CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Prenten in de Gouden Eeuw: van kunst tot kastpapier

Prints in the Golden Age: from art to shelf paper: Exhibition: 21 January - 19 March 2006


Jan van der Waals

Press release, 27 March 2003, of the Rijksmuseum, where the exhibition was originally to have been held

17th-century prints are now kept in frames behind glass and presented in display cases, or stored safely in portfolios and albums. But 300 years ago prints were everyday objects that played a prominent role in many people’s lives. They were pinned to the wall or stuck to a wooden board with sealing wax, and were an important feature of interiors. Until the advent of today’s visual media, for centuries prints were the principal medium for images. The exhibition Prints in the Golden Age: from art to shelf paper, , will show what people did with the prints in their homes in the 17th century.

What prints were put up on the wall and how were they hung? What did people do with prints? In what ways did printers and publishers look ahead to later uses? Were prints sold in frames? What supports other than paper were used? What about the colouring of prints? Who did that? What did a print cost?

Apart from the very poor, everyone could afford to buy a print from time to time. And what did people buy? The portrait of a ruler or naval hero, or their favorite minister or priest. Topography – city views and maps – was a major category. A substantial share of prints had to do with the passage of time: calendars and depictions of the seasons or months. Historical events were also popular, as well as famous feats of arms and battles at sea or on land. Illustrations of biblical stories were part of daily life, and people were frequently reminded of the transitory nature of earthly existence. The straight and narrow path was pointed out, as was the deceptiveness of the senses, in outspokenly moralistic images, but also in inventive and playful forms.

The exhibition includes the words of songs with an illustration, auction posters, wrapping paper, decorated maps and cut-out pictures turned into a collage. We are shown the effects of satin and silk as supports for images. Trompe l’oeil paintings with graphics, perspective boxes and interior pieces with prints on the wall demonstrate their use. There are chests and other everyday objects with prints glued to them, and there is one example of a paper crown meant to be cut out and worn on Twelfth Night. The portrayal of merry and melancholy moods is shown through various highly original prints.

At the heart of the exhibition is a perpetual calendar from 1609 which offers both guidance as to how to earn life hereafter, and information to enable the skipper of a coaster to steer his ship safely into port. The same image is found on a folding ornamental knife on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Here it is seen beside the print for the first time. Other prints and objects come from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, the Kongelige Kobberstiksamling in Copenhagen, the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel and various other collections.