Sir Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’: Part VIII

In this week’s installment, The Light of Experience, we enter the Age of Reason, a vital era that emerged, paradoxically, in the context of the Wars of Religion. We also witness a shift in inspiration in art, from Catholicism to Protestantism, and explore the enormous difference this made. In addition, capitalism and the bourgeoisie enter the story.

Sir Kenneth Clark focuses on Holland and England, and he emphasises the shift in perspective  from tradition and authority towards reason and experience as the basis of knowledge. He describes the new worlds discoverable in deep space or a drop of water, revealed by newly available telescopes and microscopes. He shows how this shift towards empiricism found expression in the realism of Rembrandt and other artists and architects who took civilization to a higher stage of development in the 17th Century. He ends, however, by introducing what he calls the ‘Nemesis’ of that civilisation.

Transition:  This week involves a jarring transition: from the lush, sensual, Baroque realm of Italy that we have looked at in past weeks to the spare, matter-of-fact realm of Holland, i.e., from the heavenly to the worldly. Indeed, Clark refers to this shift as

a revolutionary change in thought ~ the revolution that replaced Divine Authority by experience, experiment and observation,” and observes that “Dutch painting is a visible expression of this change of mind.

Bourgeois Capitalism: This revolution stretched far beyond art and involved a shift from asking ‘is it God’s will?’ to ‘does it work?’ and ‘does it pay?’ Art was becoming embedded in capitalism, and, “Amsterdam was the first centre of bourgeois capitalism … the great international port of the North and the chief banking centre of Europe.” The leading bourgeoisie were eager to have posterity know them and so had their portraits done. Consequently,

we know more about what the 17th Century Dutch looked like than we do about any other society.” They were “solid, commonplace people,” who today “might be members of local government committees or hospital governors today.

Above all, “they represent the practical, social application of the philosophy that things must be made to work.” (Centuries later their class would become a prime target of Modernist loathing and resentment.)

Freedom of Opinion: They also embraced the principle that “to try to suppress opinions which one doesn’t share is much less profitable than to tolerate them.”  Consequently,

the spirit of Holland in the early 17th Century was remarkably tolerant; and one proof is that nearly all the great books that revolutionized thought were first printed in Holland.

Persecution: Nevertheless, persecution continued: between and amongst Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, while “trials of witches increased in this Age of Reason.” One of the victims of this was Baruch Spinoza, a Sephardi Jew of Portuguese origin, and one of the great philosophers of the Modern Age.

Spinoza also pioneered the historical-critical approach to Biblical studies and developed a sophisticated form of pantheism — activities that led to his being anathematized as a heretic by his Jewish community. Moreover, “apart from being the greatest philosopher in the Netherlands, he was the finest lens-maker in Europe.” Tragically, the fine glass dust he inhaled killed Spinoza in 1667, aged 44.

Self-Indulgence: The high level of affluence brought by capitalism promoted a materialistic attitude and eventually led to “visual self-indulgence, ostentation, vulgarity … defensive smugness, sentimentality and a vulgar, trivial art,” as Marxist historians of art insisted was inevitable.

Rembrandt and Individual Genius: However, as Clark stresses, “they also got Rembrandt!”  This leads him to insist, that

however irrational it may seem, I believe in genius. I believe that almost everything of value that has happened in the world has been due to individuals.

Balance: At the same time, “in studying the history of civilisation one must try to keep a balance between individual genius and the moral or spiritual condition of a society.” Therefore,

one can’t help feeling that the supremely great figures in history — Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe — must be to some extent a summation of their times. They are too large, too all-embracing, to have developed in isolation.

The Need for ‘Truth’: What Rembrandt brought to this era of civilisation was attention to

that need for truth and that appeal to experience that had begun with the Reformation and the first translations of the Bible, but had had to wait almost a century for visible expression.

This refers to the ‘truth’ of direct worldly experience and empirical observation, as opposed to the truth of received tradition or ethereal mystical speculation. In his paintings, “Rembrandt reinterpreted sacred history and mythology in the light of human experience.” Consequently,

one often doesn’t know if [Rembrandt] is recording an observation or illustrating the scriptures, so much had the two experiences grown together in his mind. 

Rembrandt vs Bernini: The implications of this shift from the truth of the ethereal to the truth of the empirical emerge if we compare two female figures: Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1674) by Bernini (above), and Bathsheba at Her Bath (1654) by Rembrandt (below). One evokes the ecstasy of mystical rapture and otherworldly reality; the other the everyday hum-drum tedium of bathing and this-worldly reality.

Intellect vs Emotion: Another way of looking at this is to note that

the greatest of Rembrandt’s contemporaries were looking for a type of truth that could be established by intellectual, not emotional means.

In contrast, the essence of Bernini’s Baroque was to appeal to the emotions or, more accurately, to a non-intellectual form of aesthetic sensibility (a characteristic of civilisation).

Descartes: The valorisation of direct experience that characterized this era was epitomised by the philosophy of Rene Descartes, “an extremely sympathetic figure, who only ever wanted to do one thing, think! ~ something very rare and most unpopular.”  Descartes had set out to find an indisputable foundation for philosophy. For him, a proposition could only be accepted if it appeared indubitably true to the thinking mind. Having considered and rejected all other possibilities, he reasoned that the one thing that was indisputable was that the mind doing the thinking must exist. He therefore found a foundation for his philosophy in the postulate: ‘I think, therefore I am!’

Vermeer & Realism: For Clark, no artist better followed this appeal to direct experience than Vermeer of Delft

there has never been a painter who has stuck so rigorously to what his optic nerve reported to him.” Consequently, his work can “look like a coloured photograph,” displaying “what Descartes called ‘the natural light of the mind’.

