Book in the spotlight

Adrie van Griensven is a publicist with the Financieele Dagblad. He reports on exhibitions and reviews art books. In the following pages he presents his views on the Hoogsteder publication and The Hague’s Painters of the Golden Age exhibition.

In the 17th century, Pieter Claesz’s paintings of monochrome banquets represented one particular kind of still life. Typically Haarlemesque, these breakfast pieces depict the remains of a sober meal, composed in subtle tones of grey, white, yellow and brown. In many other towns of the Dutch Republic, art developed alongside a wide variety of genres and styles, in individual specialisations. Or a certain genre became a tradition. Thus Leiden had its fijnschilders, Utrecht its Caravaggists and Amsterdam, where almost every genre flourished, was renowned for its history pieces. In Delft, it was Gerard Houckgeest, Emanuel de Witte, Pieter de Hoogh and Johannes Vermeer who excelled in a characteristic approach to space and perspective. Even Rotterdam had its metier: there the detail in the depictions of moonlight scenes and fires outshone all other Dutch nocturnal paintings. But what about The Hague, what did this town have to show for itself?

A specialism or a great master, head and shoulders above the other artists of the day, even starting a school, was never a feature of the Hague art scene in the 17th century. Just as there was no real innovation, as there would be in the 19th century. Yet that is no reason to ignore the town, which is largely what art historians have done. In fact The Hague has had plenty to offer. The city can boast excellent portraitists, famous landscape painters such as Jan van Goyen, Hercules Seghers, Paulus Potter, and those splendid still-life painters Abraham van Beijeren and Cornelis de Heem. Jan Steen worked here for a while, like Melchior d’Hondecoeter. In all, over 650 artists lived and worked in The Hague in the 17th century. A respectable total, even though not all the names are equally illustrious. In fact a sizeable proportion earned a living – and certainly no pittance – as a kladschilder or decorative painter. Which indicates, without any irony intended, that they painted signs, standards and coaches as well as ornamenting interiors with floral, animal and other decorations.

Viewing The Hague’s Painters of the Golden Age, it is immediately clear that The Hague had a definite part to play in the art world of the period and that the town’s role was a unique one. To accompany such an eye-opening and important show, a publication needs to meet high standards. And reading through this richly illustrated volume, it is obviously more than a run-of-the-mill catalogue. Three stimulating essays introduce the reader to the material.

Els Neuman charts the history of The Hague in the 17th century. In the second essay, Edwin Buijsen provides a detailed picture of the art world in The Hague. He discusses the various painting genres, the guild and the society, illustrating how the status of painters changed and offering a glimpse of the everyday life of an artist. The third essay describes the market for paintings in The Hague. Here Carola Vermeeren reveals the strict rules that governed trading and auctions, and examines in detail the kind of prices paintings fetched. She reveals all kinds of data about the patrons, the role of the court and government, finally introducing some of the principal collectors and discussing their preferences. At the back of the volume is an index of all six hundred and fifty plus painters – 240 of whom with works to their name – and short biographies.

The main section of the book is entitled the Gallery of Honour: a series of extensive biographies of 35 major artists, illustrated with colour plates. Not only are these artists’ lives, careers and oeuvres described in as much detail as possible; anecdotes dripping with humour and drama help bring these painters to life as people. They are spotlighted in all their greatness and vulgarity, their ineptitude and often also their financial problems. The latter being reflected in the archives, which provided a source for the biographies. Like a number of other valuable records: the books of biographies by Karel van Mander, Arnold Houbraken, Johan van Gool and Jacob Campo Weyerman whose vivid turns of phrase and telling descriptions have rarely been surpassed and who have been eagerly cited. All this lends this catalogue the air of a standard work and makes the book a pleasure to read.

The history of The Hague begins in 1248, when Count Willem II founded The Hague and ordered the construction of a royal palace, today’s Knight’s Hall. The village gradually expanded as the location of the court and a centre of the cloth industry – two elements that dominated the lives of its inhabitants until the early 16th century. Fortunately for The Hague, both court and government continued to remain firmly established in here, despite ferocious attempts by other towns in Holland to attract the rulers of the Dutch Republic to their citadels.

So The Hague developed into a capital city, where the elite were able to live in luxury. In the days of Frederik Hendrik and Amalia van Solms and in the early years of Stadholder-King Willem III’s reign, court life flourished. As the centre of government, the town attracted top civil servants, officers, ambassadors and numerous diplomatic emissaries throughout the 17th century. With all the opportunities this gave to artists and craftsmen alike. The Oranges decorated their residence, the Binnenhof, and built estates; aristocrats commissioned fine patrician houses amid the greenery, with stately lanes and canals laid out by the civic authorities and a classical church on Spui. The painters Joris van de Haagen and Bartholomeus van Bassen provide an excellent impression of the stately architectural beauty of this princely quarter.

Of course matters were quite different in the claustrophobic streets and squares around the Grote Kerk. The bustling activity and colourful figures of the marketplace offered painters ample opportunity to record the lives of ordinary people. Jan Steen achieved this superbly in his River Fish Market and Sybrand van Beest affords a glimpse of the bustling atmosphere at the pig market and the busy vegetable market. One of his vegetable market pictures is a winter scene. The snow and cold weather are made almost tangible by the poor fellow in the front, blowing into his hands. Literally a colourful detail on a white, grey and brown painting.

