- Art, Science, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Holland: Jacques de Gheyn II (1565-1629)
What is real and what fantasy? Where lies the boundary between the perception of nature and illusion? The Dutch engraver and painter Jacques de Gheyn II excelled both in the exact depiction of natural objects and in fanciful drawings and engravings about witches and demonic figures. In this book Claudia Swan examines his aims in rendering reality in these two genres, and what reality meant to him and the people among whom he worked. De Gheyn (1565–1629), styled "the second" to distinguish him from his father and son who had the same name, was born in Antwerp. In 1585, at the age of twenty, he settled in Haarlem, where Hendrick Goltzius instructed him in the art of engraving. Between 1590 and 1595 he lived in Amsterdam. He then moved to the university town of Leiden, and in 1603 he finally settled in nearby The Hague, the administrative center of the Dutch Republic.
At that time the University of Leiden had, after a hesitant start in 1575, evolved into a major center of erudite learning and latitudinarian thinking. This offered the young artist ideal surroundings in which to perfect his skills in scientific materialism. Soon, his ability to depict herbs and flowers found in places like the university's new botanical garden was highly valued. Yet he not only depicted the plants there, but also the garden itself. Pieter Pauw, professor of anatomy and botany, was portrayed by De Gheyn in a rather theatrical depiction during an anatomical lecture and also in the course of his instructions in the garden. In this period De Gheyn also made minute drawings of insects and small animals. [End Page 230]
Just after the turn of the century, however, he shifted much of his attention to a highly imaginary theme, namely, that of witchcraft. Illustrative of this transition is a pen and ink drawing he made in 1602–3, which contain both a detailed depiction of a hermit crab and a witchcraft scene. This conspicuous development, of course, provokes the question about the way in which De Gheyn perceived such preternatural activities. To solve this problem, Swan discusses the views of Dutch painters and critics concerning the possibility of representing nature realistically in works of art, to work nae het leven as the Dutch put it (i.e., from life), which was De Gheyn's position in this field. In the second part of her book, she shifts to De Gheyn's witches, and in the final chapter she proposes a balanced judgment on the degree to which the artist aimed at rendering a realistic image in the two genres he pursued.
I find Swan's analysis very convincing. She is clearly well informed about the contemporaneous discussion concerning the degree to which realism is possible in art. She is also well versed in the—in so many ways very complicated—situation in the Dutch Republic. Her fluency in Dutch is certainly of great value here. An element of major importance is the fact that De Gheyn made this shift toward witchcraft scenes just in the period when it was becoming progressively difficult in the Netherlands to prosecute witches. In 1593 and 1594 the highest judicial authorities of the provinces Holland and Zeeland had rendered verdicts that made it impossible from then on to apply torture or the water test in such cases. The other five provinces soon adopted this new jurisprudence. From then on, it was only possible to convict somebody for witchcraft if the defendant's confession had been obtained without the use of torture. As a matter of fact, the last witch to be executed in the Republic, in 1608, had given such a voluntary statement.
In 1594 the Court of Holland and Zeeland banned the water test on the advice of the professors of medicine and philosophy of the University of Leiden. On the court's request they had given it a disquisition that was clearly modeled...