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Town and country

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Fig. 8

J.H. Weissenbruch,
Bleaching fields, dated 1847. Canvas, 40 × 60 cm. The Hague, Gemeente-museum.

Fig. 9

Vincent van Gogh, Head of a young peasant with a pipe. Painted in 1885. Canvas laid down on panel, 38 × 30 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Town and country

Painting is a profession for city boys. The fact that Holland was one of the most urbanized countries of Europe in the period with which we are dealing has a lot to do with the vitality of Dutch art, which impressed visitors from all over Europe. In the mid-sixteenth century there were still traces in Holland of earlier, non-urban ways for a painter to make a living: as a monk engaged in the illumination of manuscripts, for example, or as the household retainer of a great lord, responsible for mural decorations and tapestries in castles and palaces. The rejection of the Catholic Church and the decline of the nobility in Holland did not end patronage from these sources, but they did cut the painter loose from patrons who were his legal masters.

The painter as a city shopkeeper is a type we encounter in northern Europe since the early fourteenth century or earlier, but from the mid-sixteenth on, virtually all painters working in Holland complied to this norm, if only from lack of an alternative. Yet it would be a mistake to think of the Dutch painter simply as an independent professional, relying only on his talent and business sense for success in the world. Old patterns of mutual interdependence between painters, along with established and emerging forms of patronage and selling finished works, made it necessary for an artist to find a position within the art world, and build up connections -with outside worlds, before he could begin to prosper. Needless to say, this limited one's independence and imposed a certain degree of conformity. This was however not seen as a problem by Dutch artists. The society in which they lived was a meshwork of clans and cults, financial and civic interests, and no one was expected to stand out on his own or break away from the pack. Even excellence in art was perceived as a matter of maintaining standards, or improving incrementally on the work of one's predecessors and contemporaries, rather than electrifying the world with hitherto unknown wonders of technique or style.

The main institution of which a Dutch painter had to take account was the guild. Painters' guilds tended to be named after the patron saint of the profession, St. Luke, who according to legend painted the portrait of Mary with the Christ child. The guilds were organized by town, and each was completely independent of the other, with its own statutes and its own ties to the local government. A well-functioning guild of St. Luke in a Dutch town would protect its members against competition by preventing non-members from selling their work within the town, and by reserving to qualified masters the right to sign a painting. It would also defend its members against each other by limiting the number of apprentices that a master could take on and fixing a maximum length for the working day and minimum length of training periods, to prevent those with more capital or more energy than the rest from swamping the market. Painters were grateful for these safeguards, but they would have had to be superhuman not to resent the curtailments of entrepreneurial (as opposed to artistic) freedom they brought with them. Another ground for discontent with the guilds was, as we have seen, that they joined artists with housepainters in one organization as wielders of the brush.

Differences between guild structures, and between the ties joining a guild and the local patriciate, were one of the factors behind the division of Dutch art into 'schools' by city. It may not have been a general rule, but one has the impression that a strong or prestigious guild strengthened the forming of a pronounced stylistic image in a certain place at a certain time. Leiden, for example, was for a long time the only large city in the Republic to lack a painters' guild. During that period there was no identifying trait associated with art in Leiden, and most of the best painters, among them Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, abandoned the city for greener pastures elsewhere. It was not until 1648 that a guild was founded, and it was around that time that Leiden painting began to gel into a recognizable style – that of the 'fijnschilders,' the obsessive describers of surface and detail. The conspicuous role played by cloth merchants and their guild in supporting Leiden painting is responsible in part for this development, if only for its commissioning of such paintings as cat.nr. 32. Gerard Dou had been practicing this kind of painting in Leiden for some time by then, but it was not until his influence became manifest in the works of younger masters like van der Tempel, Brekelenkam, Metsu and, especially, Frans van Mieris, that it blossomed into a 'school' that was to live on into the eighteenth century.

Painting in Amsterdam showed the characteristics of stylistic unity only for a brief period in the early seventeenth century, when Pieter Lastman, Jan and Jacob Pynas, Jan Tengnagel and Werner van den Valckert forged a style of history painting that gained recognition throughout the Republic and abroad. Thanks perhaps to Tengnagel, a guild officer and a figure of some political weight in the city, this was the time when the Amsterdam guild of St. Luke was operating at maximum effectiveness. In later years, it was to lose its grip on the teeming art life of Amsterdam, as even the most essential guild provisions fell by the wayside,1 as did stylistic coherence. Today, if one speaks of the 'Amsterdam school,' it is in reference to the architecture of the 1910s through the '305, built to strict stylistic specifications.

