7. Expensive Wallpaper

      The Belittlement of Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art





“No longer faced with the propagandistic mandates of regal and religious sponsorship, the content and context of art production by Dutch artists revolutionized to suit a newly emerging public art market that was different from those in the rest of Europe."


The unique political, religious and economic climate of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century produced an unprecedented and unparalleled environment for artistic production, the products of which are as distinctive as the culture that produced them. And though the art of the Dutch Golden Age has retained much of its popular appeal, it is difficult to determine in absolute terms how and why this special situation developed. In fact, compared to other European centres of artistic development such as Italy, France and Spain, relatively little has been written on Dutch artistry. That which has been written seems to rely substantially on numerical data describing the prices and quantities of paintings, catalogues of private collections, or attempts to deconstruct works by ascribing particular meanings to specific visual clues. Though there is certainly much to be gained from investigating these avenues, the prevalence of “quantifiable” evidence in regards to Dutch art implies that some difficulty has been encountered in describing the Republic’s conditions of art production and consumption in qualitative terms. To be sure, the traditional assumptions and vocabulary used to describe the arts and their contexts are at odds with the extraordinary atmosphere of the Dutch Golden Age.

The decades leading up to the early seventeenth century had an irrefutable impact on the environment that would develop. Unlike its European contemporaries, the Netherlands emerged out of a period of tumultuous political and religious international conflict in a position of great wealth without sustaining the despotic control of a church or crown. The virtual absence of these ruling bodies led to a partial dissolution of hierarchical understandings of wealth and faith, having a profound effect on the structure and sensibilities of Dutch society. 

“Whereas the Spanish [and French] Kingdom[s] and territories were ruled by an increasingly centralized court … the government structure of the Netherlandish provinces had remained localized in the cities that formed their economic backbone, governed by a middle-class elite of so-called regents” (Westermann 21). Unusual for the period, especially considering the lack of natural resources in their small country, the Dutch grew very prosperous from trade and manufacture, and the resulting wealth was distributed somewhat evenly across the classes, instead of benefiting a few aristocrats. 

Following the Protestant Reformation in the late sixteenth century, Calvinism had become the dominant faith, encouraging egalitarian worship in vernacular, unmitigated by a requisite clergy.  However, though Protestantism had largely replaced Catholicism, the Dutch were distinct from their neighbouring nations in that they did not have an imposed state religion.  The religious tolerance of the Northern United Provinces “caused Protestant intellectuals and artists to leave the Southern Netherlands for the Dutch Republic, where they provided innovative stimulus to the production and discussion of art,” and contributed to the North’s economic growth and rational municipal leadership (Westermann 10).

The stabilizing economy, development of a middle class citizenry heavily involved in government and commerce, religious tolerance born out of the Reformation (and perhaps monetary motivations) and the intellectual immigrants that it attracted all contributed to the distinct climate of the Dutch Golden Age as well as its remarkable art market.  Just as the exclusivity of wealth and faith were essentially removed from the very select elite, the possession, patronage and enjoyment of art was democratized in the Netherlands. This too can be traced to the absence of a strong monarchy and Catholic authority, as the Church and Crown were the principal patrons of the arts in other European centres. It is true that Catholicism was replaced by another Christian sect, but Calvinistic doctrines were opposed to the opulence shown by their predecessor, as will be discussed below. Additionally, there was a noteworthy crew of nobles, but:

The Princes of Orange were rich, but not so rich that their patronage could extend to more than a select few, and they were the only possible source of such [traditional] patronage in the Republic. There was a nobility, but it was on the whole poor and dependent on the House of Orange for offices in the state or the army in order to maintain its position. Here there were no great patrons comparable with the aristocracy in France, Spain, or England – Dutch nobles simply lacked the necessary financial resources. (Price 141)

Instead, the wealth that circulated through the Netherlands was distributed on a broader basis through society, and was not heavily taxed to support the extravagant court of an absolute monarch. Consequently, the artists of the provinces were compelled to adapt to a loss of systematic and traditional patronage. No longer faced with the propagandistic mandates of regal and religious sponsorship, the content and context of art production by Dutch artists evolved to suit a newly emerging public art market that differed from those in the rest of Europe. This market was essentially sustained by:

…the Dutch practice of investing surplus money in plate, furniture and other items for use in, or decoration of, the home. This practice was common in all sections of Dutch society which had any surplus at all – and in Holland this meant a much larger population than any other country. Certainly the lower-middle and artisan groups had capital to spare for such investments, and it was noted by travellers that even the better-off peasants were able to spend money on paintings. (Price 133)

The mechanisms of retail, as well as the patron-artist relationship, were radicalized as the redistribution of capital meant that more people had the resources to purchase art. However, the means and desires of the individuals constituting the new public market were nonetheless limited, especially compared to the infinite patronage provided elsewhere by nobles and church officials. In place of few large-scale elaborate works that often took years to complete, the new market demanded smaller, cheaper, and more plentiful works of art.

