Catchpenny prints rank among the most fascinating ephemera produced in the Dutch Republic. Yet aside from a series of what are essentially coffee-table books penned by Maurits de Meyer decades ago, an exhibition at the Rijksprentenkabinett in 1976, and some scattered entries in other exhibition catalogues, these crude yet intriguing prints have scarcely received the scholarly attention they deserve. Fortunately, the publication of Angela Vanhaelen’s Comic Print and Theatre in Early Modern Amsterdam has rectified this situation. Vanhaelen’s learned, interdisciplinary study ties several popular graphic themes to their broader social and cultural milieu, namely, the theatre, the marketplace, class and gender issues, and especially, shifting concepts of the city of Amsterdam. The intricate interconnections between prints on one hand, and these diverse phenomena on the other, are mediated through the postmodern theories of Foucault, de Certeau, Chartier and others concerning the body, space, daily existence, and pictorial and literary representation and its appropriation by diverse audiences.
The first chapter of the book serves as the introduction and is cleverly subtitled “The Consequence of the Trivial.” Here Vanhaelen sets forth the parameters of her study. Specifically, she ties the subject matter of catchpenny prints, which can be somewhat base, to farce performances on the Dutch stage and discusses their appropriation by contemporary audiences. In doing so, she demonstrates that both are too easily and misleadingly associated with the lower classes. In this respect, Vanhaelen’s observations about the functions and reception of Dutch theatre are heavily indebted to the research of the Dutch literary historian, René van Stipriaan. The remaining chapters address specific catchpenny-print themes that enjoyed enduring popularity (literally so, because the woodblocks from which the prints were pulled were endlessly recycled by later publishers).
Chapter 2, “Comedy and the Spaces of Pedagogy,” proffers lengthy analyses of two seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings, a raucous schoolroom by Jan Steen and a tender mother teaching her child to read by Caspar Netscher; both include catchpenny prints among the plethora of telling motifs. This segues into a valuable discussion of the theatre and its perception among contemporary religious and social groups who debated its perceived pedagogical function within public life. In turn, catchpenny prints are reintroduced into the argument as striking parallels are proposed between the reception of prints and stage productions. The third chapter, “Playing the Market…,” is dedicated to the representation of the celebrated story of Tetjeroen, the loveable quack turned successful businessman. In Vanhaelen’s view, in an era of changing capitalist strategies, the presence of Tetjeroen in catchpenny prints provided an active site through which readers/viewers could fathom deeper questions concerning theatricality – Tetjeroen adopts the role of an actor in hawking his wares – and merchant identity, for merchants were widely perceived to exhibit manipulative skills in conducting business transactions.
“Home Truths…,” the fourth chapter, considers the immensely popular tale of Jan de Wasser who is mercilessly henpecked by his domineering wife, Griet. The Catholic underpinnings of this tale are adroitly illuminated by Vanhaelen, who then examines its survival in catchpenny prints after having been expurgated from the stage in the late seventeenth century, a time in which theatrical productions were reformed under the powerful influence of Nil Volentibus Arduum. Once again, catchpenny prints are regarded as sites through which pressing social issues and gender concerns are contested. The final chapter, “Where do Babies Come From?,” was easily the most engrossing one. Here Vanhaelen explores folklore surrounding Volewijk, an actual jut of land lying across Het Ij from Amsterdam, that served as a gallows field for executed criminals yet bizarrely enough, was simultaneously the mythical source of the city’s children. The discussion is quite wide-ranging here, involving city descriptions and accompanying maps of Amsterdam, public spectacles of execution, and even the professional status of midwifery. All were undergoing change; for example, Volewijk disappears from city descriptions in the late seventeenth century at precisely the same time that public spectacles of execution were on the wane. In contrast, the folktale of Volewijk continued to flourish in catchpenny prints, which yet again demonstrates the ability of these supposedly uncomplicated art works to provide compelling social critique in a city wrestling with notions of its urban identity. This makes for truly fascinating reading.
Obviously, such a brief review of Comic Print and Theatre in Early Modern Amsterdam cannot do justice to its dazzling erudition and complexity. At its best, the book sheds ample light on the multifarious reception of print images that earlier scholars have typically considered crude and simple – after all, they are ostensibly addressed to children. At its worst, the book is larded with jargon and at times, proposes interpretations that those readers less sympathetic to critical theory will construe as symptomatic of postmodernism gone awry. It would have also benefited from a formal conclusion to tie the diverse and elaborate strands of Vanhaelen’s arguments together. To this reviewer, Vanhaelen’s study lacked a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the social hierarchies of the Dutch Republic. The use of the term burgher, for example, in a catchall manner to describe anything that is middle class (see, for example, p. 130) is actually inconsistent with seventeenth-century notions of it. As Prak, Meijer Drees, and others have argued, in the Dutch Republic, the designation burgher, denoting citizenship for those of appropriate social standing, was remarkably fluid, purely local (as opposed to national), and invoked or revoked for politically expedient ends. More significantly, as a contemporary term, burgher referred not so much to members of a specific urban class (as it does today) but rather to a community of persons who manifested desirable behaviors, thereby excluding those members of the lower echelons of society in the process. And these “desirable behaviors” were promulgated by the elite, not by the middle class (a terribly confusing and much-misused term in its own right). In this sense, the predominant role of elites in constructing social and cultural ideals is underestimated by Vanhaelen, as is their use of ever-evolving concepts of civility to shape the conduct of social inferiors, including the so-called middle class.
Note: This book was supported in part by a subvention from the Historians of Netherlandish Art. Information about available grants may be found on the HNA website.