Mariët Westermann’s book A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718 paints a picture of a society that is in many ways similar to our own. The Dutch Republic in this period, like our own modern society, was a cosmopolitan nation with a global outlook, well-educated citizens, elected representatives and a tolerance of different religions. It was a culture fascinated with the notion of the individual self, with more portraits being produced than in any other Western society (this is also a familiar theme to us today). And as the USA today is very sensitive about its national identity, so the Dutch Republic was in the 17th century. Like many in modern America, Dutch citizens constructed an identity out of ‘national values’, religious faith, and a characterisation of their country as superior to others.
This self-consciousness about national identity comes from the fact that the Dutch Republic, like the USA, was a newborn nation. In 1648 the Republic was officially established with the end of the Eighty Years War (although it had been semi-recognised as autonomous since 1609). Finally throwing off the yoke of Spanish rule, the Republic were free to establish an independent Calvinist state and grow into a prosperous centre for trade and commerce. This was a dynamic, wealthy and self-examining young nation whose visual culture – as Westermann demonstrates – reveals so much about its fascinating psychology.
Art during this period was not the preserve of the great and the good – an English commentator remarked that even the humblest of dwellings had paintings on the walls. The Republic’s mercantile, entrepreneurial way of life created a lucrative market for art, and as the significance of guilds declined, a more businesslike way of production emerged that better fed the high demand for paintings. This commodification of art meant that there was a dramatic rise in the production of paintings, but also a diversification and specialisation. Art was ubiquitous, appealing to a broad social demographic, and it is because of this that it is so insightful into the lives and mentalities of the Dutch people.
I was interested to read that this exposure to market forces affected the styles painters chose to adopt. Vermeer and others like him who used the ‘neat’ style, with undetectable brushstrokes, were those who had secured patronage or investment. These painters could afford to spend a lot of time on just one painting; but artists who lacked patronage used a rougher technique that meant they could produce more images in the same amount of time. The competitive art market also meant that there was a high importance attached to artistic individuality. Having a distinctive style or mark meant that it was easier to attract buyers, or to lay claim to a specific pictorial theme. Artists had to try to stand out from the crowd – there is a fascinating relationship here between art as a commodified luxury object, and art as a product of individual genius, something which cannot be monetised.
The book superbly highlights how self-conscious the production of art became during this period. Rembrandt is of course the most striking example of this. His Self Portrait in Painter’s Costume has him boldly and defiantly declaring his status as a painter. Other artists were just as fascinated by their position. Gerard Dou, for example, portrayed himself looking knowingly out at the viewer in a comedic painting showing a quack doctor selling his dodgy services. By associating himself with the charlatan, Dou highlights his own role as a deceiver, creating images that fool the eye with their realism. It can be read as a boast at his skill or a gesture of humility, or both. It is typical of the Dutch fascination with the way that the artist can work deceptive magic with oils, reaching back to the legacy of Van Eyck.
This self-consciousness was also true of the sitters of the hundreds of portraits that were produced during the Golden Age. Westermann highlights the importance of expressing ‘Dutch values’ in portraiture, such as fidelity, decorum, moderation and hard work. The familiar image of the white-ruffed gentleman somberly dressed in black, perhaps making a rhetorical gesture of acknowledging the presence of his wife in the neighbouring canvas, attests to the desire to aspire to an moral highground compatible with the teachings of the Calvinist church. On the other hand, some sitters also aspired to achieve ‘aristocratic’ status. Lavish portraits show sitters decked in finery in theatrical scenarios. Interestingly, this accompanied an increased interest in scenes or still lives of hunting – a very aristocratic pastime.
One of the reasons I find art from the Dutch Golden Age so fascinating is because it is full of contradictions such as these. The production of art was motivated by both a Calvinist sense of decorum and a love of material wealth. Vanitas still lives proclaim the transience of earthly pleasures in the face of the inevitability of death, but they themselves are earthly pleasures, with their ravishing detail and verisimilitude. Sitters in portraits wear simple black clothing – but simple black clothing that is in fact very expensive and very fashionable. The Calvinist doctrine forbade the use of images to worship God, but this only meant that images became part of the material culture that the Calvinist ideals of modesty condemned. I think Westermann’s choice of title for the book is very apt. This was an art concerned with ordinary people – although often made extraordinary by astounding realist observation, lavish finery or idealisation of setting, this was not an art that reached up into heaven.
A Worldly Art is a perspicuous, simply organised book that is rich in detail but crystal clear in its explanations. It balances academic rigour with lucid eloquence and I found it a very absorbing read, with the colour reproductions as accessible as the writing.
Westermann, Mariët (2007) A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718 Yale University Press
Featured image: Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede Jacob van Ruisdael, c.1670