The following blog post is a revised version of the essay that Emil Stephensen wrote as student for the 2019 PRIVACY summer school.
When Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, visited Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 2016, he claimed to have found an iPhone in one of the paintings – more specifically in A Letter Delivered in a Voorhuis (1670) by Pieter de Hooch. This 17th century painting of a woman receiving a letter is one among many representations of epistolarity in Dutch Golden Age art – and there might be something to the comparison between smartphones of today and Dutch letters of the early modern period. Both smartphones and letters are pragmatic tools of everyday life. Both are used in the sort of individualized, attention-demanding activities so characteristic of modern societies with pervading technological mediation of thinking and communication. And both seem to highlight the visible trademark of people indulged in those activities: the zombie-like determination with which we, mouths slightly ajar and heads tilted down, routinely opt out of immediate perceptual reality and hook up to other, artificial ones.
In this blog post, I want to explore the attentional privacy of letter-readers in Dutch 17th century art. The figures in these representations, most of them women, are calmly attending to something absent within the representational frame of the painting – and doing so with little to no outward expression. The American art critic Svetlana Alpers has described the poised attention of letter-readers in Dutch art as a “vacuum at the center. The letter stands in for or represents events and feelings that are not visible.” In Dutch 17th century art, letters are not yet conceived of as a way of accessing the minds of fictional beings; they are not the signs of transparency and interiority they would become in 18th century sentimental literature and art. Instead, the Dutch letter-readers seem to enjoy a privacy as familiar, yet opaque as that of a smartphone-gazing stranger on the subway in 2021.
As we plug into what Canadian neuroanthropologist Merlin Donald has called the ‘external memory field’ (EXMF, fig. 1) of letters, computers, smartphones and other thinking devices – “a cognitive workspace external to biological memory” – we are temporarily drawn away from our embodied field of experience and communication. The still-ongoing transition from oral-biological to technologically-mediated modes of thinking and communication is both a process of meshing us ever-closer together and fragmenting our attentional fields into evermore self-reliant units. Throughout history, this twofold trend of modernity – toward technological mediation and cognitive privacy, meshing-together and falling apart – has often been perceived as problematic and deceptive. In early modern Europe, letter-writing was characterized by what Gary Schneider has called an “epistemological anxiety” – the letter medium fostered games of unequal access to information: secrecy, manipulation, delay and interception. In order to overcome this fundamental instability and ambiguousness, commentary on and artistic representations of epistolarity has often evoked bodily or oral presence – in the 16th and 17th centuries through the embodied, face-to-face topoi of classical rhetoric and in the 18th and 19th centuries through a robust association between letter-writing (or literacy in general) and emotional immediacy and authenticity. Evoking a sense of oral presence, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote of letters in the early 16th century: “as we write we seem to be carrying on a conversation with the dearest of friends in his very presence.”. In the 18th century, sometimes called the ‘golden age’ of letter-writing, the letter genre became a model of emotional authenticity in literary fictions (epitomized by the epistolary novel) and in the visual arts. In Jean Baptiste Greuze’s Girl with Letter (1770) (fig. 2), for instance, a girl sits with a letter in her lap, looking at the viewer with an absent-minded and dreamy gaze. Her state of emotional agitation is emphasized by her untidy appearance, her clothes having seemingly fallen off her body and exposed her breast while reading – she is ‘somewhere else’, absorbed into the world of the letter. But she is not absorbed into the activity of letter-reading itself – the abandoned letter in her lap is there to suggest emotional immediacy, not focused attention.