Looking forward to Mondrian: There was another dimension to Vermeer that Clark points out. This is his tendency to produce “masterpieces of abstract design,” that look forward three centuries to his compatriot, Piet Mondrian  “the most austerely geometrical of modern painters.”

The Light of Civilisation: However, there is

“a crucial characteristic of Vermeer’s work that separates him from modern abstract art – his passion for light.” He “used the upmost ingenuity to make us feel the movement of light,” and this focus “connected him with the scientists and philosophers of his time.” In fact, “all the greatest exponents of civilisation, in this period from Dante to Goethe, have been obsessed by light.”

The Spiritualization of Matter: Clark argues that “this scientific approach to experience ends in poetry, and I suppose that this is due to an almost mystical rapture in the perception of light.” How else can we account for “the joy we feel when we look at the pewter jugs and white pots in Vermeer’s pictures?” The Dutch still-life artists demonstrated a delight in material objects and, as Clark observes, “often achieved what I can only call a spiritualization of matter.”

The Invention of the Lens: In such an empirically-minded context, one technological development stood out ~ the invention of the lens and its use in telescopes, to discover new worlds in space; and microscopes, to discover them in matter.

The Camera Obscura? An older invention may also have been vital: Clark speculates that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura to help him obtain the highly realistic qualities of his paintings.

Transfer of Leadership: It was during the 1660s that leadership in this stage in the development of civilisation passed from Holland to England. There was a cadre of intellectual geniuses that would make profound contributions to human knowledge: Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry; Robert Hooke, the perfector of the microscope (left); Edward Halley, the pioneering astronomer; Christopher Wren, the brilliant polymath; and towering above even these giants, Sir Isaac Newton.

‘Let Newton Be’: Newton (right) casts an enormous shadow. He was a mathematician, astronomer, and physicist, whose Principia Mathematica (1687) illuminated the structure of the universe and dominated physics for nearly 250 years. He also made major breakthroughs in optics and invented (with Gottfried Leibniz) the infinitesimal calculus. His intellectual achievements arguably surpass those of anyone else in the history of civilization. As Alexander Pope wrote:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night
God said ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light.

Oddly, he remained fascinated throughout his life with alchemy and esoteric theories of religion.

Scientific Instruments: We visit the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, designed by Christopher Wren, and Clark discusses some early scientific instruments. Despite their often quaint appearance, these played a key role in opening up the physical world to human understanding and exploration. He laments that once they were also symbols of human mastery of the world, but now science is regarded with far more suspicion.

Christopher Wren: Wren (left) also designed the incredible Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich which, Clark declares, exemplifies civilisation:

What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendidly decorated hall.

Wren also oversaw the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, and designed the new St Paul’s Cathedral (below), “the chief monument of English classicism.”

The Power of Science: Wren’s work proved that

mathematics, measurement, observation ~ all that goes to make up the philosophy of science ~ were not hostile to architecture.

Quite the contrary: they made previous approaches, based on poetry and mythology, obsolete. “Poetry,” declared a contemporary champion of the Royal Society, “is the parent of superstition.” It seemed

all products of the imagination were dangerous falsities and forms of deceit.

They were fancies and “reality lay elsewhere, in the realm of measurement and observation.” The course of all things is determined solely by cause and effect, of which, since Newton, science is the master.

Glory & Nemesis: In its “first glorious century,” the triumph of science and the Industrial Revolution it brought “set the West apart from the other peoples of the world.” It vastly empowered a civilization that had only just begun to venture beyond its borders. Indeed, for many 19th Century historians, “European civilisation seemed almost to begin with this achievement,” i.e., they identified Western Civilization with industrial society.  However, apart from later cultural critics like Carlyle and Ruskin, they failed to see that, in Clark’s view

the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism.

Indeed, it was possible for Clark in 1968 to look out from Wren’s Greenwich Observatory (above) and find, stretching as far as the eye can see, the squalid disorder of industrial society.” The same economic conditions that “allowed the 17th Century Dutch to build their beautiful towns, support their artists, and print the works of challenging philosophers,” also disfigures the world. It seems that Industrial Civilization is the nemesis of Civilisation — a dramatic possibility we will explore in the weeks to come.

  • John Reid

    “… but now science is regarded with far more suspicion.'” This is hardly surprising when activists talk of `”the science” in the same way that Christian fundamentalists talk of “the Bible” and when so called climate “scientists” abandon reason, experiment and observation in favour of flawed, fudged, arcane, numerical models with no predictive power. Science has not failed, it has been prostituted.


    Science has been ‘politicised’ for a long time. I first became aware of it at Uni in the late 60’s and early 70’s, It was most evident in those ‘sciences’ concerning human nutrition when all animal foodstuff such as eggs, meat and saturated fats [dairy products] were all supposedly toxic to humans. Some of it was pushed by commercial interests such as margarine manufacturers but most of the impetus came from leftists in academia and the media via their special interest groups like ‘environmentalists’ and ‘animal’ rights advocates.

  • whitelaughter

    perhaps worth linking to the previous articles?

  • Stephen Due

    A print of Canaletto’s ‘photo’ (sorry that’s family usage dating from my daughters’ childhoods) of Greenwich Hospital hangs incongruously over my photocopier in the back room. It really functions there not so much to document a work of art by a great painter or the masterpiece of a great architect, as to recall a visit to Greenwich one glorious English spring day many years ago.
    On the other hand, the many reproductions of Rembrandt’s biblical scenes in the art books in our library (formerly the third bedroom) serve a very different purpose. Rembrandt understood that the Bible is a manual for this world, and this life. One may of course speculate about Rembrandt’s own religious commitment or experience. But his eye for biblical truth is unerring. He is a great interpreter of the Bible. To me, the genius of Rembrandt lies in his conversations, as an artist, with the Genius of the Bible.

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