The fourteen thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this volume tackle diverse artistic, civic, and religious issues, all loosely concerned with the role of the individual in Dutch society during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As a group, they seek to identify the elusive boundaries drawn between public and private worlds; to assess the breadth of that divide, which ranges from a thin and often blurred line to a seemingly unbridgeable chasm; and finally, to examine how these differences might be reflected in the visual arts. The papers were first presented at the interdisciplinary symposium on Dutch culture held under the auspices of the Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, in Spring 1993.
For years, of course, many of the images produced by the Dutch during this period (and discussed in this volume) were accepted as refreshingly realistic and unembellished records of everyday life: as Eugène Fromentin commented: “[in the seventeenth century] the Dutch school seemed to think of nothing but of painting well. It was satisfied to look around and to do without imagination. What motive had a Dutch painter in painting a picture? None. And notice that he is never asked for one.” Now, however, we ask; we are obsessively engaged in picking away at these intricately constructed social and pictorial façades to reveal their degree of variance from (or selective shaping of) historical truth. Literary, archival, and historical perspectives have become essential components of art historical analyses; a multiplicity of methodologies expands our understanding of these mute images. The varied questions so effectively posed by the contributors to this volume chase down the elusive ‘self’ of the early modern period and in particular, how the goals, beliefs and aspirations of the private individual may have differed from those she/he espoused as an engaged and responsible citizen of the Dutch republic.
The essays, deftly summarized in an introductory essay by Arthur Wheelock, are grouped under four rubrics: “Civic Culture and Private Identity;” “Private Citizens and Public Images”; “Social Expectations and Personal Ethics”; and “Religion and Representations of Charity.” In the first section, Renée Kistemaker shows that the aesthetic quality and effective use of urban public space in Amsterdam was a matter of considerable municipal concern. And as Henk van Nierop’s essay demonstrates, private citizens and institutions could also submit petitions to successfully influence public policy. Eco Haitsma Mulier’s analysis of seventeenth-century town descriptions reveals a trend towards more personal and individualistic writings, reflecting, perhaps, a greater and more natural pride on the part of the author in the results of those municipal ordinances and private initiatives.
The second group of essays, “Private Citizens and Public Images,” considers the effect an intended audience might have had on the character of the image itself. For example, Perry Chapman suggests a consciously orchestrated system of both propagandistic and celebratory associations for public (prints) and private (paintings) landscape images produced during the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621). Herman Roodenburg applies contemporary expectations of civility and gentlemanly behavior to the study of portraiture, to convincingly distinguish ‘public’ from ‘private’ likenesses. Portraits of civic militia groups were by definition ‘public’ likenesses, as Paul Knevel argues, serving as symbolic images of friendship, bravery, and civic harmony, as well as a source of local pride. As Alison Kettering points out, however, images of soldiers painted for the open market present a rather different picture: guardroom scenes of the 1630s and 1640s characterize soldiers as living a debauched and marginal existence, while after mid-century, gentlemanly officers turn up in fashionable and feminized interiors.
“Social Expectations and Personal Ethics” addresses some of the inner conflicts that surely concerned Dutch citizens in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Examining images of labor in sixteenth-century prints, Ilja Veldman takes on the topos of Dutch industry and frugality as the source of its prosperity, and determines that increased urbanism (mixed with humanistic ideals) was a more significant factor than Protestantism in promoting this ethic. Nanette Solomon presents a provocative and compelling argument for rethinking the range of social interactions depicted in bordello scenes from the late sixteenth century, and suggests more positive connotations for the depiction of women in these images. A more direct (albeit rare) source for probing personal ethics are diaries and autobiographies; Mieke Smits-Veldt’s comparative analysis of the public and private writings of three poets suggests that even in the seventeenth century, an awareness of and openness to one’s own emotions made for a better poet.
The final section of the book, “Religion and Representations of Charity,” looks at the tangled web of public and private responses to religious issues. Judith Pollman’s study of the writings of Arnoldus Buchelius reveals one man’s steadfast moral and social stance amidst constant fluctuations in denominational primacy. The daily use of the church’s physical structure also underwent considerable change following the Dutch Revolt: as Carol Jansen reveals, the church served both a religious and civic function, and indeed the latter provided the greatest source of continuity in many communities. Michiel Jonker’s essay reconstructs the context for group portraits of the regents of charitable institutions, reflecting on possible motivations for each commission, the audience for these these essentially private images, and their placement within the institution. Linda Stone-Ferrier’s detailed examination of Gabriel Metsu’s Justice Protecting Widows and Orphans is a fitting endpiece to this volume, for the painting (and Stone-Ferrier’s analysis) touches on many of the issues under discussion: civic responsibility and moral judgement, public and private imagery, and the rich rewards of charity.
Marjorie E. Wieseman
Cincinnati Art Museum