The Man behind the Painter

On the whole we know little about the everyday life of Dutch painters of the seventeenth century. Often all we have is a few humdrum facts, such as the year an artist was born or died, the name of his wife or the number of children he had. Anyone who wants to learn more about the artists as people should read De Grote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen by Arnold Houbraken.

A reference work
Published in three volumes between 1718 and 1721, Houbrakens work describes the lives of a large number of the painters of the previous century. In addition to discussing their artistic achievements, he devotes a lot of attention to their character traits, which he illustrates with colourful anecdotes. His model was Karel van Mander, whose Leven der Doorluchtige Nederlantsche en Hoogduytsche Schilders had been published more than a hundred years previously (in 1604). Meanwhile Dutch painting had experienced its Golden Age and time was ripe for a new reference work. Shortly after Houbraken’s books were published, his example was followed by Jacob Campo Weyerman and Johan van Gool, among others.

Shining example
Houbraken did not confine himself to the most famous names; he strove rather to present as broad a selection of painters as possible. We should forgive him for overlooking no one less than Johannes Vermeer, since the latter was then only known in small circles. Houbraken was not just concerned with rescuing painters of the recent past from oblivion, but also with informing following generations of their lives and work, either as shining examples, or even as cautionary tales. Because his books were mainly intended for the instruction of young painters, he added a moral wherever possible. For instance he used the biography of Pieter de Neyn, a stone-cutter who succeeded in becoming a painter, to show that with enough determination one could achieve one’s goal.

Although Houbraken was sometimes guilty of plagiarism, this was common practice at the time; he also took considerable pains to unearth new information. He consulted archives and questioned the families, friends or acquaintances of his painters. He was informed by the Amsterdam art dealer Hellemans, for instance how the still-life painter Willem Kalf came to his end. One evening on returning from a visit to Hellemans, Kalf fell over on a bridge: He certainly felt that he had been hurt; but not suspecting that it could have such dire consequences he went to bed and lay down; by the time the clock struck ten he was a corpse.

Although he did his best to discover information as carefully as possible, Houbraken is not always plausible. For instance, his biography of Jan Steen has all the elements of a tall story. Houbraken tells us that Steen had to marry the daughter of his master Jan van Goyen because he had made her pregnant. Even in those days Steen was constantly drunk and always out of money. Later on, when he himself became an innkeeper he was, according to Houbraken, like the landlord in the Three Masts, more drunk than his customers. Just like his paintings, life at home with Steen was always disorderly. According to Houbraken, he even neglected his family. After becoming a widower, he is supposed to have given his children nothing but bread to eat. After hearing however in conversation in the inn about the dangers of eating fresh herring – it could even give you the plague – he treated his six offspring to a barrow-load of the fish, hoping in vain that for some of them it would be their last meal. Houbraken tells us that it was only when Steen was totally down and out that he picked up his brushes. Although there may have been a germ of truth in stories like these, present-day researchers regard the excessive behaviour that Houbraken ascribed to Steen, as highly exaggerated.

Certain cliches about artists also recur frequently in Houbraken. A suspiciously large number of painters seems to have displayed an extraordinarily precocious talent, with the parents apparently having quite a different profession in mind for them. Virtually the same story is told about both Govaert Flinck and Jan Baptist Weenix: both of them were expected to help in the shop, but instead they spent the whole time there drawing sketches on all the scraps of paper they could lay their hands on. Another standard story that we already come across in classical antiquity is the one about the power that an artist has over the animals he paints. Otto Marseus van Schrieck, who filled his woodland still lifes with large numbers of insects and reptiles, is said to have been so successful in charming snakes that he could arrange them in any pose he wanted at a touch of his staff. And Houbraken also tells that the painter of poultry Melchior d’Hondecoeter could do the same with a trained rooster.

Real people
Despite Houbrakens poetic license, De Grote Schouwburg remains one of the most important sources for the lives of painters in the Golden Age. Instead of a dry summary of facts, the book contains a wealth of information from which the painters emerge as real people. Rembrandt, for example, is presented not only as a man of genius but also as a high-handed artist who was greedy for money. For a joke his pupils painted farthings and halfpennies on the floor and the master was constantly stooping to pick them up. Paulus Potter is described as a genuine workaholic, even taking a sketch book with him when he went for a stroll with his wife, so that he could draw while walking. The painter of architecture Emanuel de Witte was in Houbraken’s opinion an exceptionally unpleasant ill-mannered person who had quarrels with virtually everyone. Willem Kalf, in contrast, was such a friendly and considerate person that his wife said that he cared more for others than for himself.

A recurring theme in De Grote Schouwburg is the excessive penchant for alcohol among painters. Of Frans Hals, for instance, Houbraken says: Frans was half seas over with drink almost every evening. The Leiden fine artist Frans van Mieris was so tipsy one evening that he fell in a sewer that had broken open; he was rescued by a shoemender in the nick of time. Melchior d’Hondecoeter also often suffered from a dry throat; once he had downed one glass of wine he gave up counting.

Houbraken’s books are an almost inexhaustible source of tales about the artists; many are comic, sometimes they are touching, even moving; on occasion they are even horrific. As illustrations of his work, four painters are described here who in Houbraken’s view had completely different characters.

