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Research axes

This research will be contextualized by means of four research axes.

Within the context of the first research axis, we will examine how the notion of the ‘Golden Age’ was constructed in the Seventeenth Century in Dutch texts and images, in addition to the analysis of the corpus of travel descriptions. We will address this concept from the perspective of the production as well as the reception of the works of art.

The second research axis will focus on the conditions of artistic production, by re-evaluating it within the context of recent social art historical studies. It will address the question how the artists themselves, by selecting and developing certain iconographical themes and aesthetics, have contributed to the construction of the image of a ‘Golden Age’.

The third axis will address the same question, but from the perspective of the demand for art. It will examine the social, economic, religious and theoretical expectations, to be able to indicate the ‘need’ for a Golden Age’ in the Dutch Republic.

Finally, to strip seventeenth-century Dutch art from its supposed exceptionality, the fourth axis will show the strong connections between the Dutch Republic and the different European regions, by means of a reflection on the importance of artistic exchange during this period.

Dutch artistic identity: between fictions and realities

Axis 1

Several commonplaces are connected to the Dutch ‘Golden Age’. Ever since the Nineteenth Century, historians have emphasized the way in which the typical political, religious and social situation in the United Provinces set it apart from its neighbours and gave an idiosyncratic character to its art. By enclosing the arts of the Netherlands within its borders at a time when the idea of the Dutch nation itself was taking shape, historiography has tended to ignore the question of the mobility of artists and works of art.

Moreover, from the end of the Seventeenth Century onwards and especially since the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, the artistic production in the United Provinces, victim of prejudice regarding its supposed singularity, has often been forced into the category of ‘genre painting’, contrasting history painting in Counter Reformation France, Italy, Spain and Flanders. In addition, the study of the dynamics of patronage, deemed essential for the understanding of European seventeenth-century art elsewhere, has been overshadowed by research on the art market, which was thought to be predominant in the Dutch Republic and intrinsically connected to Calvinism. In fact, the very idea of a ‘Golden Age’ is based on a distorted perception of the artistic production in the seventeenth-century Northern Netherlands. To avoid labelling this period with our current historical and normative categories and in order to examine the period with fresh eyes, we should return to the judgements and observations of the actors and witnesses from the Seventeenth Century itself.

In addition to a re-examination of visual sources and art literature, we propose to constitute and analyze a corpus of travel descriptions of visitors to the Dutch Republic between the late-Sixteenth and early-Eighteenth Century. This database will help us to understand how the Dutch constructed the image of their own ‘Golden Age’ – the term they use themselves is Gulden Eeuw – and how it was perceived by the visitors of the young country.

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A new corpus for Dutch seventeenth-century painting

Axis 2

To rethink the Dutch ‘Golden Age’, it seems equally essential to radically revise its corpus, which was largely established in the Nineteenth Century.

For this revision we need to address to principal questions: that of artistic individuals and that of the ‘genres’. Once considered consubstantial with the Dutch Golden Age – especially since the establishment of Realism during the first decades of the Nineteenth Century – the prominence of the three masters Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer deserves to be nuanced. It is necessary to underline the essential role of painters like Abraham Bloemaert in Utrecht, Leonaert Bramer in Delft and Thomas de Keyser in Amsterdam in the diffusion of new models – notably based on their knowledge of art in Italy - , in the construction of networks of both reformed and catholic audiences and in the development of large workshops, filled with pupils and assistants. On the other hand, it is necessary from a historical perspective not to overestimate the place of artists like Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals – no matter how appreciated they are today.

Nineteenth-century taste for landscapes, still life painting and what Denis Diderot first called ‘genre scenes’, has given the impression that these subjects constituted the larger part of the production of paintings in the Dutch Republic. It is however problematic to address Dutch seventeenth-century art from the angle of the artistic ‘genres’ for two reasons. Firstly, because the term ‘genre’ was never used in the Seventeenth Century and should instead be studied by means of the terms that were used at the time, such as ‘subject’, ‘object’ and ‘classes’. Secondly, because the artistic categories that are today considered as the ‘genres’ (taferelen, genre paintings or still life paintings) were not in use in the Golden Age. We should re-establish the hierarchies that existed in the Seventeenth Century.

We propose three principal methods to elaborate this reflection. We will start with a profound analysis of the terminologies that are used in art literature, the description of works and in inventories. The publication of several Dutch seventeenth-century treatises (Angel-Miedema 1996, Junius-Nativel 1996, Goeree-Kwakkelstein 1998, Van Mander-Noldus 2002, Van Hoogstraten-Blanc 2006) and studies dedicated to their authors or questions regarding the relation between theories and practices in the Dutch Republic (De Vries 1998, Van de Wetering 1997, Horn 2000, Weststeijn 2008) will be very useful to analyze the intellectual and cultural background as well as the mental and theoretical tools of Dutch seventeenth-century painters.