In Dutch 17th century paintings of readers and writers, the letter (and the attention required to produce or comprehend it) is rendered interesting in itself. In these representations, letters are bland communicational instruments before they serve as indicators of interiority or subjectivity. The stress on the attentional absence and fragmentation produced by reading or writing is evident in genre paintings such as Gabriël Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter (1660’s) (fig. 3) and Pieter Janssens Elinga’s A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (1670) (fig. 4); paintings which emphasize and explore the attentional disconnect between modern human beings. In Metsu’s painting, a woman reads a letter while her maid, turned against us, holds the envelope in one hand and pulls aside a curtain with the other, revealing a sea piece on the wall. On a basic structural level, the painting depicts two human beings looking into different representations: A painting of a ship in stormy weather and a letter. As the Dutch became increasingly engaged in seafaring explorations and settlements during the 17th century, it is easy to imagine that the lady has received a letter from an absent husband. But stripping away this level of iconography (we also have a dog possibly indicating loyalty to her husband), the figures, their expression and their interaction are not particularly suggestive of love, longing or other such strong, narratively-driven emotions. While we cannot see the maid’s face, the lady is reading with a poised demeanor and a slight indication of a smile. What is depicted is her action of reading rather than a reaction to something already read and comprehended – her state of focused attention takes the centerstage and is emphasized by her tilting of the letter toward the window in order to catch the light. As Svetlana Alpers has convincingly argued, Metsu’s work thematizes representation in general: “Metsu frankly acknowledges and plays with the representational character of the letter by placing it among other representational surfaces.”. Instead of portraying human sentiment and outward-directed or worldly action, the painting portrays human beings looking into representations of human sentiment and worldly action. As Alpers also note, even the mirror reflects its own mirroring capacity rather than the world: “The mirror, solipsistically, is enfolded into itself, reflecting only the grid of the adjacent window panes.”. The sort of privacy Metsu is interested in is not the domestic, emotionally charged peephole-privacy of 18th and 19th century art – it is the sealed-off privacy of the human mind as it opts out of immediate social and perceptual reality and tunes in on the EXMF.
The disconnect between occupied minds is even more pronounced in Elinga’s A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping. In this painting, three people are occupied by different tasks: a lady is reading a letter, her maid is sweeping the floor and a man is standing, in another room, at what might be an easel – another portable device which promoted attentional privacy and, according to Marshall McLuhan, “deinstitutionalized pictures” and “added much to the new cult of individualism” in early modern Europe . As in Metsu, the painting depicts three minds allocating attention to different things. It also similarly emphasizes representation and representational surfaces: the lady is reading by the window in order to catch the light and the mirror is “enfolded into itself”, reflecting the geometrical patterns of the floor tiles. Only the floor-sweeping maid has a visible, seemingly thoughtless face. The domesticity of the scene is reminiscent of De Hooch’s work with its many openings, doors and mirrors – it suggests a threshold between private and public space rather than a self-enclosed home. In Elinga’s painting, privacy is a situational reality connected to specific attentional practices or actions like reading a letter or working at an easel – not to abstract or permanent categories such as the body, the mind, the home or gender.
The privacy of Elinga’s and Metsu’s attentionally occupied figures is characteristic of the kind of cognitive introversion which modern life imposes on us. Since the 17th century, layers upon layers of privacy-promoting technological mediation has changed the ways we think and communicate. The 350 year old letter-reading scenes are strangely familiar to us because their ‘cold collectivity’ of disconnected minds occupying the same space is reminiscent of contemporary scenes from subway trains, internet cafes or reading rooms.
While we are often made aware of privacy as a positively defined normative or political notion, a value to protect or a goal to achieve, we might also understand it as an unavoidable sociological corollary of modernity, that is, processes such as professional specialization, urbanization, and growing technological mediation of thinking, learning and communication. As Svetlana Alpers made it clear in her 1983 book The Art of Describing, 17th century Dutch art moved into an increasingly more descriptive mode of representation. A mode that put less emphasis on storytelling and more on attentive observation. Artists such as Metsu, Elinga and De Hooch was attending to and imitating the world with an unprecedented level of scrutiny and observational skill – an activity often mirrored by figures in their paintings who in similar ways are opting out of immediate social reality and tuning into some individualized, attention-demanding activity, be it reading, easel painting, looking at maps, looking through telescope lenses or simply looking away. The attentional privacy of figures in Dutch 17th century is linked to a distinct trait of modern thinking and behavior: the acknowledgement of the capacity of individual human beings to see, attend to and discern phenomena on their own.
 Svetlana Alpers. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 196.
 Merlin Donald. The Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. (Harvard University Press, 1991.), 296-97.
 Gary Schneider. Politics, Deception, and the Workings of the Post: Some Features of Epistolarity in Early Modern England. In Explorations in Rennaissance Culture. (Brill, 2002), 99.
 Gary Schneider. The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England, 1500-1700. (University of Delaware Press, 2006), 29.
 Alpers, 196.
 Ibid., 197.
 Marshall McLuhan. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. (University of Toronto Press, 1962), 206.