Exceptionally aggressive: Ernst Stuven
Ernst Stuven’s flower pieces give little indication of what an exceptionally aggressive person this Amsterdam painter must have been. According to Houbraken things might have still turned out alright for Stuven if he hadn’t spent time in taverns and indulging in other excesses. As a striking example of his depraved character, Houbraken mentions the way that he treated his pupil Willem Grasdorp. Grasdorp, who came from Zwolle, told Houbraken the whole story himself. Not only did he have to put up with frequent assaults; Stuven even forbad him from leaving the house or writing to his parents. Nevertheless he succeeded one day in secretly sending his parents a letter. When his uncle arrived to hear the full story Stuven assaulted him. The police who came post-haste to deal with the situation suffered the same fate and had to beat a retreat. After this incident Stuven became so deranged that he cursed and lashed out at everything that he saw. When night fell he barricaded himself in the upstairs room, armed with a loaded pistol and a pile of stones. He locked the unfortunate Grasveld up with him, threatening to kill him. After his apprentice escaped, a force of police broke into the house and succeeded with great difficulty in capturing the painter. Stuven was trussed up and carried off on a sled to the jail where he was held for some years.

Matthias Withoos, a gentle, good-natured man
The fact that not every painter was guilty of misconduct is clear from Houbraken’s biography of Matthias Withoos of Amersfoort. According to Withoos’ daughter Alida, herself a painter, he was a gentle, good-natured man. Only occasionally did he spend time in company; as a rule he worked day in day out. Matthias Withoos gave evidence of artistic leanings at an early age. His talent was spotted by the famous architect and painter, Jacob van Campen. Van Campen took the promising young man under his wing and in a space of six years had taught him so much that he could fly on his own wings. On finishing his apprenticeship, Withoos was encouraged by other young painters to go to Rome. Although he had great success there, he became homesick and went back to Amersfoort.

Eagle’s talons
Withoos imitated his friend and travelling companion, the above-mentioned Otto Marseus van Schrieck, in painting woodland still lifes with plants and animals. Houbraken had seen some of Withoos’ paintings himself and admired them for their wealth of detail – all of which were equally natural and done with great diligence and patience. He enjoyed a flourishing career, but he suffered from ill health in his later years, being unable to work for three or more months a year due to gout. According to a dealer who was on friendly terms with him, his fingers became so crooked they looked like eagle’s talons stuck onto his hands.

Nicolaes Maes, a tactful portraitist
Houbraken also describes Nicolaes Maes as a lovable person; he too avoided strong drink and taverns. Besides his qualities as a painter his tactful treatment of clients must also have been an important reason why his career prospered. He had been a pupil of Rembrandt, but he abandoned his masters manner of painting and devoted himself to portraiture instead. He noticed that young ladies preferred light colours, to the browns of his master. Due to his skillful and flattering brushwork he emerged as a much sought-after portraitist of the well-to-do bourgeoisie. The following anecdote shows how well he could comply with the wishes of his clients.

A certain lady who was hardly a great beauty (Houbraken prefers to pass over her name) commissioned her portrait from Maes. Initially he painted her as she really was, with pockmarks and wrinkles. When the woman saw this she was furious: `What a monstrous mug you’ve given me! I don’t want a thing like that. The dogs would bark if they saw it being carried down the street.’ Maes quickly saw what was expected of him and told her tactfully that the portrait was not yet ready and that she should pose for him again. Then he took a thick brush and painted out all the irregularities in her face, finally giving her cheeks a rosy blush. On seeing the result the lady cried enthusiastically: Yes, that’s how it should be and left his studio well satisfied.

Genius or plagiarist: Philips Wouwerman
One of the most successful painters of the Golden Age was Philips Wouwerman; he was unrivalled in painting horses. He owed his prosperity to certain wealthy patrons who had given him financial backing since he was young. Wouwerman was in every respect a fortunate man. Houbraken relates, however, that there was another side to the coin.

One man’s death
In his book Houbraken reveals that Wouwerman had made his fortune at the expense of another. After the death of his less successful colleague, Pieter van Laer, he is said to have secretly appropriated a chest with all his designs, drawings and sketches. Following the precept that one man’s death is another mans breath, he made eager use of these examples without anyone being the wiser. On his deathbed Wouwerman ordered all the drawings to be burnt, so that nobody would find out with whose calves he had gone ploughing.

A good story
Although Houbraken assures the reader that his story came from a reliable source, doubt was later cast on it. The fact remains that the early work of Philips Wouwerman was to a high degree indebted to Pieter van Laer. The figures and animals in Coastal scene with cargo being landed of c. 1640-1644 clearly shows the influence of the master from Haarlem. Even so we should not condemn Wouwerman without qualification. He could just as easily have become familiar with Van Laer’s work through the numerous prints in circulation. Whatever the truth of the matter, Houbraken’s story remains a delightful one.

    Arnold Houbraken

    The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

    Canvas 79.5 x 63.4 cm,
    signed A. Houbraken fec.:
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder.

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    Willem Kalf

    Farm with View of Paris and Still Life in the Foreground

    Copper, 50 x 15 cm,
    Signed WK,
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder.

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    Nicolaes Maes

    Portrait of a Woman with Flowers

    Canvas, 55 x 43 cm,
    signed: Maes,
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder

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    Anna Ruysch

    Tulips and Roses in a Vase on a Marble Table

    canvas, 53.5 x 45 cm.
    Previously attributed to Ernst Stuven.
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder.

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    Matthias Withoos

    Woodland Scene with a Hedgehog

    Panel, 67.5 x 56.7 cm,
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder

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    Philips Wouwerman

    Haarlem 1619 - 1668 Haarlem

    Coastal Landscape with the dropping of Goods

    Panel, 40 x 54 cm
    Signed with monogram : PW
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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