Because of the intense consumer demand for art, the Dutch artist depersonalized the content of the works she produced in order to sell them near or upon completion, rather than producing works for private individuals upon commission. New techniques of looser paint application made the process faster, and catered to the call for work produced inexpensively and in bulk. “The invention of tonal painting made the new landscapes, which were painted in this style, much cheaper to produce, making secularized demand for non-religious subjects possible on a grand scale” (North 133). The development and refinement of printmaking also fulfilled the call for accessible artistic media.

No longer created on commission for specific buyers, art in the Netherlands was produced with an acute awareness of its marketability and was sold in a relatively modern way. Though much was still mediated by the Guild of St. Andrew, retail occurred primarily through art dealers, fairs, and visits to the artist’s studio to enquire about works in progress or those already completed. The success of artists in meeting the high demand for accessible artworks is illustrated by guild-imposed restrictions in “Amsterdam in 1623, for example, [where] the open air sale of paintings was forbidden, while in 1635 the guild prescribed that no one could sell paintings door to door” (Van Deursen 71). If such methods of sale were feasible enough to necessitate restriction, the Dutch artwork had become a ubiquitous, everyday object that could be purchased anywhere, even at one’s own doorstep. The conception of artwork as a mysterious and rare object reserved for the extremely affluent and the House of God was dispelled in the Netherlands. “Most pictures were bought by the private middle-class citizens, known as burghers, from modest artisans to wealthy regents. An English observer commented that in the Republic, even humble abodes brimmed with pictures” (Westermann 33).

Nonetheless, the Netherlands was anything but a classless society and the most privileged elite were still in a position to maintain a more conventional arrangement of patronage. Consider, for example, the case of Johannes Vermeer who is believed to have secured stable patronage, obtaining higher prices for fewer, more time-consuming pieces. Yet, “there is no evidence that these patrons commissioned specific themes. They merely bought the right to buy any picture the master chose to make” (Westermann 38). This is directly contrary to the systems of sponsorship employed elsewhere by absolute monarchs and the Vatican, wherein an artist might have worked for years to create personalized visual propaganda that was tailored to meet the specific objectives of the patron.  Though personalized art continued in some aspect in the Republic, a radical change in the patron-artist relationship had a formidable effect on the content, meaning and function of art produced for the most affluent sects of society. Arguably, the general desertion of explicit commissions in favour of finished works with unspecified and unspecialized subjects chosen on the whim of the artist contributed to the innovative thrust of “art for art’s sake.”

Undoubtedly, distinctions of knowledge, wealth and ideas of taste have been intricately linked in societies of varying eras and locales and have served as apparatuses for constructing exclusionary schemes of class. However, it appears that in the Netherlands, assumptions of absolute connections between wealth, knowledge, taste and rank were minimized as the middle class found themselves unexpectedly prosperous in the first half of the century.  Just as religious, economic, and government hierarchies were softened, so were distinctions of knowledge and taste. The Dutch boasted the highest literacy rate in Europe, which in conjunction with the knowledge thereby proliferated, was essential to the trading successes that sustained the provinces’ economies. The rough uniformity of taste in the Netherlandish art could be chiefly attributed to the newly financed burghers facing anxieties over their unanticipated promotion and experiencing little initial desire to distinguish themselves from less privileged masses.

