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The Advent of Amsterdam: Painting and Prosperity in the Dutch Golden Age.

The soaring heights that painters reached in Amsterdam could not have been achieved without the immense influx of artists and the resulting exchange of ideas that occurred throughout the seventeenth century. These painters thrived on exchanges and moved forward their glorious art because of them. Rembrandt's pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) clearly articulated that friendly competition inspires artists to reach new heights: "Freely let your rivalrous spirit be ignited.... Do not hesitate, o pupils, to look at one another's art with, dare I say, envious eyes ... for rivalrous competition has brought forth so many wonderful masters in art."

On July 29, 1655, the new Town Hall of Amsterdam was inaugurated amidst great fanfare. Surviving documents record a great procession of burgomasters across the Dam Square amidst a trumpet fanfare, an address by the presiding burgomaster followed by an "open-house" reception of the public in the new space, a celebratory salute of the civic militia companies, and a two-month kermesse in front of the new building. A commemorative medal was struck depicting the day's celebrations, and a dedicatory roemer was presented to the city government from the provinces. Finally, the poet Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) penned his "Inauguration of the Town Hall of Amsterdam" (Inwydinge van't Stadthuis t'Amsterdam), in which he proclaims Amsterdam the new Rome. As a Dutchman, however, he had to signal the superiority of his city over the ancient capital, and he did so by asserting that Rome triumphed through its dedication to war, while Amsterdam prospered because of its commitment to peace.

The new building embodied the fledging nation's deep regard for political harmony and was even considered a monument to peace in its era. Not only was the cornerstone dedicated in 1648, the year in which the Peace of Munster granted the United Provinces its sovereignty from Spain, but the exterior decoration serves as an elaborate visual encomium to the theme. A free-standing sculpted figure of Peace overlooks the Dam Square. She holds aloft an olive branch and the caduceus of Mercury, an allusion to trade, with a cornucopia at her feet. On the opposite facade, the four continents pay homage to the River IJ that runs through the city. The meaning is clear: peace and mercantile activity bring prosperity.

This twinned honouring of peace and commerce is not coincidental. The location of the town hall on the Dam Square inherently intertwined concord and prosperity. The square served as one of the major markets in the city, and it was a major European publishing hub. Furthermore, the weigh house (Waag), the first stop for cargo newly arrived to Amsterdam, and the exchange (Bourse) were also located on this prominent site. As the economic power of the city grew from 1568 into the seventeenth century, Amsterdam attracted more artists and became a centre for artistic innovation. This article will explore the ways in which Amsterdam's distinguished history contributed to the thriving artistic scene in the seventeenth century.

Amsterdam, the Flourishing City

BY MOST EUROPEAN STANDARDS, Amsterdam was a young city, founded only in the eleventh century and rescued from oblivion around 1200 when the Amstel River was blocked to prevent inundation of the community. Yet it rose from its position as a remote city to a major economic centre by shifting its focus from production to trade. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Amsterdam had relied heavily upon the production of agricultural mainstays like flax, hops, madder root (for dyes), meat, and butter. In the sixteenth century, it also began to harvest peat, which led to thousands of hectares of reclaimed land. But its location on the Amstel River was to be one of its biggest assets, for it participated as one of several port cities on the Zuiderzee that shipped goods from the agricultural regions of north Holland to the industrial regions of south Holland. By the end of the sixteenth century, Amsterdam had situated itself as the true intermediary between northern and southern Europe.

It was the invention of the herring buss in 1416, however, that accelerated the potential for Amsterdam's illustrious future. By allowing for the gutting and curing of herring on-board this revolutionary new boat, Dutch fishing practice was transformed: fishermen could fish the deeper waters of the sea and remain away from port for over a month at a time. Furthermore, when these vessels returned to land, dozens of barrels of cured herring were immediately ready for sale. With this new method, the Dutch captured the market for herring in the Baltic and the Rhine Valley, and led the fishing industry in the construction of its ships. The Dutch also became so adept at processing the wood imported from the Germanic lands that they began to export the processed lumber to England. This practice further strengthened Amsterdam's import-export capacities such that by the time Antwerp fell in 1585, Amsterdam was prepared to step in. Its harbour was deep, well protected, and vetted, and the city placed few restrictions on its traders. In its new position as port to the world, Amsterdam became the beneficiary of additional mercantile ventures, including the Dutch East India Company (the voc) in 1602 and the Exchange (Bourse) in the same year. In 1669, no one less than Cosimo III de' Medici (1642-1723) declared that more trade was conducted in Amsterdam than anywhere else in the world. It could be argued that herring launched Amsterdam into the role as Europe's international port.

