If you like visiting the Dutch and Flemish galleries at your favorite museum, or have traveled to the Netherlands and stood in awe before Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and swooned before Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” yet can’t always distinguish Ferdinand Bol from Govert Flinck or Rachel Ruysch from Adriaen Coorte, Benjamin Moser’s new book, “The Upside-Down World: Meetings With the Dutch Masters,” is an excellent companion: conversational and congenial, essayistic and elevating.

In a series of digestible pieces, each devoted to an individual artist, Moser combines biographical capsules and historical context with commentary on key works. I’m familiar with all the artists included, but I learned many things I didn’t know and was glad for Moser’s wider, worldly perspective.

But there is also something odd about this book – a recurring irritant I couldn’t quite explain as I was reading but which, having finished it, I realize will make me return to it.

So “irritant” is not, perhaps, the right word. It was, rather, a gathering feeling that the book wanted to be something other than it seemed to be. The dissonance came more from subtle shifts in Moser’s tone than any more-overt waywardness. One moment, I felt myself in the hands of an expert who had imbibed all the literature but knew how to impart his learning without pretension. The next, it was as if I were at a bar with a baffled, middle-aged writer wondering, with disarming candor, what it all means – and specifically why Moser, a boy from Houston, has lived so much of his life in the Netherlands, how it has affected him and what the point of art itself might be.

If this is art history as male (and mild) midlife crisis, I like it. (And I can relate!)

Moser is the author of two acclaimed biographies – of the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector and of Susan Sontag (“Sontag” won the Pulitzer Prize). Moser moved to Utrecht in his 20s, having fallen in love with a Dutchman, and wrote these essays over the course of two decades. He has clearly visited many museums, but he did most of his research in a public library a three-minute walk from his home.


Moser has a skeptical perspective on the scholarship in this field, much of which he finds dry and overly obsessed with questions of money, class and privilege. On the other hand, he’s on top of it. His most fascinating passages have to do with the history of how individual artists were received. It’s well-known that Vermeer was more or less forgotten until the 19th century. But the reputations of many other 17th-century Dutch painters also underwent bizarre fluctuations, and Moser is good on why.

“Until around 1850,” he writes, Bol and Flinck “ranked among the greatest Golden Age artists. By 1868, the critic Louis Viardot relegated them to ‘simple satellites, lost in the rays of the central luminary'” (Rembrandt). Decisive in this shift in critical consensus were the French Revolution and the onset first of Romanticism and then Realism. But explanations can’t conceal how fragile, contingent and almost arbitrary such things seem in retrospect. Will there come a time, you begin to wonder, when we decide we were all mistaken about Henri Matisse or Claude Monet, and that Andrew Wyeth was, after all, the great 20th-century artist?

Again and again, Moser returns to the same phrase: “Almost nothing is known about” X or Y’s life. And yet there is a lot that scholars have pieced together, and, as Moser acknowledges, the silences and lacunae are precisely what animate our curiosity – and then, perhaps, something deeper, more stirring.

Moser’s prose is not flashy. He writes well, with an attractive specificity and receptiveness, about the art itself, mentioning for instance the “monumental quality of Rembrandt’s paintings – their patina, their glow, the sense that they give of something physical, like an extraordinary geological phenomenon.” I didn’t find him convincing on one or two of my favorite artists. Gerard ter Borch, for instance, is a far greater artist than you would imagine from Moser’s essay on him.

I liked, however, the frankness of Moser’s belief in beauty as something to be taken seriously. He returns repeatedly, and movingly, to the tension between the order, calm and beauty in Dutch painting and the despair, financial ruin and death-haunted lives of so many of the artists.

The shifts in Moser’s tone are part of his attempt to draw the general reader in with personal revelations. More and more nonfiction authors are choosing this route. At first (for me, anyway), this strategy was distracting.


But by the book’s end, I found that Moser’s intimate asides had accumulated into something affecting and open-ended. I felt I had come to know and trust him, and wanted to talk with him about things other than art. An afterword reflects on his experience living as an American in the Netherlands. The underlying question – was this the right thing to do with my life? – is fragile. He holds it with care.

One motive, he sees now, was his desire to live on the periphery, where, by his nature, he felt less alienated than liberated. Another was to avoid the present: “I ignored politics, depressing in every country. I ignored news, idem. I wriggled through prehistoric caves; I read old poems; I haunted ruins. I went to museums, where I found a reality as real as any other.”

But Moser believes he was also attempting to stop the country he had moved to with a foreigner’s excitement from becoming (as it inevitably had) mundane to him. These essays were his “attempt to make a normal place strange.”

Other things became apparent to Moser only after he had written about the paintings. Early in his career, he felt in a hurry. This, he realizes now, was partly a result of his fear (presumably as a gay man conscious of AIDS, although he doesn’t spell it out) that he would die young.

“I’m not sure that I realized how haunted I was by stories of artists who had died young,” he writes. “But the fear of early death – of being cut off before one has done what one needs to do – comes through so often in this book that I can’t deny I felt it.”

So “The Upside-Down World” is much more than an elegant guide to Dutch painters. I had the sense Moser didn’t know he wanted it to be more than that while writing these pieces, with the result that at times the book is neither one thing nor another. But I suppose that makes it, commendably, its own kind of thing – and one of several reasons this book will stay with me.

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