Realism in 17th Century Dutch Art

The vast array of subject matter painted during the seventeenth century by Dutch artists makes it impossible to focus in great detail on each of the different categories painting from this period.  Dutch and Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), Frans Hals (c. 1582 – 1666)[1] and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669)[2] were all working during this time but, this essay will focus specifically on still-life, vanitas paintings and two works by Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675)[3].  This essay takes the iconological perspective, put forth by Eddy de Jongh and Seymour Slieve amongst others and looks at the economic and religious influences that contributed to the considerable volume of paintings that were produced during what has now become known as the Dutch Golden Age.

 

The Dutch painters of the seventeenth century handed down to posterity an extremely detailed visual record of their homeland, its inhabitants and their way of life.  They painted scenes from their everyday surroundings, images of tavern life, the market, domestic interiors and household chores, land and seascapes with intense accuracy and realistic detail.  However, to consider their works as simple mirror images of what was around them in nature and their surroundings is a big mistake and undervalues their extraordinary skill and the rich content of their works.[4]   Their accurate portrayal of everyday events and objects led to their work being characterised by the term “realism”.[5]  This label, along with scathing commentary from people like Sir Joshua Reynolds[6], contributed to the idea that seventeenth century Dutch painting was a superficial depiction of everyday life without any hidden or deeper meaning[7] and even led Alois Riegl, to claim that the art of Holland contained ‘just enough activity to distract us from noticing how little is really going on’.[8]

 

This is a harsh criticism, we will see that there is a rich hidden symbolism in many of these seemingly simple paintings.  For example, pictures on walls in the background of paintings, frequently gave pointers to the viewer about the meaning of an image which may not have been obvious.[9]  Also pervasive during this time was the tendency to moralise, to encourage virtuous actions along with the allusion to the transience of life and the finality of death.  Both of these themes were heavily present in the paintings of this period.[10]  Even where there seems to be no obvious connection to a moralising message, ingenious ways were used to include these teachings in still-lifes, portraits and even in landscapes.[11]  Also popular were representations of the five senses, although the symbolism was often cloaked in a realistic disguise.[12]

 

While these are the views of Eddy de Jongh amongst others, it is worth noting that not all art historians subscribe to this view of Dutch art.  Svetlana Alpers in her book The Art of Describing sets out the contention that “Dutch art [sic] can best be understood as being an art of describing”.[13]  Since the publication of Alpers’s book in 1983, other positions have emerged which include both of these opposing views; but the basic notion that the word ‘realism’ refers to visual appearances alone has continued to be unchanged.[14]  As previously stated, this essay is looking at these paintings from de Jongh’s perspective and it is not possible to do Ms. Alpers views justice in this short essay.  So we will move on and look at the factors that led to the production of thousands of paintings in seventeenth century Holland.

 

The end of the Eighty Years war with Spain (1568 – 1648) led to unprecedented prosperity for the Dutch and gave birth to what is now called the “Dutch Golden Age”.[15]  During the seventeenth century in the Netherlands 70,000 pictures were produced each year, 110,000 lengths of cloth were produced and the gross national income was 200 million guilders.[16]  The main sources of this economic success were agricultural activity which included dairy and tillage farming, fishing and whaling.  The Dutch were able to import cheap grain from the Baltic region which freed up their own arable land for other more profitable crops.  After undertaking massive land reclamation projects, where almost 100,000 hectares were reclaimed, the Dutch were able to grow and export industrial crops such as flax, tobacco, hops and turnips.  There was also a high demand for dairy products such as cheese and butter.[17]  As a nation, the Dutch were intensely proud of their agricultural produce and artists of the time exploited this pride by producing still-life images that had mass appeal, with tables displaying several varieties of Dutch cheeses, beer, breads and fish, particularly herring.