Naturally, the surplus capital that was gained through trade in Amsterdam circulated throughout the city, elevating the status of Amsterdam to the cultural niveau of cities like Leiden and Utrecht. A public library had been established in 1578, and in 1632 the Athenaeum Illustre was founded as a propaedeutic institution to rival the universities found throughout the United Provinces. In stark contrast to these universities, however, the growing merchant elite and civic community were invited to participate in the community of learning. Lectures finished by eleven in the morning so that traders could attend the opening of the Exchange, and on Tuesdays and Fridays professors gave instruction in the vernacular. Printing presses and publishers abounded, specifically around the Dam, and so many foreign treatises were published there that it came to be recognized as a bastion of intellectual freedom. And on the whole, the citizens of Amsterdam, in all their varieties, were relatively well educated. More than half the adult males and one third of women had an elementary education by 1650, which was higher than many European cities. In short, Amsterdam had the intellectual trappings of a university town with the abundance of a mercantile city.

It is therefore no wonder that the fall of Antwerp in 1585 led to an influx of southern Netherlandish immigrants into Amsterdam. The city had firmly proclaimed its Calvinist identity in 1578, and it welcomed well-heeled, well-informed, and well-connected merchants, bankers, and skilled craftsmen into its community. These immigrants brought their patterns of consumption with them, as well as their artistic practices. The citizens adorned their homes with paintings of all types, such that in 1641 John Evelyn observed that the Dutch assumed the practice of investing their money in pictures because of the scarcity of land in which to speculate. The dealers sold paintings through new methods like lotteries and offered a range of paintings at various price points. The artists established larger workshops, and they introduced genres relatively foreign to the Amsterdam market, such as landscape. As early as 1604, the Dutch art theorist Karel van Mander observed that art loved money, and Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century would have proven his point.

Amsterdam, City of Histories

INDEED, before 1590, Amsterdam's artistic production concentrated upon history paintings-narrative subjects from the Bible or mythology or literature--and portraits. Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen (c. 1470-1533), the first artist in the city known by name, reflected the trends in nearby Haarlem, which had a longer record of painting production. In fact, his work displays such a linear and patterned character that it has been suggested that he trained as a goldsmith in Haarlem and moved to Amsterdam around 1500, when he is documented as buying a house. The scene opposite represents the first chapter in the story of Christ's crucifixion, his parting with his mother, as recounted in the fourteenth-century Meditations on the Life of Christ. The detailed handling of the brocades, the stiff angular folds, and the ornamental headgear serve as hallmarks of the Renaissance style, and the artist seeks to capture the emotional intensity of the moment through poses and gestures. The version in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre is a copy after an original by Van Oostsanen, now in Dessau; this is visible in the simplified landscape and the less fluid movement of the figures. Yet the brilliant colour, still so fresh after all these centuries, and the highly legible composition make this a valuable baseline for charting history painting across the Golden Age.

The most significant event for Amsterdam history painting does not occur until 1607, the year in which the native Amsterdammer Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) returns from Italy. For Lastman, the lucid communication of the narrative is paramount, and he delights in tales in which there is a sudden encounter or moment of recognition. Lastman's four-year stay in Rome took place during some of the city's most innovative years. He would have been exposed to the work of Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose muscled figures with darkened feet and dirty fingernails reveal that he worked very closely after live models, and Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), a German artist who had come to Rome around 1600 and developed expressive landscapes in which to situate his biblical scenes. What Lastman brought back with him to Amsterdam--the robust small-scale figures acting out mythological and Old Testament dramas in lush landscapes, the highly demonstrative gestures, the multi-figured compositions, a rich palette accented by vibrant tones-demonstrated incredible energy compared to the native Amsterdam tradition. It is no wonder, then, that a veritable constellation of artists assembled around Lastman, including Claes Cornelisz. Moeyaert (1591-1655).


