Dutch Diversity

By Davies, Christie | New Criterion, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Dutch Diversity


Davies, Christie, New Criterion


Dutch diversity

Elisabeth de Biewe

Dutch Art and Urban Cultures, 1200-1700.

Yale University Press, 492 pages, $75

The visual culture of the Netherlands is one of Europe's treasures and has been the subject of much careful study. Innovatingly, Elisabeth de Bievre, in her new book Dutch Art and Urban Cultures 1200-1700, is able to point out with considerable erudition that the scholars have been wrong to stress its "Dutchness," which implies that its achievements grew out of a centrally organized and homogenous society. She emphasizes instead that the United Provinces were simply a loose confederation of individual towns, each of which had its own artistic tradition, even a degree of artistic isolation. In many towns, 60 percent of the art purchased was from local painters.

Accordingly, she has taken seven of the main cities--The Hague, Dordrecht, Haarlem, Delft, Leiden, Amsterdam, and Utrecht--and shown how each had its own mentality and customs that gave a unique quality to the artistic preferences and products of that city. In each case she has linked this local urban culture to the town's political order, its religious opinions, and particularly to the source of its wealth. It is a mark of her thoroughness that she is able also to provide a detailed historical and geographical framework for all of them. Indeed this must be one of the very few art-historical studies of the Netherlands to provide a detailed map of drat country's geology, which turns out to be far more diverse than I had ever imagined, even though I spent much of my youth studying that science. Through drainage and defenses against flooding, the Dutch have, far more than any other people, created their own landscape, but the local geology has determined what was possible.

The Hague was a place of government, of courtiers, bureaucrats, and diplomats; foreign royalty and aristocrats in exile also settled there. The people of the city may be contrasted with the shrewd merchants and entrepreneurs of Amsterdam. The different compositions of the population of the two cities meant differences in taste and in the way in which local painters were trained.

The aristocrats of The Hague, conscious that their standing depended on their ancestors and cousins, wanted portraits that emphasized their location in a static and hierarchical society. They wanted to be portrayed in groups on horseback as in Adriaen van de Venne's Cavalcade of the Primes of Orange Nassau (1621). The facial expressions of those in tire cavalcade show that they are always fit and ready for military action, but here they are also richly and colorfully dressed for the artist. Foreign royalty in exile, such as the King and Queen of Bohemia (the ancestors of the British Royal family of today), who had been driven out of that land after ruling for just one winter season, also commissioned family paintings from Adriaen van de Venne, such as the watercolor Winter King and Queen at the Billiard Table (1626). The members of The Hague's elite wanted to see their high social position eternalized in paint and they were the key market for the local painters.

Yet the same van de Venne who provided colorful, finely painted, elegant portrayals of the upper class used a different technique when depicting the have-nots--grisaille (literally rendering them gray). It fit well with the language for the Dutch term for the lower orders: het graen means "the gray ones." They were the drab, undifferentiated down-and-outs of the city. Rich and poor were far apart in The Hague because immigrants from the countryside drifting into the town brought with them only their poverty and not any useful skills. The Hague was a city where social mobility was neither frequent nor valued.

Amsterdam by contrast was a trading city, a self-made city, a city where the newly rich were proud of having risen from humble origins. This first generation of successful citizens cared nothing for high ancestry. …

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