 

Floris van Schooten’s (1590–1655) painting Still Life with Ham (1640, Musée du Louvre) is an excellent example of a still-life featuring the produce of Holland at the time.  Simple Dutch food – ham, different types of bread and cheeses are laid out on delicate white tablecloth[18], all commodities that the Dutch people were very proud of.    Everything is painted in such a realistic way that the dishes hanging out over the edge look as if they may topple over at any minute and the knife is just waiting to be picked up and used.[19]  This painting is almost an advertisement for the Dutch farming industry.

 

The other major influence during this time was that of the Calvinist Protestant religion.  The focus on the bible as a source of religious instruction led to changes in tastes for subject matter.  This happened as a result of the influence of Calvinism which had given art a new aesthetic function instead of being used solely as for devotional purposes.[20]  The Calvinist view of a person’s daily life focused on the home as the correct training ground for an individual’s moral and spiritual life.[21]  Calvinists strove to find a balance between enjoying the pleasures of the world whilst trying to avoid potential guilt and punishment for these sins.  In fact, the Calvinist’s view of all worldly life as evil coexisted with an appreciation of God’s world.[22]  The physical world was God’s creation so they preferred paintings which imbued the humblest of items with dignity and simple images of still lifes, interior homely scenes and landscapes[23] were loaded with hidden meanings and moralising content.

 

Changes in the choice of subject matter paralleled the increased demand for art.  If painters wished to earn a living they had to supply the buyer with art works that they wished to display in their homes.  People preferred to buy paintings with subjects that were easily understood.[24]   Due to all of this competition, many painters chose to specialise in particular subject matters.  Artists in Holland worked largely for the free market and choosing a speciality gave them an edge over their competitors so that they could carve out a niche in the market for themselves.[25]  Still-lifes, landscapes, seascapes and genre pieces were sold at the markets and fairs, along side the produce they featured, as well as through art dealers and from the artists own studios.  Dutch artists could expect very little in the way of patronage from the church or the aristocracy.  What few commissions there were came from town councils and wealthy individuals who mostly wanted portraits. This was the first time that paintings had begun to be bought and collected by a much wider group of mainly middle class and upper middle class people in Dutch towns and cities.  These pictures were now to be displayed in people’s homes rather than churches and public buildings.  These were the homes of merchants, craftsmen, business men and regents.[26]

 

One of the subjects that were popular at the time were vanitas still-lifes.  They are associated with Leiden[27], although that is not the only place they were produced and they began to emerge in and around 1630.[28]  A vanitas still-life was intended to remind people of the fleeting nature of life and all of our earthly belongings.   The most common motifs were a skull, a timepiece and an extinguished candle.  They also sometimes featured the caution ‘memento mori’[29] which is Latin for ‘remember you will die’.  In Pieter Claesz. (c. 1597 – 1661)[30] Still-Life with Skull (1630; The Hague, Mauritshuis) almost every vanitas symbol is present, the skull, piles of books, the timepiece, an over-turned empty wine goblet.  All offering the indisputable message that life is brief and all earthly, material things are ephemeral.[31]   Claesz’s Herring with a Glass of Beer and a Bread Roll, (1636; Rotterdam, Boymans-van Beuningen Museum) shows his virtuosity in rendering the surface of the silvery scales of the cut herring on the shiny pewter place.  Reflections of light dance across the glass tumbler holding the frothy beer, almost inviting the viewer to sit and enjoy this simple meal, the textures of each item on the table are rendered with exacting detail and extraordinary realism.  This realism is a feature of all Dutch still-lives of this period.  The English word ‘still life’ derives from the Dutch word stilleven, which they began using to refer to these works around 1650.  Up until that point they had simply called the ‘still standing objects’ (stilstaende dingen) or referred to them as by the objects that they were depicting – ‘breakfast’ (ontbijt), ‘banquet’ (bancket), and ‘fruit piece’ (fruytagie).[32]

 

