Having considered the proceedings of a painter that serves me, I had a mind to imitate his way. He chooses the fairest place and middle of any wall, or panel, wherein to draw a picture, which he finishes with his utmost care and art, and the vacuity about it he fills with grotesques, which are odd fantastic figures without any grace but what they derive from their variety, and the extravagance of their shapes. And in truth, what are these things I scribble, other than grotesques and monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure, or any other than accidental order, coherence, or proportion? [Que sont-ce icy aussi, à la verité, que crotesques et corps monstrueux, rappiecez de divers membres, sans certaine figure, n'ayants ordre, suite ny proportion que fortuite?]—Montaigne, Essays: Of Friendship.
The Vanitas Still life with Works of Montaigne represents in addition to a globe and several symbolic reminders of the brevity of life, a representation of the Dutch edition of Montaigne's Essays in Glazemaker's translation. The painting is signed "Charles Field," but Dror Wahrman persuasively argues in his Mr. Collier's Letter Racks that it was painted by Edward Collier (recall this post); in fact, the painting is one of four nearly identical paintings that Collier almost certainly had more than a hand in: one with Collier's signature, one without signature, and two with signatures ascribed two others, although all four paintings have Collier's initials ("E.C.") inscribed in them. The Glazemaker translation appeared in 1672 (The Dutch "disaster year"), but in all four paintings the represented date does not correspond to any known editions of Glazemaker's translation. (In the "Field," the fake date is given as 1753, and Wahrman notes that "53" is a "fairly accurate" reversed "E c" as "digits allow." (152)) Collier's Vanitas plays many of the same games as his Trompe-l'œils, creating the illusion that the depicted objects are really, well, real, while at the same time constantly undermining the stability of identity with elaborate games and hidden messages. In one's logic one might assume that A= A, but upon closer inspection you can't be so sure.
Wahrman does not link Collier's art to the contents of Montaigne's Essays, which is a shame given Collier's more general skepticism about identity. So, I started paging through my copy and my eye fell on the opening of the essay "Of Friendship," which I have reproduced at the top of this post. There Montaigne claims about his own craft that (against Plato's injunctions) he will happily imitate the method of a certain kind of painter. Montaigne's imitation is partial; by this I do not just mean that Montaigne seems to skip the content of the painter's picture altogether, but also, and more importantly, that Montaigne seems to be imitating (methodologically) only the stuff outside the frame of the carefully crafted picture frame!
It's an open question to what degree Montaigne's claim that the disfigured disorder found in his writings is true of his writing. Is there no non-accidental architectonic to the Essays, which may, or not, represent, in turn, an ordering principle in his soul? Is the playful Montaigne entirely willing to leave all order to chance?* What's a book like that doing in Collier's meticulously ordered, but unstable universe(s)? Part of the answer is Montaigne's famous comment to the reader: "Ie veux qu'on m'y voye en ma façon simple, naturelle & ordinaire, sans estude & artifice: car c'est moy que ie peins." (I wish I am seen in all my natural and ordinary simplicity, without study and artifice; because it's me that I paint.) Of course, Montaigne's 'self-portrait painting' is packed with learned allusions; nothing is quite what it seems.
In the version of the Vanitas that has Collier's signature, the Glazemaker edition is represented as published in 1674. Wahrman notes that there is no known Dutch edition of Montaigne's essays in 1674, and in his creative interpretation he links the year to the "end of the third Ango-Dutch war." (152) Indeed he shows that the whole group of four Vanitas Still life with Works of Montaigne is full of Anglo-Dutch links (Collier lives and worked in both Holland and England) and brilliantly traces this back to Collier's ancestry.
But 1674 is also a significant year in Glazemaker's life because the Dutch authorities banned Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise translated by Glazemaker. (Montaigne's Essays were put on the papal index librorum prohibitorum in 1676, but need not have impacted Collier or Glazemaker.)** Glazemaker plays a non-trivial role in the reception of Spinoza's Ethics; his (1777) translation of Opera Posthuma is an authoritative one because he is known to have been an excellent translator and in close contact with Spinoza. Glazemaker, who had also translated much of Descartes, Seneca, Plutarch, and other classics into Dutch, had scandalized Spinoza by translating the Theological Political Treatise (1670) into Dutch against Spinoza's wishes. Despite the fidelity promised by mechanical duplication of print, an author need not be in control of the destiny of her words because she relies not just on an uncertain and publishing process, but translators and political authorities can also destabilize and introduce considerable uncertainty into one's text.***
Collier lived in Leiden (122) and through his brother had family connections to Rijnsburg when Spinoza lived there. The mention of Glazemaker is the only known connection to Spinozism I encountered in Wahrman's book. Even so, Collier's art more generally can be seen as a response to Spinoza's claim that paintings are mute and passive [ideam quid mutum instar picturae in tabula] in Ethics 2, p43Scholium.+ Rather, if one assumes that paintings have fixity, they become passive (and not truth conducive). With the help of Wahrman's book, we learn from Collier (as we can also learn from Montaigne) that the painting we think we see, and which we take to represent faithfully, is in a considerable part a product of our own expectations and judgment; Collier's paintings teach us to be receptive to the activity present in his canvasses, an activity that does not terminate as long as there are (and is co-constituted by) questioning and self-questioning viewers.
*Leaving aside the overlapping interests, perhaps, in skepticism and self-representation, the numbering of Montaigne's essays shifts as Montaigne adds and subtracts new material through revised editions. For example, depending on one's edition, "Of Friendship" is essay 27 or 28.
**Unless Jacobitism would have been successful in England.
***Given that Montaigne's auto-mimesis relies onhimself, it is as Hume will note explicitly by no means obvious that there is any solid ground to be found.
+Of course, the point of Spinoza's text is to make a claim about how not to conceive genuinely ideas.