Culture | Why bother with ‘old Dutch art’?

Symposium explores the dialectics of peace in Dutch paintings

On March 22 to 23, 2017, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MBAM) hosted the symposium entitled “Art of Peace” to commemorate its recent acquisition of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art, donated by Michal and Renata Hornstein. The event was organized by Angela Vanhaelen, a McGill professor specializing in seventeenth-century Dutch visual culture; Stephanie Dicky, professor and Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art at Queen’s University; and Jacquelyn Coutré, an adjunct assistant professor specializing in Dutch and Flemish art at Queen’s University. The symposium mapped the theme of peace prevalent throughout many Dutch genre paintings, an artistic style that depicts everyday scenes which would seem to represent the “ordinary.” However, the peace and prosperity of the Dutch Republic depicted in art, was only made possible by colonial establishments in Asia and the Americas. The scholars presenting in the event primarily investigated the underlying mercantile structures that allowed these images to be produced. Popular Dutch styles of genre painting, landscape, and still life all reflect mercantile ideology that’s dialectical in nature, as themes of peace and conflict often coexist in seventeenth century Dutch paintings.

A popular setting for Dutch genre paintings were domestic spaces wherein women were depicted as devoted to household chores or engaging with traditionally ‘feminine’ hobbies. Many paintings also emphasized the expansive space of domestic homes and its obsession with cleanliness. These domestic scenes often exude a mood of tranquility, like in Johannes Vermeer’s Lacemaker, which features a woman making bobbin lace. In her lecture “Peaceful Home, Peaceful Society,” Betsy Wieseman – a curator of Dutch and Flemish Painting at the National Gallery in London – problematizes this idea of harmony in genre paintings. Wieseman observes that genre paintings do not depict the scenes of grotesque labour common at the time, such as tanning animal hides or cleaning windows. Less picturesque household chores are excluded in fear of unsettling the image of the ‘ideal home.’

The three paintings mentioned demonstrate a contradictory tension between peace and the taxing conditions of the capitalist society in which they were produced

The home was also a space of political engagement in the Dutch Republic. The Netherlands had recently shifted from monarchical to republican power and was also home to several Christian Reformation ideologies. The Church and the Republic both encouraged a secular idea of moral behaviour. If every household behaved morally, then the entire society was better off as a whole. Wieseman suggests that within this cultural and political context, a threat to civil peace in the microcosm of the home could be considered a threat to greater peace in the macrocosm of society.

Another popular painting style during this time were Italianate landscapes by Dutch and Flemish artists. Coutré’s talk “Picturing Peace: Collecting Italianate Landscape Paintings in 17th Century Amsterdam” presented data from the seventeenth-century that showed a high demand for landscapes among rising middle income earners such as inn-keepers and lawyers. Coutré suggests that this demand denotes the mercantile fascination with pastoral settings. Traditionally, pastoral landscapes depict idealized visual forms of rural scenes. Paintings like Jan Both’s Southern Landscape with Travellers illustrate inviting greenery and detailed tree leaves. At a time when unharvested land was considered worthless and people’s relationship with land was transforming from social to economic, pastoral landscapes framed a utilitarian aspect of nature.

Critically investigating this period of Dutch art makes us realize that capitalist societies are no different from their seventeenth-century counterparts.

Coutré interprets the Dutch demand for Italianate landscapes as a restless expression of an early capitalist society. Italianate landscapes served as an antidote to the unpleasant and stinky sights of court life, functioning as psychological and emotional respites for Dutch city dwellers. Compelling illustrations of fake realism, as seen in Both’s landscape for example, provided avenues for psychological and economic peace amid the exploitation and hardship of city life.

The three paintings mentioned demonstrate a contradictory tension between peace and the taxing conditions of the capitalist society in which they were produced. All three paintings are also embodiments Dutch realism. Realist art depicts objects as close to life as possible, suggesting a sense of unmediated portrayal. However, as Weiseman and Coutré explain, realism can be misleading. Dutch realism lends itself to a set of truth-claims that contradicts historical evidence.

Dutch still life paintings exemplify the contradiction that exists between the peace and prosperity expressed in a work of art and its social, historical, and cultural contexts. The viewer is suspended in a moment in time and pushes them to contemplate on the painting’s lifelikeness. Dutch still life paintings have a peaceful radiance signifying broader theme of prosperity, in their depiction of ripe fruits, luxurious banquets, expensive cheese, and antique dishware. The objects are commonly painted in balanced, pyramidal compositions. Yet, as Julie Hochstrasser, an art history professor at Iowa University investigates in her talk, “Peace over Conflict,” still life paintings present a sense of restlessness for overseas goods plaguing the Dutch Republic.

Grim realities of labour outsourcing, warfare, and climate change are presented through the media of glossy fashion magazines, war movies, and viral advertising campaigns.

The chaotic abundance of consumer culture is epitomized in paintings such as Frans Synder’s Still Life with Game Suspended on Hooks, a Lobster on a Porcelain Plate and a Basket of Grapes, Apples, Plums and Other Fruit on a Partly Draped Table with Two Monkeys. In the painting, the table is adorned with a basket of grapes, apples, and plums, but its peace is disrupted by the gory doe carcass right next to it. Banquet pieces like Snyder’s still life eclipse the reality of economic hardship and starvation. As Hochstrasser notes, the social cost of a feast is barely represented in a still life. The maid servant’s hours washing clothes, the butcher’s labour, or the drowned fishermen remain unregistered in the clean lace table mat, precise meat cuts, and fresh lobster. Colonial occupation and extraction of resources involved in accumulating Chinese porcelain, or importing nutmeg and sugar are ignored with smooth brush strokes and pristine compositions. Still lifes detailing luxury ignore how Dutch power and prosperity was made possible by the exploitation of overseas colonies.

The most important take-away from Hochstrasser’s lecture was the relevance of these seventeenth-century paintings for modern society. Much like Dutch Art, visual culture of a milieu often supplies contradictions. Grim realities of labour outsourcing, warfare, and climate change are presented through the media of glossy fashion magazines, war movies, and viral advertising campaigns. The “Art of Peace” symposium urged individuals to consider the social function and implications of the art and media that they consume. The global impact of mercantile society is hidden with pleasures of consumption. Critically investigating this period of Dutch art makes us realize that capitalist societies are no different from their seventeenth-century counterparts.


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