In the older, smaller and more self-conscious city of Haarlem, cooperation between artists was a matter of course. The artistic life of the city was dominated by a succession of major figures: between 1580 and 1630. Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Hendrick Goltzius, Frans Hals, and Frans de Grebber, each in his turn, provided a focus for the intellectual and artistic energies of the more talented Haarlem artists. The studios and personal influence of these figures seem to have made up for the lack of a strong guild for the half-century following iconoclasm. Their authority was backed up by the long tradition of Haarlem painting and art training. Carel van Mander was a Haarlemer, and proud of it, when he wrote his Painter's book, the Bible of the Dutch artist for the seventeenth century. However, intellectual distinction and personal ascendancy are not synonymous with good organization, and in 1630 the city demanded that the artists of Haarlem put their house in order and reform the guild. In their reaction, they 'attempted to give the traditional guild a new meaning by building the academic mode of training into the guild structure. This ... casts new light on the work of the painters generally known as the Haarlem classicists, who are finally beginning to attract some admiring attention from scholars,' as the Dutch art historian Ed Taverne observed fourteen years ago.2 The classicism to which he referred is best embodied in the exhibition in cat.nr.22, by a painter who belonged to a branch of the Haarlem school in Amersfoort.

In Utrecht too the fortunes of the guild rose and fell concurrently with the city's image as an art centre -with a style of its own. It was not until 1611 that the painters were allowed to form a guild of St. Luke, after having been encumbered with an undesired association with the saddlers since the middle ages. Until 1639 the guild operated in the traditional way, at which point the artist-painters split off into a College of Painters which, however, never attained the same authority as the guild. Between 1611 and 1639, the Utrecht school of painting was at its height, projecting an image of Italianate modernity that put it in the forefront of the Dutch art world. The leading figure for much of that period was Paulus Moreelse, dean of the guild and member of the Utrecht town council.

There was not always a guild or a magnetic individual behind the emergence of a local school. Delft began to take on the glamour of a major centre towards the mid-seventeenth century for no observable reason. Starting then, Delft shone for two decades, establishing its eternal reputation for church paintings, architectural views (cat.nr.87) and of course for the work of Vermeer. Before and after, Delft lacked anything coming close to that concentrated glow, and was just another town where a certain number of painters worked. An original theory explaining the sudden emergence of Delft has been proposed by Walter Liedtke: 'Until 1650, the art of this profoundly conservative, patriotic, provincial town was cultivated in the light and shade of the court. The Hague is about six miles away, and the palaces at Rijswijk and Honselaarsdijk "were loser still... But after the unexpected death of Willem n in November 1650, and the sudden rise of Amsterdam (already the commercial capital) as the political and social center of the Netherlands, painters in Delft turned from the taste of the court to everything the more northern schools had achieved.... This artistic milieu embraced the early work of Vermeer, the arrival of Paulus Potter and Carel Fabritius from Amsterdam and of Pieter de Hooch from Haarlem, and architectural painting in Delft.'3 Perhaps it was chance that, as Michael Montias adds, 'these innovative "foreigners," together with their Delft-based colleagues,... shared a sensibility to the effects of light and air and an interest in space construction and perspective... A genuine school – in the sense of a community with intersecting interests in subject matter and techniques, with some similarity in aesthetic approaches, and with significant cross-influences – had at last come into existence. But a critical mass, in the sense of a number of individuals large enough to preserve the intensity of interaction necessary to keep a community of artists from drifting apart, is sooner lost than won. When a community is small to begin with, it only takes a few deaths or departures for it to disintegrate.'4

Some of the smaller centres we have discussed – Leiden, Utrecht and Delft – profited greatly in the course of the centuries from their association in the mind of the art-loving public with a single, well-defined style. Along with Leiden woolens, velours d'Utrecht and Delftware, the local schools of painting served to distinguish these cities in the mind of large groups of people all over the world. Centres such as The Hague and Dordrecht, which also supported communities of painters, but which were not blessed with a visual trademark, a stylistic slogan, are at a disadvantage by comparison. The Hague had to wait for two centuries for its 'school,' and Dordrecht is waiting still.

The emergence of a characteristic local school, it seems safe to say, is less a function of regionalism than of particularism. Naturally there are deep issues involved. The old ties of Utrecht to Rome, for example, certainly influenced the form taken by painting in Utrecht; the Leiden commitment to the cloth industry was not without its effect on the appeal of Dou and van Mieris; the fame of the Delft churches, especially the Old Church, with the tomb of the House of Orange, drew the painters of the city towards architecture. But every city has peculiarities of this kind, and in few do they take shape in an artistic style. When we look at the circumstances which led to the emergence of the successful schools, we are guided towards interests of a more short-lived and mundane nature. A group of artists with a stake in a local party – the guild of St. Luke, the traders in some particular product such as say or wool, a faction in the town council, a prominent clan with an interest in art – will discover that they are producing art that is recognizable to their patrons and others as a school. If their work is also commercially successful, it will attract followers and consolidate into a current. If it burns with a white heat, at the right place and time, the phenomenon does not have to endure for very long in order to become everlastingly famous.

