliament of 1648 which, manipulated by Cromwell, abolished the monarchy but then became in its turn a corrupt oligarchy), demonstrating that Hoogstraten was a man of the world, travelled, with a grasp on the big issues of the day.

The effect, in context, is not unlike Bill Gates using advanced computer technology to deck his Seattle mansion with the finest digital versions of the world's masterpeices: if you've got it, flaunt it.


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