This indispensable and admirably lucid volume examines some key issues surrounding the display of art (predominantly paintings) in Dutch homes during the seventeenth century. Thanks to the research of Montias and others, we now know a fair amount about the production and marketing (and in a general sense, the ownership) of works of art made for the domestic market in the seventeenth century; we know rather less about what happened to these pieces after they were brought home. How were works of art distributed throughout the home? Were certain subjects deemed more appropriate for specific domestic spaces than others? How were the paintings physically displayed, and how did this affect the perception of those works?
To address these questions, the authors gathered evidence from several sources archival inventories of moveable goods, primarily from Amsterdam and Dordrecht; contemporary writings (mostly, but not exclusively, Dutch) on how paintings should be hung or displayed; contemporary images that show works of art displayed in domestic settings; and doll houses. They are careful to note the prejudices and pitfalls inherent in each category of evidence: artworks may have been temporarily relocated to a central area to facilitate the compilation of a household inventory, for example, thus skewing our understanding of the usual decor. Similarly, popular ‘high life’ genre paintings probably exaggerate the incidence of luxury items in the artist’s drive to demonstrate a virtuoso rendering of patterns and surfaces.
The first chapter describes layouts typical of seventeenth-century Dutch homes, the functions of individual rooms, and how these changed during the course of the century. Although room functions were far from codified, in general front rooms and reception areas were considered ‘public,’ while bedrooms (as these developed a distinct identity during the course of the century) and more remote areas of the home were deemed ‘private.’ Most rooms contained works of art statistically, the majority of these were paintings, interspersed with sculptures, prints, drawings, etc. Although contemporary writers proposed schema for the proper distribution of different categories of subject matter throughout the home, this advice seems to have been largely ignored by Dutch collectors, and most rooms contained a dizzying mix of subjects. The one significant exception seems to have been family portraits which, particularly after mid century, were concentrated in the more ‘private’ spaces of the home. The evidence adduced in chapter 2, drawn from a systematic analysis of works of art in Amsterdam inventories dating from 1600-1679, confirms these preliminary findings. ‘Public’ spaces of the home not only had a higher concentration of paintings but, as one might expect, these paintings appear to have been larger, more valuable, and more deserving of detailed descriptions. Throughout the period, the presence of a room specifically devoted to the display of art or curiosities was remarkably rare.
The third chapter examines upper middle-class inventories from Amsterdam and Dordrecht (ranging in date from 1629 to 1692) to determine what the contents of a particular collection, and the manner in which they were displayed, reveal about the individual owner and his or her self-image. These delightfully voyeuristic romps from ‘kelder tot zolder’ not only vividly recreate the day-to-day appearance of seventeenth-century homes, but also alert us to larger trends. There seems to have been a conscious effort to hang morally edifying works amidst the family portraits in more intimate areas of the home, a reminder that these were the spaces inhabited by young children whose values were still being formed. Locating valuable and impressive works of art in the ‘public’ rooms of the home, on the other hand, was, as one would expect, a conspicuous proclamation of wealth and status.
The book’s final chapter discusses the specific placement of paintings, how they related to each other and to the other furnishings in the room. As the authors readily admit, this part of their investigation is restricted somewhat by evidentiary gaps: no actual interiors survive intact and inventories rarely mention the exact dimensions of a work of art or its specific location within a room. Still, it is possible to formulate some broad observations. Paintings seem to have been considered part of the decorative fabric of a room; the emphasis was on achieving a pleasing symmetry and harmony of sizes, formats, and palettes. Apart from the obvious examples of hanging thematic pendants and series, greater attention was paid to form than to content.
This book is a treasure-trove of carefully documented findings about the arrangement of paintings in seventeenth-century domestic interiors. The realization that collectors appear to have been more concerned with the form than the content of their paintings is a bit disconcerting, however, given our determined scholarly preoccupation with (and privileging of) iconographic matters. One wonders if a larger study, one that incorporated a similar analysis of collections from a more intellectual city such as Leiden, might yield slightly different results.
Marjorie E. Wieseman
Cincinnati Art Museum