The growing genre of portraiture in the Dutch Republic speaks to the new economic structure and the democratization of art, and provides clues as to the burghers’ self-conceptions.  Elsewhere, portraiture remained primarily reserved for the nobility and the highest church officials, but the large quantity of seventeenth-century Netherlandish portraits confirms that the licence to immortalize oneself through visual representation was extended beyond nobles and high-ranking clergymen. However, these likenesses differed in both design and splendour from their counterparts that illustrated nobility, though not due to cost. For the most part, an upper-middle class sitter could have herself painted in the same manner as an aristocratic courtier but elected not to, purposely lacking the aspiration to be defined in such terms. In fact, “until the 1640s, elegant, bright portraits, pastoral or otherwise, had largely been the preserve of members of the Stadhouder’s court and other nobles. By contrast, successful urban citizens had themselves portrayed in expensive but understated fashions, thus claiming nobility on interiorized virtue” (Westermann 138). The virtues hence ascribed are ones of modesty, morality and moderation, as consciously contrasted with perceptions of extravagant courtiers who inherit their statuses without necessarily meriting them. Indeed, it was with an utter loathing and resentment for the rule of the excessively indulgent Spanish court and the accompanying heavy taxation that the Northern United Provinces fought for and won their independence decades before. Even more, the Spanish court’s downfall would prove to be a cautionary example of the consequences of showing imprudence towards colonial wealth as well as finances on the home front. Hence, the subdued portraiture of the Dutch burghers was not a product of restrictions against more embellishment, but was rather indicative of a deliberate desire to disassociate themselves from the apparent decadence and immorality of the upper echelons of the aristocracy.

Instead, unsure of the stability and possible implications of their new wealth, the burghers initially took a moderate stance, quietly enjoying their prosperity without aggressively differentiating themselves from the masses in terms of lifestyle and artistic preferences.  It was the majority that determined the style and content of Dutch art, as artists catered to their purchasing power, and “into the second half of the century … there were no clear and sharp divisions within Dutch society which coincided with those of artistic taste” (Price 130). Obviously “the number and quality of pictures in a house increased with the occupant’s income, but there was no significant change in taste” (North 130).

Since the subject of most art in the Republic was suited to the interests of the middling majority, it follows that the complex content typical of the Italian Baroque did not thrive in the Netherlands.  Generally speaking, affluent patrons in Europe enjoyed extensive Classical educations, and expected their artistic assets to be imbued with sophisticated subtexts of mythology and allegory to reflect their intelligence and cultivation. However, the art buyers of the Netherlands had neither familiarity with nor interest in the Classics or Humanities and the exclusionary tactics of enigmatic, intellectualized art was at odds with the Dutch understanding of accessibility and proliferation of knowledge. 

Instead of the theoretical emphasis in other artistic traditions, “the real subject matter of the Dutch School was the physical world surrounding both the painter and his public. There was little concern with overt commentary on life or allegorical representations of abstract ideas, whether moral or religious” (Price 128). Mythological, religious and historical figures were replaced with everyday subjects in genre scenes, still lifes, and landscapes that focused on quiet beauty rather than powerful authoritative statements. These small-scale, understated works were not only symptomatic of the high-demand art market and the education and tastes of the art-buying majority; they also befit the development of a new function of art induced by the radical shift in patronage in the Dutch Republic.

This transformation in the purpose of the art object was twofold. The democratization of art throughout the middle and lower classes granted a ubiquitous quality to artwork, and gave it an unprecedented domestic dimension. Furthermore, the withdrawal of the Catholic Church as a source of sponsorship and the iconoclastic doctrines of Calvinism stripped away a traditional function of art.

The unprecedented ubiquity of artworks alone must have altered the Dutch perception of the art object. Once a luxury item reserved for the leading elite and the House of God, paintings were typically unattainable and somewhat incomprehensible for most citizens. Yet, the curious structure of seventeenth-century Dutch society reformed the nature of art ownership and appreciation into something that was frequent and familiar. As the art object became accessible to the masses, it could not have been looked upon as a purposeful article representative of their financial and academic advantages, or biblical connotations as it was for the nobility and Catholic clergy. Paintings, for the most part, could no longer exude exclusivity.  They had become common objects, plentiful and passively pervasive as “works of art, ranging from simple prints and copies to original paintings, hung in almost all Dutch houses; it is estimated for example, that picture of some kind were found in about two-thirds of Delft households” (North 107). Even more remarkable than the sheer number of households that contained any artwork is the number of artworks they contained. “What surprised foreign observers was not only the fact that people of modest means were prepared to buy paintings, but that they bought so many. [One] claims that it was not unusual to find 100 or even 200 pictures in a modest household” (Price 134). Although such an estimate is probably not representative of the average dwelling, rapidly produced landscapes and popular prints were desirable and reasonable investments for the disposable income of average citizens, as even “the most modest shopkeeper had his collection of pictures and hung them in every room” (Zumthor 195).