Moeyaert continued to employ Lastman's stacked figural arrangements and incorporation of ancient Roman ruins well into the middle of the century, long after Lastman's death. In his Joseph Selling Grain in Egypt, Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers but rises through the ranks in Pharaoh's regime, exemplifies the virtue of prudence as he sells the grain that he has carefully stored over the course of seven years. Particularly notable for the Dutch, he did not profit from the Egyptians' desperation but maintained an impartial sense of fairness in his exchange of grain for livestock and other valued possessions. As the narrative demands, the multi-figured composition encompasses a variety of activities: men lift heavy bags of grain, relay and record purchases, make offers verbally, and listen intently to the replies. Moeyaert maintains Lastman's sturdy figures and broad illumination while imbuing his lithe figures with less of the physical vigour seen in the elder artist's bodies. The power of his interpretation lay in his concrete rendering of the citizens' desperation, interspersing the composition with motifs illustrating the sorrowful parting with the beloved objects of money, jewels, and kin.

This first generation of artists, dominated by Lastman, maintained a certain presence on the market until the early 1630s, at which time the young Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) had moved permanently to Amsterdam and, coincidentally, Lastman had died. In the early 1620s, Lastman received "two young and noble painters from Leiden," as they were described by a prominent statesman and collector, into his studio. The apprenticeships of Rembrandt and Jan Lievensz. (1607-1674) did not overlap, and it is unlikely that they knew each other prior to their return to Leiden. But these two ambitious painters must have been working very closely during the late 1620s and certainly engaged in a friendly artistic rivalry.

It was in Leiden that the artists would pioneer their variation of the character study known as a tronie, a worked-up image of a single figure that captures a mood or emotion through fantastic costume, dramatic lighting, and evocative facial expression. Two stunning examples of these character studies may be found at the Agnes, one by each artist. The painters generally favoured the extremes of youth and age in these depictions, as evident in the Head of an Old Man in a Cap and Profile Head of an Old Woman. In manipulating the application of paint to approximate the papery folds, sagging pouches, and soft hair of old age, the artists pioneered a type of independent painting that sold well on the open market. The tronie was a type that Rembrandt also shared with his pupils in Amsterdam, for it refined the skills necessary to model the face, which would have been of importance to painters of narrative scenes and portraits alike.

Rembrandt ran an active studio in Amsterdam, receiving students from across Europe from the 1630s through the 1660s. Most, however, would shed his distinctive manner encompassing an intense chiaroscuro and a from-life ideology around 1650 in favour of the smoother layers, clear contours, graceful forms, and less dramatic lighting associated with southern masters like Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). The vast majority of Rembrandt's pupils altered their style, with one notable exception, Aert de Gelder (1645-1727).

De Gelder is most known for carrying forward Rembrandt's late style into the eighteenth century. He likely trained in his native Dordrecht with a pupil of Rembrandt's around 1660 and then travelled to Amsterdam to study with the great master himself in the early 1660s. He returned to Dordrecht after his apprenticeship, where he continued to work in Rembrandt's outdated late manner for the remainder of his career. He may have been sufficiently financially stable that he did not need to paint for the market. The Agnes Etherington Art Centre's Judah and Tamar, one of three known representations of the subject by the artist, depicts an Old Testament story showcasing the power of women. The widowed Tamar, disguised as a prostitute in an effort to seduce her father-in-law so that she might conceive a child, extracts three pledges from Judah before the physical act of sex. What we observe in this painting, produced eleven years after Rembrandt's death, is the gritty emotion that we expect from Rembrandt in the 1630s, the dazzlingly embroidered cloak and impossibly wound turban of his tronies, and the physical entanglement of bodies that we associate with his all-too-human interpretations of biblical scenes. But De Gelder executes them in the master's later, looser manner.

Amsterdam, City of Portraits

PORTRAITURE in the city blossomed as the purchasing power of the middle class grew. The genre was long considered to be inferior to narrative painting because it involved merely copying the observable world without the potential for a significant and beautiful improvement upon nature. Yet many artists executed portraits precisely because of the consistent demand, and some Amsterdam artists even specialized in the genre. Portrait conventions from the turn of the century show figures in the usual three-quarter pose, which was thought to capture the most individualized aspects of the human face, with the sober garb associated with the Calvinist United Provinces. Attributes such as books, gloves, and swords attest to the piety, wealth, and status of the sitter, while inscriptions typically identify the sitter's age and the year in which the portrait was executed.