Dutch still-lifes were never simply an assortment of random objects.  Each one had its own significance: the shells which decorate flower paintings did not appear in a breakfast piece, a twisted lemon peal can be found could feature in a banquet table scene but not in a simple fish still life and the skull and snuffed out candle used for vanitas still-lifes were unchanging.[33]   However, despite their seeming realism, these paintings were also not always painted from real life.  Examination of flower paintings from this time reveals that often many of the flowers assembled in the vases were not in bloom during the same time of the year.[34]  It is also worth noting that the definitions of what a still-life or vanitas painting was were not always rigid.  Flower paintings could be considered vanitas images as flowers themselves are transient and have a very short life.  It is common to find other symbols mixed in these images to convey a deeper hidden message.  For example, sea shells, which were reminders of the sea, were often featured in next to vases of flowers as is the case in Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s Bouquet in an Arched Window (c. 1620; The Hague, Mauritshuis)[35] along with various different insects especially butterflies, which are a symbol for the soul.[36]  Many Dutch sailors were lost at sea while on their travels so the inclusion of sea shells would be a reminder of this.  In fact the definition of what constituted a still-life is very blurred.  For example, Vermeer’s paintings The Milkmaid (c. 1658 – 60; Amsterdam Rijksmuseum)[37] and The Lacemaker (c,1669 – 1670; Paris, The Musee du Lourve)[38] could be described as still lifes with human beings, which is what E.H. Gombrich contended in his book The Story of Art.[39]

 

The Milkmaid was painted in and around 1660 when Vermeer had started to distil his images down to single figures.[40]  The room and its contents are humble like the food on the table.[41]  It could be read that this is a painting about appreciating the simpler things in life and taking care and pride in your work, but Vermeer then includes images of little cupids on the tiles at the floor and a foot-warmer, which is normally associated with a lover’s wish for fidelity and kindness adding an enigmatic quality to this image.[42]  In fact it has been suggested that the inclusion of these items was intended to suggest that the woman, who we voyeuristically gaze upon, is merely an object of desire.[43]  In The Lacemaker, we are again watching a woman who is completely absorbed in her work.  Vermeer gives us an accurate portrayal of the items required for the craft of lacemaking including a sewing cushion.[44]   The sewing cushion was the symbol of the industrious virtuous woman who occupied herself with needle work and did not waste her time on trifles.[45]  Lacemaking was considered a sign of refinement and conscientiousness.[46]

 

While these paintings attempt to document the world and recreate it exactly on canvas in a realistic way, they are eerily empty.  Vermeer’s paintings of single women, in their private rooms, engrossed in their simple domestic tasks, hold back and conceal the world as much as they capture and describe it.[47]   The realism of these images and the other images mentioned throughout this essay is deceptive.  It lulls one into thinking that these paintings are merely descriptive inventories of their time and lack any substance or depth.  The main thread of the argument in this essay has been that this realism is illusory and hides much of the hidden meanings intended by the artists of these paintings.

 

Bibliography

 

Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing.  London: John Murray Publishers, 1983.

Du Mortier, Bianca M. “Costumes in Gabriel Metsu’s Paintings: Mode and Manners in the Mid-Seventeenth Century”. In Gabriel Metsu ed. Adriaan E. Waiboer. New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2010.

Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art.  London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.

Hollander, Martha.  An Entrance for the Eyes, Space and Meaning in Seventeenth Century Dutch Art.  Berkley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

Kahr, Madlyn Millner. Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978.

Liedtke, Walter.  Vermeer The Complete Paintings.  London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2008.

Loughman, John & Montias, John Michael.  Public and Private Spaces, Works of Art in Seventeenth Century Dutch Houses.  Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2000.

National Gallery of Art, Washington. Johannes Vermeer.  New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1995.

North, Michael. Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age.  New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1997.

Renger, Konrad. “On the History of Research Concerning the Interpretation of Dutch Painting”.  In Looking At Seventeenth Century Dutch Art, Realism Reconsidered.. ed. Wayne Franits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Rosenberg, Jackob; Slive, Seymour & ter Kuile, E.H. Dutch Art & Architecture 1600 – 1800.  New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1977.

Slive, Seymour.  Dutch Painting 1600 – 1800.  New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1995.