No town without country. If there was one specialty that attracted all those city-boy painters more than another, it was landscape. In Delft, where Michael Montias has analyzed the subjects of nearly ten thousand paintings mentioned in probate inventories between 1610 and 1679, twenty-five percent of all the paintings at the beginning of that period, and more than forty percent at the end, were pure landscapes. If we add to these a portion of the religious and secular histories and battle scenes, many of which are located on the land, we come to the amazing conclusion that nearly half the late seventeenth-century Dutch paintings were landscapes!5

The taste for the countryside in art kept pace with the urge to the outdoors that captivated the Dutch middle and upper classes from the early seventeenth century on. All over the Republic, those who could afford it were renting or buying space from landowners for everything ranging from weekend accommodations on a patch of ground to complete country estates. In the present author's own town of Maarssen, this process was accomplished between 1610 and 1660, and was completely arranged by one Amsterdam burgomaster's family, the Huydecopers. They bought up the best riverside properties in Maarssen, had themselves dubbed Lords of Maarsseveen, built splendid country houses for themselves and their Amsterdam kinsmen where simple farms had stood, drove the original inhabitants back into the soggy hinterland, brought in poets to describe the joys of the bucolic life – in short, turned a piece of Dutch countryside into an attribute of a wealthy city clan.6 Once this had been done, Maarssen became an interesting object for artists. Before the Huydecoper campaign, no artist is known to have expended his talents on the place. But from mid-century on, the houses and landscape of the town and its surroundings were immortalized in drawings by Antonie Waterlo,7 in prints by Roelant Roghman and in paintings by Jan van der Hey den – all Amsterdamers, from the bailiwick of the Huydecopers. Their portrayals of country houses and landscape "would go back to the city, of course.

The tie between town and country is visible in the 1635 view of Delft by Hendrick Vroom (cat.nr. 81), where the churches of Delft and the canal linking Delft to The Hague dominate the scene. Daniel Vosmaer's 1663 panorama of the city (cat.nr. 87) may not look it, but it too is a paean to country life. The imaginary palace from which the view is painted is located outside the walls of Delft, on the far end of a line from the New Church through the two windmills we see on the right of Vroom's painting. City folk with more of a feeling for natural landscape will be sooner attracted to the twenty views of places in the outskirts of The Hague (cat.nr. 83), which however are plainly presented as belonging to the city which shines in their midst – pleasant afternoon walks for the office slave with a day off. The painting now hangs in the town hall of The Hague, which has long since gobbled up most of the places portrayed. Oak and Dunes, which provides the motif of a separate view (cat.nr. 84), has escaped being asphalted only because it has become a cemetery.

No town without the produce of the country, either. The fresh water fish being sold in the square in The Hague in Jan Steen's painting (cat.nr. 85) was caught in the surrounding countryside, the vegetables in La Fargue's market scene (cat.nr.90) grown there. The farmers would come into town on market days with their wares, and return with city goods, which included many paintings. According to the well-known account of the Englishman John Evelyn, who visited Holland in 1641, the fairs were full of paintings, 'especially Landscips, and Drolleries, as they call those clownish representations. The reason of this store of pictures and their cheapenesse proceede from their want of Land, to employ their Stock; so as 'tis an ordinary thing to find, a common Farmor lay out two, or 3000 pounds in this Commodity, their houses are full of them, and they vend them at their Kermas'es to very greate gaines.'8 The farmer was therefore not only a consumer but actually a dealer in art. It is astonishing to think that as many as a third of the Dutch paintings of the Golden Age may have been created as a form of capital investment for farmers with more money than land.

The market for landscapes, the most massive and seemingly the most impersonal segment of the Dutch world of painting, may have been closer to the bone than any other. It was at those kermis booths where turnips shared space with paintings that the artist's vision came most fully into its own. There he could turn the figments of his imagination into food for his family, while down-to-earth farmers could appease their hunger for land with painted substitutes, dreams of landscape as scrip held against hopes of farmland in the future.

  1. Haak 1984, p.31.
  2. Taverne 1972-1973, p.66.
  3. Liedtke 1982, p. 11.
  4. Montias 1982, p. 181.
  5. Montias 1982, p.242.
  6. Schwartz 1973.
  7. Broos 1984.
  8. Quoted in Rosenberg, Slive and ter Kuile 1966, p. 9.

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