We furthermore propose to re-evaluate the place of two of the principal genres that were practiced in the Dutch Seventeenth Century and that were later the most neglected in historiography: portrait and history painting. Recent studies have approached the subject from a cultural perspective, by taking the different social, political, denominational backgrounds of the patrons into account (Vanhaelen 2008, Adams 2009). We base ourselves on those studies for our examination of Dutch portraiture in the Seventeenth Century. Likewise, the place of history painting in the Dutch Golden Age will be examined without limiting ourselves to Rembrandt’s workshop. Whereas Utrecht is today primarily known for the Caravaggesque painters (Dirck van Baburen, Gerrit van Honthorst, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Jan van Bijlert), the principal painter of the city at the time was Abraham Bloemaert, whose workshop contributed to the development of Dutch history painting for almost a century. Similarly, Haarlem was not merely a city of portrait painters. Instead of asking Rembrandt for the decoration of the Oranjezaal in Huis ten Bosch in The Hague (1647-1651), Haarlem painters were called to work on the project: Jacob van Campen was given the hefty responsibility to conceive the general concept of the decoration and to supervise the work of the other painters in the project, amongst whom some illustrious masters like Gerrit van Honthorst and Jacob Jordaens.

Our project proposes to address the entirety of material and cultural conditions of artistic production in the United Provinces in a comprehensive manner. It is necessary to reflect on the limitations that played a role in artistic production and to reject both the romantic idea of the free artist in his workshop as well as the determinism of social and economic circumstances that aim to explain everything by means of the system of the market or the denomination. We will attempt to follow the middle road between the traditional monographic approach, in which the notion of style and originality plays an overly important role, and the sociological approach, in which everything is reduced to generalized phenomena. While the Counter Reformation and related events have often been presented as essential elements for the comprehension of the art work in the early modern era, they were largely ignored in the context of the predominantly protestant United Provinces.

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The need for a ‘Golden Age’ in the seventeenth-century Netherlands

Axis 3

In addition to an axis that focuses on artistic production, it is necessary to take a third dimension of the Golden Age into account: that of the consumers and their individual and collective expectations. We need to examine to which degree the clients of painters wanted their works to depict the image of a Dutch ‘Golden Age’.

We are interested in the framework of expectations and in the manner in which different consumers contributed to the development and reception of art works. We want to understand to which degree the adherence of a spectator to a particular denominational community played a role in the choice of subjects, their conception by artists and the criteria by which the paintings were judged. Moreover, we will address the validity of a moral interpretation as the guiding principle for most artists and those who commissioned, bought and viewed the art works. Should we retain the idea that the function of some of these paintings, like those by Adriaen Brouwer and Jan Steen, was primarily comical or instead consider that they were equally appreciated for strictly aesthetic reasons?

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The ‘Golden Age’: a visual myth between the Dutch Republic and Europe

Axis 4

The Northern Netherlands have often been excluded from overviews of European art, because its artistic production was thought to be too different. To better understand the legitimacy of this perceived exceptionality and the cultural and historical particularism, we will devote an essential part of our project to artistic exchange(s). We propose to articulate our reflections in relation to two issues.

The first issue concerns the analysis of the mobility of artists within the Dutch territory itself. For a country in which most big cities are only a couple of hours apart by horse or boat, we need a new model of geographic analysis. Not only should the dominance of the province of Holland over the other provinces – Utrecht in particular – be placed in perspective, but perhaps we should even reconsider or renounce the distinction between centres and peripheries, as proposed by Enrico Castelnuovo and Carlo Ginzburg. We aim to develop new analytical methods that value the mobility of actors and to study the movement of artists from the main centres of artistic production in the Dutch Republic – Alkmaar, Amsterdam, Delft, Dordrecht, Haarlem, The Hague, Leiden, Rotterdam, Utrecht – systematically. It will allow us to reconsider the traditional distinction between different artistic ‘schools’.  This part of the project is entrusted to Susanne Bartels, whose dissertation and researches notably address the study of the spatial and social mobility of Dutch painters within the borders of the Dutch Republic.

The second issue that will be addressed within this axis is the study of artistic exchange between the United Provinces and the rest of Europe. The idea of a pure Dutch art, shaped in a cultural and artistic vacuum within the limits of the freshly defined borders of the Dutch Republic, is untenable. The diversity of artistic production was partially due to the mobility of artists and art works during this period. We will address the role of international mobility for the development of the Dutch Golden Age of painting. In addition, we will examine how the perception of Dutch art was partially shaped outside the country, through the interaction with foreign art, artists and collectors. Marije Osnabrugge will focus on this part of the project.

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