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Jan Blanc
Université de Genève
5, rue de Candolle
1205 Genève
Switzerland

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A Golden Age?
Rethinking 17th-century
Dutch painting

State of research

Many overviews have been written about the arts in the Dutch Republic. Our project wishes to reconsider and revise some of the current representations of the Dutch Golden Age, by addressing three historiographical lacunae in particular:

Geography of art

The geography of art is the first blind spot in the large overviews of the Dutch Golden Age. Bob Haak’s study (1984), the most precise and complete manual to date, has encouraged several generations of art historians to adopt a vision of the geography of art that is based on a hierarchical relation between the different cities. This domination of some cities over others is however difficult to prove, in particular with regard to the United Provinces. The approach proposed by Carlo Ginzburg and Enrico Castelnuovo (1981) and subsequently by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann (2004) and Elisabeth de Bièvre (2015), is extremely interesting, yet could be questioned for a territory as small as the Dutch Republic, where eleven hours on horseback sufficed to connect Amsterdam to Antwerp and where painters and patrons moved daily and without much effort between cities.

In addition, the subject of the mobility of Dutch artists in the Seventeenth Century needs to be addressed in accordance with the latest developments in research on mobility and migration. The many studies on individual traveling artists that have been conducted during the last decades (e.g. Blanc & Maes - 2010; Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 63, eds. Scholten, Woodall & Meijers  - 2014; Vermeylen & De Clippel – 2010-2014), need to be taken into account and compared in a critical and comprehensive manner, to address the complexity and the social, professional and artistic dynamics of these migrations.

 

Genres

The topic of genres in Dutch seventeenth-century painting has similarly reached an impasse. We intend to give a new impulse to this important research subject by placing historical analysis at the heart of our reflection. The weight of socio-economical methods and the persisting predominance of nineteenth-century constructions (the ‘small genres’, the ‘small masters’, ‘realism, ‘popular art’, ‘protestant art’, etc.) have caused a disproportionate emphasis on subjects that are thought to be characteristic for Dutch paintings, like scenes of everyday life, landscapes and still life painting. These subjects remained however a quantitative minority in comparison to history painting, which represented a third of the artistic production – as has recently been pointed out by Eric Jan Sluijter (2015). The work of Albert Blankert (1980, 1999) has played a pioneering role in the research on this essential and underestimated part of Dutch seventeenth-century painting, but needs to be re-examined. In particular imprecise and anachronical notions like 'italianate’, ‘pre-classical’, ‘classical’ and ‘classicizing’ (etc.) painting urgently need to be addressed. The great decoration projects in the princely palaces and residences of the Orange family, in city halls, clandestine churches (schuilkerken) and certain private residences occupy a central place only in the very recent historiography (Van Eck 1994, 2008, Van Eikema Hommes, Kolfin 2013). The lack of interest is most remarkable for the oeuvre of Rembrandt. Despite the enormous efforts of the Rembrandt Research Project (1968-2011), Rembrandt’s history paintings – on which his reputation was built – have only been treated in publications that focus on a specific theme, such as his relation to the Bible and religious iconography (Perlove & Silver 2009, DeWitt 2011), with the exception of some recent more ambitious studies (Golahny 2003, Sluijter 2006). Other history painters, who enjoyed great renown in the Seventeenth Century, are largely ignored. Abraham Bloemaert, for example, was probably one of the most reputable and imitated Dutch history painter during the Seventeenth Century, as were some of the artists who passed through his workshop in Utrecht. We can also think of painters who are known to have excelled in a specific artistic domain, but who also featured in the domain of history painting, such as Nicolaes Moeyaert, known almost exclusively as a landscape and animal painter; Jan Steen, painter of everyday life who nonetheless painted biblical scenes; and the portraitist Thomas de Keyser, who also produced religious paintings.

Important progress has been made with regard to Dutch religious painting, which had long been thought of as quantitatively and qualitatively too negligible to be worth any serious attention. The work of Robert Schillemans (1992), Paul Dirkse (2001), Xander van Eck (2007) and Léonie Marquaille (2015) has challenged these assumptions, showing that the themes that were depicted in religious painting were as varied as the different confessions in the Dutch Republic. The deeply rooted idea, stemming from the Nineteenth Century, that Dutch seventeenth-century society was exclusively Calvinist, has been revised. Protestant sects played a major role in literary and artistic developments. Catholicism was of equal importance for patrons and artists alike until the end of the century (Spaans 1989, Frijhoff 2002). The Dutch Republic was a multiconfessional country, whose artistic production – for that very reason – was without a doubt the most diverse in Europe. The role of religious painting, including numerous subjects from the Old Testament, but also from the New Testament and the lives of saints, was remarkable both with regard to its exceptional adherence to the stipulations of the Counter Reformation as in relation to the complex confessional networks in the Dutch Republic. The diffusion of Tridentine ideas and post-Tridentine treatises did not stop at the borders of the Dutch Republic and did indeed contribute to shape a true Dutch Catholicism – about which one might ask if it coincided with an idiosyncratic art and also contaminated the ideas and representations of other religious denominations.

 

Artists and their clients

Lastly, the interaction and relation between artists and their clients is a subject that has not yet been addressed in a satisfactory and comprehensive manner. John Michael Montias (1982) is the central figure of this economic approach to Dutch art, which was subsequently continued by the still pertinent and beneficial research of Marten Jan Bok (1994) and Bas Dudok van Heel (2006), in particular in relation to private collections in Amsterdam and Delft. However, it is known today that commissions for art were also of great significance, besides the open market and the secondary market of paintings. The portraits, as well as some history paintings and the large and expensive canvases were painted on commission. Studies on important patrons, such as the members of the family of Orange-Nassau, the court, the burghers of Haarlem and Amsterdam as well as religious commissioners have demonstrated their active contribution to the development of Dutch art in the Seventeenth Century. This project will further explore the importance of patronage and commissions.