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Favorite Things: Samuel van Hoogstraten's Perspective Box at the Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts is just a few miles down the road for me, and whenever I can, I love to spend a day at the museum. It's recognized as one of the top art museums in the US, with a collection of over 65,000 works housed in a Beaux-Arts building designed by Paul Cret. The museum was founded in 1885, and now spans over 650,00 square feet with more than 100 exhibition galleries. It's fantastic, and when I visit I always check in with my favorite works.







Perhaps my favorite thing in the DIA collection is the Perspective Box of a Dutch Interior by Samuel van Hoogstraten, made in 1663. It's quite a special object, one of only six extant perspective boxes in the world. Here's a bit of history from the DIA:


"Produced in Holland during a twenty-five-year period beginning about 1650, the perspective box is an artistic application of linear perspective to create an optical illusion. The illusion is created when the viewer looks into the pentagonal box through a peephole and perceives the painted interior as three-dimensional. Light to the interior is supplied by the reflecting mirror. The images incorporate several themes characteristic of Dutch paintings in the late seventeenth century: genre, still life, architectural views, and symbols of the vanity of earthly pleasures."




Perspective Box of a Dutch Interior by Samuel van Hoogstraten, at the DIA. This piece is a lifelong favorite and this is one of the countless photos I've taken of this piece over many years.
Perspective Box of a Dutch Interior by Samuel van Hoogstraten, at the DIA. This piece is a lifelong favorite and this is one of the countless photos I've taken of this piece over many years. At the left you can just see the box's front panel, which has been removed for display.






The artist Samuel van Hoogstraten referred to these works as wonderlijke perspectyfkas: 'curious perspective boxes'. They're not grand, historical works; rather they're objects scaled for a study or home library, recreating quotidian domestic subjects through illusion and trompe l'oeil. Perspective boxes exist somewhere between a painting, a sculptural object, a scientific instrument and a toy-- to my mind, perfection.







Peeking into this curious pentagonal wooden box, we're treated to views of a 17th century home interior, populated with interesting characters and still-life compositions. I'm so glad to have regular access to this fascinating piece and after all these years, I still can't get enough of this exquisite object. The texture of the wood and paint are so beautiful, and I find great inspiration in it's scale, geometry and construction.








There's another fabulous perspective box by Samuel van Hoogstraten in the National Gallery in London, shown below, and I'll of course be popping in to visit this piece on my next trip over.






"The perspective box or peepshow is an optical device which enables an artist to create a convincing illusion of interior (or, more rarely, exterior) space. Using a complex perspectival construction, the four inside walls of a wooden box are painted to simulate the space and the scene is then viewed through a carefully positioned eyehole. The eye is deceived into believing that this is really the inside of a room. The peepshow was popular among Dutch 17th-century artists, reflecting a fascination with perspectival and optical devices. Of the six peepshows which survive from the 17th century the best is that by Samuel van Hoogstraten in the National Gallery. The inside of the box is painted in such a way that when viewed through either of the peep holes, located at each end, it gives the illusion of a three-dimensional interior of a modest Dutch room, sparsely furnished and with views through into other rooms."


"Looking into the open side, which was originally covered with translucent oiled paper, we see a distorted jumble of walls, windows, open doors, crooked floor tiles, misshapen chairs and an oddly proportioned dog. It is only when we peer through a peephole – there’s one on either side of the cabinet – that everything falls into place: we see the illusion of a three-dimensional seventeenth-century Dutch house, with views into a variety of rooms and outdoor spaces. The rooms are quiet: one woman lies asleep in bed, while another reads in a chair. The only other living being in the house is a dog, though a man outside peeks in through a window.

A letter addressed to the artist lies on one of the chairs in the middle room, while a portrait print bearing the van Hoogstraten family crest appears to the left of the bedroom door. This suggests that we are actually peeping into the artist’s imaginary home. And van Hoogstraten further teases the viewer, reminding us of our intrusion into this quiet domestic space. When looking into the box from the left, our behaviour is mirrored by the man opposite, who secretly watches the reading woman through the window. Looking through the hole on the right, our gaze is met by the dog, which has spotted us spying on the women in the house."


The drama!



Detail: A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House, ca. 1655, by Samuel van Hoogstraten, collection of the National Gallery, London
Detail: A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House, ca. 1655, by Samuel van Hoogstraten, collection of the National Gallery, London






The perspective box moment in art history was brief, but it's still hard to believe that only six of these boxes exist. Beyond the two described above, there are three in the National Gallery of Denmark's collection, and from what I can gather, the last is housed in Museum Bredius in The Hague. It would be wonderful to see them all--perhaps a pilgrimage is in order?



signature of the artist







Suggested reading:

  • The Rhetoric of Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still-Life Painting, by Hanneke Grootenboer, University of Chicago Press, 2006

  • Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing, by Laura J. Snyder, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015

  • Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition, Emily Braun and Elizabeth Cowling with contributions by Claire Le Thomas and Rachel Mustalish, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022

  • A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, by Mariët Westermann, Harry N Abrams Inc., 1996



Souvenir is the blog for Parvum Opus, an artist-run studio specializing in artistic decorative objects and home furnishings. We welcome your thoughts! Comment below to join the conversation, and if you enjoyed this, don't forget to subscribe to receive an email when we publish new posts.


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