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Despite how intertwined emotions are with our lives, we cannot definitively say what they are either scientifically or contextually. The complexity of this conundrum is ably captured in Emotions: Pain and Pleasure in Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age, a catalog that accompanied an exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum 2014–2015. A carefully constructed book, it includes an introduction to the subject by Ann Demeester (the director of the Frans Hals Museum), informative essays by Gary Schwartz and Machiel Keestra, a fully annotated descriptive catalog for the exhibition and an overview of an interactive Emolab installation that accompanied the show while it was on view. The sum total offers a perspective on emotions in art and science that covers a broad range while successfully placing their depiction within both the Dutch Golden Age and our own time. Anyone who has tried to weave a far-reaching statement together with a narrowly defined topic knows how perilous this kind of aspiration is. In this case, I applaud their results.
The project's success was no doubt due to a careful crafting of elements. Schwartz's essay makes the point that our current views of 17th-century art (or the Dutch Golden Age) often fail to capture how important the expression of emotions was to the artists of that time. As he notes, if our tendency is to associate the art of that era with domesticity, intimacy and the quiet enjoyment of material pleasures an artist like Vermeer might convey, contemporary viewers wanted to experience emotions when they look at paintings. He then argues this point by combining his reading of historical science, philosophical and artistic approaches to the subject so as to convey that Dutch work does indeed express a range of emotions. After reading the book, I realized how little thought I had given to the emotional triggers in many of the brothel, social and religious narratives I identify with Dutch art of that time. In addition, as I looked at the emotional range within this volume, it was clear that the Dutch art of the Golden Age is worth reevaluating in terms of Schwartz's arguments. Moreover, having a show that excavates this range at the Frans Hals Museum underscored Hals's particular gifts in this area, as works like his well-known Laughing Cavalier remind us.
One excellent element of the catalog was the way the book's commentary compares and contrasts the art historical examples with the views of broadly known figures outside of art (such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas). Many Dutch writers less well known globally are mentioned as well. Thus, we learn that the Dutch artists of this time would have known and used the work of people like Karel van Mander and Franciscus Junius. If broad-based source materials aid Schwartz in showing how artists integrated the ideas of their time with their presentations of emotionality, it is also worth noting that he explains that many of our popular generalizations about 17th-century thinkers are actually mischaracterizations, further complicating our analyses of individual contributions. For example, writing about Descartes (1596–1650), who lived in the Netherlands from 1629 to 1649, Schwartz says:
Descartes's reputation as a hard-headed proponent of a strict dualism, in which our bodies function as machines, stands in the way of understanding his ideas about the emotions. The translator into Dutch of his book, Theo Verbeek, puts it this way: "We have passions exactly because we are not machines, which is to say that we are free. Passions are the price that we pay for our freedom, and this price, to Descartes, can never be too high. All in all, it is the passions that make us truly human. All good and evil in life depends on them"(p. 14) .
Organizing emotions around several themes further adds cohesion to the expansive effort. Selected paintings were grouped to convey Suffering and Despair; Mourning; Lust...