Kingston Art Scene: On Studying in Solitude


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Currently on the walls of the Bader Gallery at the Agnes Etherington Art Center is “Studies in Solitude”. Opened late last year, the exhibit is, thankfully and sadly, extremely relevant as we weather the latest COVID-inspired restrictions. With the intention of exploring themes of loneliness, isolation, and study, as well as tangential and topical issues of isolation, mental health, and privilege, “Studies in Solitude” raises interesting questions about what it means to be alone.


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Drawing on the permanent collection of Agnès, and above all on the richness of her collections of 17th century North European art, the exhibition first emphasizes the study space, or studiolo. Described as a predominantly male domain, most depictions of figures in their studies are indeed male, usually in accepted poses of contemplation, expostulation, or other gestures seemingly indicative of scholarly endeavor. By far my favorite is Heyman Dullaert’s painting “Young Scholar in His Study” (c. 1655), which shows a young man rubbing his eyes after a full day of study or an all-nighter (depending on how you interpret the light) . It’s so relatable, and the reference in the wall text to the welcoming alcove behind the figure is spot on. However, not all the texts accompanying the rest of the paintings are so unequivocal. Some give the distinct impression of being, in the tradition of proving an argument with selective evidence, obvious efforts to make a particular point of view.

Cornelis Bisschop, A Scholar in His Study, circa 1655, oil on canvas. Agnes Etherington Art Center

It is posited in the main text of the wall that the withdrawal into his studiolo was, in part, a withdrawal from the corrupting influences of city life, based on certain views that were dominant in early modern Europe. No arguments there. Elsewhere it is suggested that many of these students “conversed” with the philosophers in the books they read, and possibly corresponded with other scholars on these subjects. Also an acceptable premise. It can be said, however, that many of these solitary scholars also conversed in person with like-minded people, as may well be the case with “A Scholar in His Study” (c. 1655) by Cornelis Bisschop. The man depicted appears to be gesturing to someone just outside the picture frame (the viewer, perhaps?), as if gently persuading them of his point of view. (Isn’t that one of the purposes of research and scholarship, after all?) It’s harder to believe, as the accompanying wall text suggests, than this (the gesture? the décor?) is a “reminder of what he is trying to escape from”. .” If someone wanted to try to make a plausible argument out of this, one would at least have to ask: what is he reading? What is the significance of the armor on the ground behind him? Who is he? among other relevant issues. There are also other wall-shaking texts.


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Returning to the main arguments of the exhibition, “Studies in Solitude” also postulates how these types of images “participated in the development of gendered and class conceptions of privileged space” that continue today, evidenced by pandemic-induced isolation. Since this idea has some prominence in the exhibition as well as in the promotional material, there doesn’t seem to be much in the exhibition itself to support it. There is a fine image of an old woman with a book (circa 1625) by Jacob van Campen, with little explanatory text; two Annunciation scenes (a bit exaggerated as candidates for the kind of gendered imagery alluded to); and a suggestive engraving titled “Woman with a Pear” from 1651 by Ferdinand Bol, the inclusion of which is a fine example of an academic twist. Which is not to say that the representation of solitary study and secluded space in this context was not gendered, or that it was not perceived differently by gender (of course it was). ). But the visual connections here are muddy, in part because the exhibit tries hard to make it work. As for the claim that depictions of scholarly women were rare in early modern Europe, a cursory search for subjects such as “the Virgin Mary reading” or “Mary Magdalene meditating” or a foray into such that the books of hours tends to contradict this assertion. declaration. There are many more images of women as temptresses or otherwise as characters with questionable moral qualities (usually because those characteristics are applied to them from a male perspective), but there really isn’t a shortage. more positive representations.


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“Studies in Solitude” is a visually rich and absorbing exhibition that encourages consideration of the changing nature of isolation, solitude and study, especially in light of the recent climate of isolation. As you read this, our current restrictions are about to be lifted and the Agnes has opened, so you can go see this stimulating spectacle for yourself. There should also be a whole new range of exhibitions at the gallery soon, to whet your appetite for an art-filled 2022.

Kamille Parkinson earned a PhD in Art History from Queen’s University and is currently a writer, editor-in-training and art historian in general. You can find her writing at Word Painter Projects on Facebook, and you can contact her at [email protected]

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