Smith, David R.  Realism and the Boundaries Of Genre In Dutch Art.  Art History. Feb2009, Vol. 32 Issue 1, p78-114. 37p

Vanhaelen, Angela.  Boredom’s Threshold: Dutch Realism.  Art History, Volume 35, Issue 5.  Article first published online: 8th November 2012, Pgs 1004 – 1023.

Wilenski, R.H.. An Introduction to Dutch Art. London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1938.

Wheelock Jr., Arthur K.  Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century.  New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press,1995.

Woodall, Joanna.  Laying the Table: The Procedures of Still Life.  Art History, Volume 35, Issue 5, Article first published online: 8th November 2012, pgs. 977 – 1003.

 

[1] Seymour Slieve, Dutch Painting 1600 – 1800, pg. 28.

[2] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 90.

[3] Walter Liedtke, Vermeer, The Complete Paintings, pg. 11.

[4] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 7.

[5] Eddy de Jongh, Realism and Seeming Realism in Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting, pg. 21.

[6] Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing, pg.xvii.

[7] Konrad Renger, On the History of Research Concerning the Interpretation of Dutch Painting, pg. 10.

[8] Angela Vanhaelen,  Boredom’s Threshold: Dutch Realism, pg. 1005.

[9] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. xi.

[10] Eddy de Jongh, Realism and Seeming Realism in Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting, pg. 21.

[11] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 9.

[12] Eddy de Jongh, Realism and Seeming Realism in Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting, pg. 29.

[13] Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing, pg.xx.

[14] David Smith, Realism and the Boundaries Of Genre In Dutch Art, pg. 78.

[15] Michael North, Art & Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, pg. 1

[16] Michael North, Art & Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, pg. 1.

[17] Michael North, Art & Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, pg. 23.

[18] Joanna Woodall.  Laying the Table: The Procedures of Still Life, pg. 985.

[19] Joanna Woodall.  Laying the Table: The Procedures of Still Life, pg. 985.

[20] Michael North, Art & Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, pg. 134.

[21] Martha Hollander, An Entrance for the Eyes, Space and Meaning in Seventeenth Century Dutch Art, pg. 162.

[22] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 9.

[23] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. xi.

[24] Michael North, Art & Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, pg. 134.

[25] Eddy de Jongh, Realism and Seeming Realism in Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting, pg. 34.

[26] John Loughman & John Michael Montias, Public and Private Spaces, pg. 13

[27] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 196.

[28] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 196.

[29] Jakob Rosenberg et.al., Dutch Art & Architecture 1600 – 1800, pg. 333

[30] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 196.

[31] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 198.

[32] Jakob Rosenberg et.al., Dutch Art & Architecture 1600 – 1800, pg. 333

[33] Jakob Rosenberg et.al., Dutch Art & Architecture 1600 – 1800, pg. 334

[34] Seymour Slieve, Dutch Painting 1600 – 1800, pg. 279.

[35] Seymour Slieve, Dutch Painting 1600 – 1800, pg. 281.

[36] Eddy de Jongh, Realism and Seeming Realism in Seventeenth Century Dutch Painting, pg. 30.

[37] National Gallery of Art, Washington, Johannes Vermeer, pg. 108.

[38] National Gallery of Art, Washington, Johannes Vermeer, pg. 176.

[39] E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, pg. 433.

[40] Seymour Slieve, Dutch Painting 1600 – 1800, pg. 145.

[41] Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, pg. 277.

[42] National Gallery of Art, Washington, Johannes Vermeer, pg. 110.

[43] Walter Liedtke, Vermeer, The Complete Paintings, pg. 76.

[44] Walter Liedtke, Vermeer, The Complete Paintings, pg. 153.

[45] Bianca M. Du Mortier, Costumes in Gabriel Metsu’s Paintings: Mode and Manners in the Mid-Seventeenth Century, pg. 145.

[46] Walter Liedtke, Vermeer, The Complete Paintings, pg. 153.

[47] Angela Vanhaelen,  Boredom’s Threshold: Dutch Realism, pg. 1017.

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