Though art had not degenerated into an overlooked object of utility, the differentiation between paintings and other objects was somehow weakened. Usually this distinction, as nebulous as it may be, is an intuitive and persistent sentiment in Western culture. Nonetheless, in the Golden Age of Dutch art, “paintings were treated in a similar way to furniture or plate – they embellished the home, and could be expected to keep their value or perhaps even increase it” (Price 134). Given that the seventeenth-century provinces were centered on commerce, it follows that Dutch art should find itself commoditized.  Yet this considerable diminution in the prestige that art objects typically enjoy simply for their classification as art is perplexing. It is difficult to explain how pieces praised in the past and present were, “for the Dutch bourgeois of that epoch… a piece of furniture, and a piece of furniture that had an essential function, that of covering bare surfaces” (Zumthor, 195).

In addition to the “unspecialness” that the Dutch art object experienced as the market provoked an explosion in quantity and availability, the advent of the popular print also had an effect on the Dutch understanding of the object. With the advent of mechanical reproduction, art could no longer be characterized in terms of singularity or even as a direct product of an artist’s genius.  Art’s “essence” as understood in the established, romantic sense was diminished as was any appreciation or awe for the mystifying “aura” of an original masterpiece. Interestingly, the art object was no longer automatically deserving of the viewer’s admiration or reverence because of its status as “art.” In fact, where artists elsewhere were restricted to only the most respectable of subject matter, prohibited even from showing the sole of a foot, Dutch painters heeded no such limitations. The subject matter of Netherlandish art varies from its European contemporaries for various reasons, but even these circumstances alone cannot explain why the Dutch canvasses are littered not only with soles of feet, but also the lowliest of individuals and situations, and even the occasional mother changing her soiled child.  Surely the dispassionate willingness to paint indecent content such as that is an indication of a very informal function and casual appreciation of art. 

The casual content of Dutch art is connected to its unceremonious place in the home not only in terms of art’s familiarity and abundance, but because low-key subject matter is naturally more appropriate for the domestic interior.  Large-scale, flashy images of classical deities and tormented martyrs are unsuitable for most homes, and made for unappealing domestic fixtures that clashed with what are sometimes regarded as quintessentially Dutch sensibilities of economy and rational simplicity. “There is a great difference between a picture which is intended to be hung in a church or a large gallery in an aristocratic residence, and one which is destined for a private house, and thus must be lived with, not visited. The demand in Holland was for paintings which would not be disturbing if hung in a living room” (Price 142).

The intensifying privileging of aesthetic concerns over the conventional functions of art – especially as a means to some kind of absolute truth – brings us back to issues of patronage. Regardless of the market-driven reasons for the secularization of subject matter, the most substantial cause for increasingly informal art in the Dutch Republic was a withdrawal of the sponsorship by religious institutions as the Reformation more or less expelled Catholic influences from the Netherlands. Calvinism, which became the prevalent religion in the provinces, encouraged austerity and egalitarianism in matters of faith and was strongly opposed to the use of images and icons in worship and their distracting presence in the church. “Calvinist theology did not allow the use of altarpieces and representations of God and Christ in worship, and it was opposed to the Catholic cult of saints, which required so many paintings and sculptures” (Westermann 33). Thus the artist whose efforts were driven by market forces had no motivation to produce art with religious subject matter if her primary buyer was replaced by an entity hostile to visual disturbances in sacred context.

Furthermore, the transition period of the Reformation saw a brutal episode of iconoclasm that destroyed most of the Christian art that artists in the seventeenth century might have otherwise been able to study. Instead, the slate was wiped clean and Dutch artists were reminded that art with biblical content was vulnerable and risked being destroyed whereas safer, secular subjects were meant to be decorative and therefore were not contentious.

A particularly ironic example of the new interest in the beauty of objects rather than their spiritual value was the neutralization of the church structure itself. “One of the strangest of all the specialized genres developed by the Dutch was the church interior, which became the speciality of a number of very fine painters” (Price 145). Scenes of church interiors highlighted the splendour of the architecture rather than the sanctity of the space, foreshadowing Claude Monet’s concern with aesthetics in painting a series of church façades during the late nineteenth century. 

