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The Philosopher, The Priest, & The Painter by Steve Nadler

Massimo Pigliucci studies a portrait of Descartes.

I like philosophy, and I like history. I also like art. So it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to Steven Nadler’s book on the iconic portrait of (allegedly) René Descartes (1596-1650), reproduced here, which Wikipedia says is ‘after Frans Hals’ and dates to 1648. It’s found on the third floor of the Richelieu Wing at the Louvre, and though it doesn’t attract the crowds who go see the Mona Lisa, it’s a must-stop for anyone interested in philosophy. Thing is, experts are no longer sure that the painting, once owned by the Duke of Orléans and by Louis XVI, is indeed by Hals, one of the most successful portrait artists of the time. Moreover, in Copenhagen we find a similar portrait at the Danish National Gallery that, although clearly less finished than the Parisian version, also unmistakably seems to be of Descartes.

This is the set-up for Nadler’s book, which traces the story of the paintings in question, along the way exploring art, religion and philosophy in seventeenth century Holland. We learn about Descartes’ penchant for quiet and solitude, which led him to leave the hustle and bustle of Paris to continue his studies in the remote Dutch village of Egmond de Abdij on the North Sea. Why the Dutch Republic? Because it was, relatively speaking, one of the most freethinking places in the world, characterized by a significant amount of religious freedom, as enshrined in Article Thirteen of the Union of Utrecht: “Every individual should remain free in his religion, and no man should be molested or questioned on the subject of divine worship.” This suited the Catholic Descartes just fine.

Malle Babbe
Malle Babbe by Frans Hals

Descartes travelled throughout this period of his life, including an Italian trip to Venice, Rome and Florence (where, unfortunately, he did not get to meet Galileo). Rather surprisingly, he didn’t care for the much vaunted Mediterranean climate: “I do not know how you can like so much the air of Italy, with which one so often breathes in pestilence, and where the heat of the day is always unbearable and the coolness of the evening so unhealthy, and where the darkness of night obscures robberies and murders,” he wrote to his friend Guez de Balzac in 1631.

Nadler naturally recounts Descartes’ close friendship with the mathematician Marin Mersenne, who, as the author puts it, “would function as a kind of midwife to Descartes’ philosophical thought and helped usher some of his writings into print.” But it is to another, much less well-known friend, that a significant part of the book is devoted: the Catholic priest Augustijn Alsten Bloemaert, of Haarlem, who would become one of a small group of regular interlocutors of Descartes during the latter’s self-imposed exile. Bloemaert was a fascinating character in his own right, coming under the threat of excommunication because of his pamphlets attacking the powerful Society of Jesus, of which he was a member, and was eventually allowed to leave.

Bloemaert also owned a good number of paintings, mostly by well-known artists of the time. It was Bloemaert who apparently commissioned the famous portrait, when Descartes was about to leave Holland for his appointment at the court of Queen Christina of Sweden (which turned out to be fatal for the philosopher shortly afterwards), in order to be able to better remember his friend. Scholars have hypothesized that the Copenhagen portrait was a preparatory study for the finished work, but this doesn’t seem to hold up to further scrutiny of the structure and style of the piece. Instead, it is possible that the ‘rough’ version was intended as the basis of a print. Either way, the strength of the (inconclusive) evidence is that it is the Copenhagen portrait, not the one at the Louvre, which was commissioned to Hals by Bloemaert, and which may have hung in the priest’s lodging in Haarlem.

Hals himself had a fascinating life as a successful artist, becoming one of the most sought-after and well paid portraitists of the time, and producing a range of work that included decidedly unconventional approaches to both subject and style – for instance, his Malle Babbe of 1633-1635, currently at the Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen in Berlin. Personality-wise, he could be stubborn and exasperating, even to his patrons. On one occasion, for instance, he just couldn’t be bothered to make the short trip from Haarlem to Amsterdam in order to finish a group portrait of the Crossbow Civic Guard, for which he was under contract. Moreover, he was a bit of a drunkard; but enough people admired him that he was always looked after, somehow: “his students had great esteem for him, and the eldest understood that they had to take turns taking care of him, and especially in the evening, when it was dark or late and he came out of the tavern, so that he would not walk into the water or in any other way meet some misfortune. They safely brought him home, removed his socks and shoes, and helped him into bed.”

Nadler’s book interestingly sketches the outlines of how the lives of the philosopher, the priest and the painter intersected, but the book comes across as less than it could have been. Hals, after all, had very little to do with the lives of the other two, and the history of the famous portrait(s) is still largely shrouded in mystery. The reader is also left wanting to know much more about Descartes’ and Bloemaert’s circle of friends. The whole story somehow just doesn’t come across as compellingly as, say, that narrated by Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), which focuses on the rediscovery of the lost manuscript of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. Nadler’s exposition of Descartes’ philosophy is also a bit on the dry side. Still, The Philosopher, The Priest, and the Painter makes for compelling reading for anyone interested in Descartes, his times, and the places were he lived.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2015

Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York. His blog is at platofootnote.org.

The Philosopher, The Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes by Steven Nadler, Princeton UP, 2015, 248 pages, £12.50/$17.95, ISBN: 0691165750

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