This volume is the latest addition to an exemplary series of collection catalogues that the Mauritshuis launched in 1993. It follows the same high standards of scholarship and production as the catalogues on history and portrait painting that preceded it. While Ariane van Suchtelen and Quentin Buvelot are the lead authors, the catalogue of genre paintings is very much a team effort with important contributions by current and past curators, conservators, and researchers. The same format as in the previous Mauritshuis publications is adopted: 64 works are analyzed in minute detail from a variety of perspectives, while a further 50, regarded as being of lesser importance, are treated in a more cursory manner by Milou Goverde. All entries include selected bibliographies, provenance histories, and technical notes. The usefulness of this catalogue is greatly enhanced by the abundance of high quality color illustrations and all of the major paintings are accompanied by full-page reproductions. While the majority of works were created in the Northern Netherlands in the seventeenth century, there is one dated as late as 1875, and a handful of Flemish and Italian genre images. There are some anomalies. A sixteenth-century painting attributed to François Bunel the Younger (Inv. No. 875), which appears to document an event from the French Wars of Religion, is included while there is no place for Sybrand van Beest’s Hog Market of 1638, presumably because it was regarded as principally a cityscape despite its large-scale figures.
The core of the Mauritshuis’s collection owes its origin to the stadholders. However, the Princes of Orange who held this title in the seventeenth century preferred history painting and portraiture and it was only really with William V in the second half of the following century that their holdings of genre paintings grew substantially. He shared the contemporary taste for highly finished and elegant images of the urban elite and in 1768 acquired the entire collection of the government official Govert van Slingelandt, including major paintings by Frans van Mieris (Cats. 21 and 23), Gabriel Metsu (Cat. 18-19) and Gerard ter Borch (Cat. 2). Subsequent directors of the Mauritshuis, in particular Abraham Bredius and Wilhelm Martin, adopted a more balanced approach and purchased peasant scenes by Jan Miense Molenaer (Cats. 25-29), Adriaen van Ostade (Inv. No. 580), Judith Leyster (Cat. 16), and especially Jan Steen (Cats. 42 and 47), who is one of the best represented artists in the Mauritshuis. There have been further judicious additions in recent years with the acquisition of Gerrit van Honthorst’s Violin Player (Cat. 14), Peter Paul Rubens’s Old Woman and Boy with Candles (Cat. 37), a rare genre painting by the Antwerp master, and Nicolaes Maes’s exquisite Old Lacemaker (Cat. 17).
The catalogue begins with a short introductory essay by Edwin Buijsen, which is perhaps overambitious in its scope. Buijsen attempts to engage succinctly with a range of complex themes such as the theoretical status of genre painting in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the art market, transformations in taste, the origins of the Mauritshuis collection, and contemporary response and meaning. Indeed, it is the latter issue which has beleaguered Netherlandish genre studies for decades. While Buijsen and the authors of the entries are not slow to invoke the emblematic tradition of Roemer Visscher and others, thereby reversing a trend in recent interpretative scholarship, he emphasizes the importance of pictorial traditions, the existence of stereotypes and clichés, and that context is often the chief determinant in the identification of meaning.
Abbie Vandivere, Carol Pottasch and Sabrina Meloni are largely responsible for a second fascinating essay, which surveys virtually all of the paintings in the catalogue from a technical viewpoint. Their investigation is one of the first of this type to look at a broad range of genre paintings rather than to concentrate on the work of a single artist. It is structured according to the different stages in the completion of a painting, from the support and its preparation to the building up of the paint layers. The conclusions are not unexpected: so-called ‘high life’ genre scenes generally have thicker and myriad ground layers, contain more expensive pigments like ultramarine, and are defined by smoother, more finely blended surfaces. These costly works of art, which became popular between 1650 and 1675, were sometimes extensively altered at an advanced stage because the artist knew that these changes would be disguised by subsequent opaque layers. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Jan Steen, who oscillated between ‘low’ and ‘high’ subjects, sometimes varied his technique within different areas of a single painting.
Almost three-quarters of the catalogue is composed of entries on the most important paintings, predominantly written by Van Suchtelen and Buvelot. These are mostly exhaustive in nature and frequently yield new discoveries. A case in point is the seven-page (including footnotes) entry on Gerrit Dou’s The Young Mother (Cat. 12), which was presented to Charles II of England in 1660 as part of a diplomatic gift from the States of Holland and West-Friesland. Technical examination of the painting revealed that originally the painting may have been dated “1651” and that the last digit was subsequently changed to “8”. Thus, rather than a recently completed example of his best work, it may have been in Dou’s studio for some time and he was keen to offload it. Buvelot proposes that the original patron may have been a member of the Van Adrichem family since the coat of arms of this Leiden regent clan appears in the background of the painting. He also demonstrates that x-radiographs reveal considerable changes to the figures during the painting process and how followers and imitators of Dou responded to his engaging composition.
Another discovery was the existence of Adriaen van Ostade’s signature above that of his pupil Cornelis Dusart in a depiction of a peasant inn (Cat. 13), formerly believed to be an independent work by the younger artist – in fact, a ‘rediscovery’ since Van Ostade’s signature was originally found by a restorer in 1916, but promptly covered up again. The most likely explanation is that the painting was an unfinished panel by Van Ostade that was completed by Dusart after his death in 1685. Even entries that do not involve the revelation of new technical data or a previously unconsidered interpretative approach or unknown provenance details can give the reader food for thought. Ter Borch’s superlative Woman Sewing Beside a Cradle (Cat. 4), only bequeathed to the collection in 2004, includes a discussion of discarded slippers in Dutch art, which can appear in virtuous and erotic contexts.
Genre Paintings in the Mauritshuis will become an indispensable tool for anyone interested in this category of Dutch art and admirable testimony to one distinguished museum’s enduring commitment to research and publishing.
University College Dublin