Interestingly, the spiritual knowledge imbued in religious art intended for the House of God was replaced with secular knowledge in art for the private domestic sphere. Long before Hegel articulated art’s relationship to absolute truths via the Geist, the mystical connection between art and metaphysical totalities was established in the writings of many theologians. Yet, as the art object became less enigmatic and was recognized as something grounded in the visual and physical realm, the ability of art to impart knowledge to the viewer was retained although the nature of that knowledge was radically altered.  Instead of alluding to mysticism and supernatural entities and concepts, secular Dutch art popularized by the popular taste was concerned with knowledge about the physical world.

The seventeenth century was a period of much exploration and discovery.  As the enormity of the New World began to unfold, so did the beautiful vastness of the heavens and the surprising complexity of the matter before us with the innovation of new scientific apparatuses for seeing. Indeed, the Enlightenment dawned with the Age of Reason and the realization that there is much to know in this realm, beyond the Scholastic tradition of the past. The preference for real-world subject matter presented as correctly as possible suggests that the desire to amass wisdom influenced the art market and consequently art production. As Mariet Westermann has noted, “Collectors did not just buy pictures exclusively for their decorative, artistic, or narrative merits. Several gathered objects, drawings, and prints primarily to amass knowledge about the world’s geography, flora and fauna, and its different cultures” (40). Perhaps owing to Calvinistic doctrines, Dutch “artists and viewers did not find scientific representation incompatible with religious understanding,” and saw themselves as mere copyists of the glory of God’s ever-unfolding creations (Westermann 92). Nonetheless, the emphasis on visual accuracy is surely a testament to the new concern with the physical world, as is the anomalous popularity of landscapes and cityscapes.  There is some indication that “viewers did not make the modern distinction between painting as ‘art’ and maps as ‘knowledge,’” and that there was overlap in terms of function (North, 77). In some way, art was transformed from an embodiment of truth to a conveyor of definite (and useful) knowledge.

Still, there is another cause of the Netherlands’ peculiar subject matter compared to the rest of Europe’s art, partially arising out of the unusually corporeal understanding of art’s place and content in the Republic and a distance from the abstract discourse of other regions.  The metaphysics of art has been a topic of discussion for quite literally thousands of years, particularly in terms of identifying the special capacities of art, and what criteria renders an object “art.” Yet there is peculiar absence of such discourse in the Dutch provinces during the seventeenth century. Conventions of content, form and function were not established and enforced, thus explaining the lackadaisical genres and casual place assigned to Dutch art. Unlike other nations where hierarchies of genre were strict, “painters did not feel the need to justify such subjects as proper matter for art. There was no theoretical discussion in the Republic on the question of whether specialized landscapes, seascapes or interiors were viable subjects for painters” (Price 145). Put simply:

Because the painters saw themselves as craftsmen they had no theoretical inhibitions against adopting the radically new, if it could be shown that there was a demand for it. The painters of Flanders and Italy saw themselves as artists, and were developing an exalted conception of the task and function of the artist and the function of art. They were impressed by theory and felt that their work had to be justifiable according to these theories; the Dutch craftsmen-painters knew very little theory and produced what they expected would find a market. (Ibid.)

Given the humble definition of the artwork as a decorative possession it follows that it was given little theoretical emphasis. Again this is indicative of the “everydayness” afforded to art objects in the Dutch Republic, which were without profound philosophical truths or transcendental intentions.

Without doubt, the environment of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic was unique from other art-producing locales in Europe, with its unprecedented public art market in combination with the effects of the Reformation. Though it is exceedingly difficult to gauge the mentality of a society – especially when firsthand sources tend to be most concerned with the economics of art – seventeenth-century Dutch culture and art production merits some attention as it is so distinct from its contemporaries. The art objects it produced became ubiquitous aesthetic objects with no theoretical obligations of genre, purpose or spirituality while other artists elsewhere in Europe moved away from the “craftsmen” mentality of artistry. Yet the unassuming character of Dutch art, in terms of content, functions and value, is precisely what causes it to be so appealing in modernity – making it more special to us, in some ways, than the self-important art commissioned by the pretentious patrons of princely courts and powerful priests. 



Works Cited

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Zumthor, Paul. Daily Life in Rembrandt’s Holland. Trans. Simon Watson Taylor. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962. Print.



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Emily Heersink is in her fourth year of an Honors Specialization in Art History and Criticism and Scholars Electives.  Her interests include art theory and the mass consumption of visual culture in early modernity. She is delighted to have been a part of Bon à Tirer and hopes to work on similar publications in the future.