However separate the high-ranking and lower classes remained, when the fair came to town in May all levels of society flocked together. Which was one reason why the fair was such an irresistible spectacle for everyone. Indeed, Johan de Witt is known to have delayed major negotiations in order to join the festivities. Likewise, Willem III longed for the fun of the fair, as his complaint while in London recalls: O, that it were possible, to fly over like a bird through the air! I would give a hundred thousand guilders for it. Yes, I would even give two hundred thousand.

It is hardly surprising, Edwin Buijsen argues in his essay about painting in The Hague between 1600 and 1700, that it was portraiture that was first to flourish. Court circles, aristocracy, diplomats and wealthy burghers provided a constant flow of commissions. As fashions changed, so the preference for particular styles shifted and with it the portraitists. When the subdued, noble art of Michiel van Mierevelt and Jan van Ravesteyn became passé, the elite turned to Gerard van Honthorst, who attracted patrons with his idealising approach to portrait painting. But after a while, his lively brushstroke made way for a stolid smoothness, as the incisive Van Hoogstraten remarked.

The general preference was now for Adriaen Hanneman and the worldly style he had brought over to The Hague from England. Pieter Nason emulated his refined elegance, as did Jan Mijtens. With his family portraits Mijtens provided a unique contribution to portraiture. Set against a landscape, he would portray his subjects in the historical garb of their choice, as if they had stepped out of some mythological or pastoral scene, or in a combination of fashionable and fantastic dress. The diversity of poses and colours is still one of the attractive features of his canvases. Meanwhile, Jan de Baen strove for the favour of the town’s patrons. He delighted in large formats and lent his subjects a certain cachet, which was especially appreciated by the militiamen and patrician governors who regularly commissioned group portraits. Despite his success, De Baen never became rich: he lived too well for what he earned and acquired all kinds of friends, but mostly pot-lickers, or table-sweepers. In the third quarter of the century Caspar Netscher appeared on the scene with a more intimate portraiture, orienting towards French tastes. Precise, colourful and sensuous in his rendering of texture, his portraits enjoyed tremendous popularity.

With the arrival of Jan van Goyen interest in The Hague turned to landscapes. This fortunate shift drew artists from elsewhere, such as Hercules Seghers and Paulus Potter, the painter of skilfully observed meadows and cattle. Besides Potter and Van Goyen’s typically Dutch landscapes, demand soured for representations of the Italian countryside and the Arcadian scenes peopled with nymphs and mythological characters by Moyses Wtenbroeck and Cornelis van Poelenburg. Yet by the second half of the 17th century, the town could no longer boast any landscape artists of note.

In the field of still lifes, The Hague played a modest but special role. Uniquely, it was the fish still life that enjoyed especial popularity here, which is understandable given its proximity to the sea. Generally, in this genre the scene is a table on which a diversity of fish and shell fish are placed in various stages of preparation in an apparently nonchalant arrangement and portrayed with a limited, silvery palette of ground colours. Pieter de Putter specialised in fish still lifes, as did Isaac van Duijnen, whose work was more colourful and showed a less constrained composition. But the key name is that of Abraham van Beijeren, who was able to reproduce the shine of the scales with miraculous skill. In addition, Van Beijeren was renowned for his pronk or showpiece still lifes. They reflect a delicate sensitivity towards harmony and colouration. Together with his highly individual, loose brushwork, pictures by this master are immediately recognisable.

In The Hague genre pieces may not have been as widely painted as elsewhere, nevertheless with the arrival of Adriaen van de Venne of Middelburg the town had its very own virtuoso. Besides painting, Van de Venne was also a poet and a book illustrator, a strict Calvinist and, in politics, a supporter of the Oranges, who he portrayed many times. With flowing brushstrokes and a tinge of humour, although sometimes also a grimmer undertone, he keenly observed a range of subjects from love to peasant scenes, life among the lower classes and all kinds of human traits. A fine example is his depiction of the Miserable legs that bear such poverty, in which a tramp carries a similarly dishevelled woman and child on his shoulders, and its companion piece, Strong legs that bear such prosperity. Here a fashionably dressed man supports a richly attired woman holding a glass and pipe in one hand and tossing coins liberally with the other. Surely a theme that applies to all ages?

AVG

    Sybrand van Beest

    The Hague 1610 - 1674 Amsterdam

    The Hague Vegetable Market in Winter

    Painted circa 1650
    Panel, 63 x 104 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

    view details >

    Abraham van Beijeren

    The Hague 1620/1621 - Overschie 1690

    Pronk Still Life with Crab

    Canvas, 80.5 x 65 cm
    Private collection

    view details >

    Jan van Goyen

    Leiden 1596 - The Hague 1656

    River Landscape with Windmill and Town Wall

    1644 or 1645,
    Panel, 36 x 49 cm,
    private collection.

    view details >

    Jan Anthonisz. van Ravesteijn

    ? c. 1572 - The Hague 1657

    Portrait of a Lady

    1620,
    Canvas, 132 x 101.5 cm,
    private collection.

    view details >

    Adriaen van de Venne

    Delft 1589 - The Hague 1662

    Loving Care

    canvas 65 x 81 cm,
    private collection.

    view details >