The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter

The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes

Steven Nadler
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 254
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  • Book Info
    The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter
    Book Description:

    In the Louvre museum hangs a portrait of a middle-aged man with long dark hair, a mustache, and heavy-lidded eyes, and he is dressed in the starched white collar and black coat of the typical Dutch burgher. The painting is now the iconic image of René Descartes, the great seventeenth-century French philosopher. And the painter of the work? The Dutch master Frans Hals--or so it was long believed, until the work was downgraded to a copy of an original. But where, then, is the authentic version located, and who painted it? Is the man in the painting--and in its original--really Descartes?

    A unique combination of philosophy, biography, and art history,The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painterinvestigates the remarkable individuals and circumstances behind a small portrait. Through this image--and the intersecting lives of a brilliant philosopher, a Catholic priest, and a gifted painter--Steven Nadler opens up a fascinating portal into Descartes's life and times, skillfully presenting an accessible introduction to Descartes's philosophical and scientific ideas, and an illuminating tour of the volatile political and religious environment of the Dutch Golden Age. As Nadler shows, Descartes's innovative ideas about the world, about human nature and knowledge, and about philosophy itself, stirred great controversy. Philosophical and theological critics vigorously opposed his views, and civil and ecclesiastic authorities condemned his writings. Nevertheless, Descartes's thought came to dominate the philosophical world of the period, and can rightly be called the philosophy of the seventeenth century.

    Shedding light on a well-known image,The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painteroffers an engaging exploration of a celebrated philosopher's world and work.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4759-4
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Prologue: A Tale of Two Paintings
    (pp. 1-7)

    On the third floor of the Richelieu Wing of the Louvre in Paris is a gallery devoted to “Holland, First Half of the 17th Century.” “Room 27” is not one of the museum’s more traveled venues. Visitors, if they stop to see the artworks in the room, do not stay long. There are none of the Louvre’s world-famous masterpieces here: noMona Lisa, Winged Victory, or Venus de Milo. There are not even any of its better known and often reproduced paintings; Gericault’sThe Raft of the Medusaand Delacroix’sLiberty Leading the Peopleare in the Sully Wing, while...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Philosopher
    (pp. 8-35)

    On the west coast of Holland facing the North Sea are three small villages all bearing the name “Egmond,” after the noble family to which the lands once belonged. Egmond aan Zee (Egmond by the Sea), the oldest and situated on the shore, was originally a fishing settlement, and has long been a popular resort because of its beaches. Over the centuries, it periodically suffered from heavy flooding—in 1570, it lost fifty houses to the sea; during a storm in 1741, another thirty-six houses and the village church disappeared into North Sea waters (color plate 1).

    No more than...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Priest
    (pp. 36-54)

    Around the time that Descartes was relocating among the major cities in Holland and Utrecht, seeking a peaceful place to pursue his research, a certain Dutch Catholic priest was also on the move. The independent-minded cleric was hoping to find a city in which to carry out his pastoral duties undisturbed by his order’s ecclesiastic superiors. He eventually found his calling in the diocese of Haarlem, his childhood hometown. This was not far from the small, rural village in which Descartes, just a few years later, was to set up house for good. The lives of the philosopher and the...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Painter
    (pp. 55-86)

    Among the thousands of people employed in the textile industry in the city of Antwerp, in the province of Brabant in the Spanish Netherlands, was one Franchois Hals. He worked as adroogscheerder, or cloth cutter, and apparently made a fair living from it. Originally from the town of Mechelen, where his father was a wool dyer, Franchois and his brother Carel had moved to Antwerp in 1562. His first wife, Elisabeth Baten, died in 1581. Within the year, needing someone to care for his four children, he married his neighbor Adriaentgen van Geertenrijck, the widow of a tailor.¹ When...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “Once in a Lifetime”
    (pp. 87-110)

    In a letter to his friend Claude Picot in 1649, Descartes describes the life he has been leading in Egmond de Abdij. The small village, just north of Haarlem, offers him “a solitude . . . as peaceful and with as much sweetness as he has ever had.”¹ While he occasionally experienced a longing for France, he knew that the political turmoil now raging in his homeland—he was writing at the time of the Fronde, a nobility-led uprising against the regency of Anne of Austria, the young king’s mother, and her first minister Cardinal Mazarin—made it impossible to...

  10. Color Plates
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER 6 A New Philosophy
    (pp. 111-142)

    In the fall of 1640, Descartes wrote to Mersenne in Paris to seek his advice. TheMeditationswere now ready to go to press, and he was unsure about the best way to proceed. He originally wanted to have a small number of copies printed, a kind of preview run, to send to several dozen theologians “for their opinion of it.” The idea was to seek their approval, or at least get a sense of what they might find objectionable. “I have no fear that it contains anything that could displease the theologians,” he tells Mersenne, “but I would have...

  12. CHAPTER 7 God in Haarlem
    (pp. 143-173)

    Dutch winters can be long and cold. In the mid-seventeenth century, they were especially so, as Europe was then going through a particularly severe stretch of the so-called “Little Ice Age.” For someone living by himself in the countryside, the winter months could also be lonely.

    Descartes appreciated the solitude of his home in Egmond. The peace and quiet were conducive to the undisturbed reflection needed in order to make progress in his philosophy. He took advantage of the isolation to pursue further experiments in physics and animal physiology, although he often lamented the absence of the funding and manual...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Portrait
    (pp. 174-198)

    A Catholic priest wanted a portrait of his philosopher friend before his departure abroad. Did Augustijn Bloemaert turn to Frans Hals for this souvenir of a deeply valued, decade-long companionship? It would not have been that unusual a commission for the Haarlem master, although his orders usually came from a more elite clientele in a time when there was plenty of money for such things.

    In Holland in the first half of the seventeenth century, as the Dutch Republic flourished economically, there was a corresponding rise in the demand for portraits. Artists could hardly keep up with what one art...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 199-218)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-226)
  16. Index
    (pp. 227-230)