Soldiers at Leisure, The Guardroom Scene in Dutch Genre Painting of the Golden Age builds on Jochai Rosen’s dissertation “Jacob Duck and the ‘Guardroom’ Painters: Minor Masters as Inventors in 17th-Century Dutch Genre Painting, with a Critical Catalogue of Paintings, Drawings and Prints by Jacob Duck” for The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2003), as well as on several articles that he published in the next years. This is true especially of “The Dutch Guardroom Scene of the Golden Age: A Definition,” in Artibus et Historiae (2006). In the book’s introduction, Rosen states that the point of his study is to “shed light on one of the corners of seventeenth-century Dutch art” that have remained in shadows. He seeks to identify the formulae developed for the guardroom scene, track its development from city to city, generation to generation, explain its revival by nineteenth-century European artists, and situate the scenes against their cultural background.
To that end, he devotes the first chapter to setting out the historical and artistic context for the guardroom scenes, including sketching the image of the mercenary soldier and the Flemish artistic tradition of plunder themes. The second chapter discusses the roots of the guardroom scene in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century merry company representations, concentrating especially on the paintings of Pieter Codde and Willem Duyster, two of the most prominent Amsterdamers connected with this sub-genre. Once he has set out the birth of the genre in Amsterdam in the first third of the century, he moves, in Chapter 3, to the Utrecht variation. This type, he asserts, merges Netherlandish brothel and Caravaggist tavern imagery, finding its highpoint in the paintings of Jacob Duck. Here he puts his dissertation research to good use, tracing Duck’s multi-faceted development of the guardroom over the years, his effective use of still life elements, and the comic or even blatantly vulgar tone of the scenes. Occasionally, Rosen comments on the paintings’ messages (or lack thereof), as in “Duck’s paintings are not moral lessons but rather a tool to simplify their reading and make them more comprehensible to the public.”
Chapter 4 looks at the civilizing of the guardroom scene as the early seventeenth-century satirical handling of soldier-peasant confrontations gave way to a more “bourgeois” approach in mid century. It includes a brief, general comparison of the civic-guard portrait with the guardroom scene and a more detailed discussion of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch as “caught between genres.” Rembrandt’s militia portrait, he asserts, drew on the order-to-march formula devised for a subset of guardroom scenes – an important insight. The chapter concludes with commentary on the guardrooms’ construction of class divisions. Chapter 5 continues with the theme of the domestication of guardroom imagery mid-century and its spread to the south of Holland. A final, useful chapter concerns the continuation of the guardroom scene into the eighteenth century, and its revival in the nineteenth century both by Netherlandish painters and especially by other Europeans.
A probing examination of the historiography of the guardroom theme would have been a welcome addition, as would greater scrutiny of the complex relationships among artists, their art, their audience, and contemporary politics. The author might have given a more pointed analysis of the pictures as political and socio-cultural constructions, including the impact of literary stereotypes, the ways the pictures’ rhetoric sets up viewers to respond, the ambiguities of meaning. Instead, the book focuses mainly on the formal rhetoric, narratives, and iconographical details of individual paintings, dividing the scenes into sub-groups identified by artistic formulae. Its chapters begin with general comments on the historical background and a succinct announcement of the chapter’s themes;the author then proceeds to the individual artists’ biographies, followed by detailed descriptions of each of their paintings chosen for inclusion. If argument and probing analysis are not the book’s strong suit, laying out information is, and indeed a large amount of research has gone into the study.
Readers intrigued by the topic would do well to return to Rosen’s 2006 article, for there the author developed a focused argument on the definition and characteristics of the genre and the attraction of martialism for the seventeenth-century Dutch buying public. The book remains a survey, buttressed by syntheses of the scholarship of other art historians. As such, it has real value as a compendium of visual material and supporting historical data. Especially useful are its large number of images, 105 of which are published in color.
Alison M. Kettering