Around 1630, a new liveliness permeated the portrait, a liveliness that stemmed from innovations in the city and elsewhere. Rembrandt had made a splash as a portraitist in Amsterdam with his Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, in which he activates a group of students through the unifying action of a demonstration of muscular contraction. Such movement was not unheard of in northern painting, as evident in A Man Rising from His Desk, attributed to Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677). This unidentified man displays a striking sense of immediacy, for he is depicted as if rising from his desk to greet the viewer. He not only arises, with graceful fingers that grasp the table and chair, but his highly cultured character is also suggested through the items on the table: the bust, thought to represent Seneca, alluding to his interest in the literature of the ancients; the album of prints, pointing to his appreciation of the visual arts; the songbook, indicating his affinity for the musical arts; and the imported Turkish rug, signifying his financial success. Vaillant further imbues the sitter with life by depicting him with parted lips, suggesting the "speaking likeness" recorded in art theory of the period. Vaillant, who resettled in Amsterdam in 1663 after travels in Frankfurt and Paris, here employs the courtly mode of Van Dyck to express the cultivated ambitions of the thriving Amsterdam elite.

Amsterdam, City of Landscape

A LITTLE PRACTISED GENRE in Amsterdam, landscape was promoted by the influx of Flemish immigrants at the beginning of the seventeenth century. While the Flemish tradition of meticulously painted scenes marked by dark, leafy forests with views through the trees to distant castles continued through the first half of the century, Dutch artists began to rejoice in the large expanses of open, flat space as a sign of their distinct national identity. They showcased the character of their land by depicting its shorelines, its canals, and its cow-filled pastures from distant perspectives. By 1630, there were apparently enough talented landscape painters in the United Provinces to fill a book, as one connoisseur maintained. The appeal was manifold: landscape served as a mirror of the divine, a reflection of the nation's patriotic and commercial identity, and even as a restorative for the poor in spirit. Inventories enumerate a wide variety of motifs-including farms, castles, forests, dunes, roads, shepherds, and animals--as well as diverse types of scenes--including river scenes and seascapes, cityscapes, beach scenes, storms, and nocturnes. Amsterdam artists arrived at these portraits of their native land often by going out into the environs of the city and sketching the dilapidated cottages, the commanding windmills, and the dominating church spires to such a precise degree that the sites can often be identified. This, in fact, was how many artists prepared for painting landscapes in the studio: they sketched in the countryside, capturing unusual motifs that could then be worked into their paintings.

Philips de Koninck (1619-1688), born in Amsterdam and friend of Rembrandt's, drew on Haarlem artists' depictions of the immense Dutch sky when creating his landscapes, structuring his compositions according to a powerful horizontality. In the Agnes's Panoramic Landscape with Hunters, the enormous cloud-filled sky evokes the precedent of earlier painters, but De Koninck articulates his imagined Dutch scene through a series of recessive planes unified by the winding river and the pockets of sunlight that peek through the clouds. The landscape seems to recede into an infinite distance. Yet he anchors this sense of the unending world by populating his scene with figures, foremost with an elegant horseman in the foreground. As such, he presents his grand native views as spanning the eternal and the now.

While some Amsterdam artists travelled to Italy and incorporated elements of the southern campagna into their northern scenes, many landscapists opted to focus solely on the northern terrain. One of the earliest native specialists in landscape in Amsterdam was Aert van der Neer (1603-1677), who developed non-topographically specific landscapes that emphasized the distinctly Dutch clime of northern Europe. Though the winter scene had long been part of the Flemish artistic vocabulary, it maintained its association with the medieval labours of the seasons and therefore met with certain restrictions. The incredibly prolific Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-1682), who trained in the landscape-producing city of Haarlem, moved to Amsterdam by 1657 and executed more than 30 winter scenes. In the winter landscape at the Agnes, he reinvigorates the subject, capturing the brutal chill of the northern climate, the pervasive snow that covers everything from the treetops to the frozen surface of the water. The pleasant winter activity of skating that so dominates Flemish scenes--as it does the Dutch enjoyment of winter today-is cast aside for a more threatening account of the Dutch weather. Yet the imminent winter storm beautifully captures his ability to depict changing weather conditions.

Amsterdam, City of Confluence

ECONOMIC THEORISTS like Marten Jan Bok highlight that those who leave their homes in search of new professional opportunities tend to be more enterprising and ambitious than those who stay at home. The soaring heights that painters reached in Amsterdam could not have been achieved without the immense influx of artists and the resulting exchange of ideas that occurred throughout the seventeenth century. These painters thrived on exchanges and moved forward their glorious art because of them. Rembrandt's pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) clearly articulated that friendly competition inspires artists to reach new heights: "Freely let your rivalrous spirit be ignited.... Do not hesitate, o pupils, to look at one another's art with, dare I say, envious eyes ... for rivalrous competition has brought forth so many wonderful masters in art."

Indeed, artistic achievement in Amsterdam could not have happened without this confluence of events-the shift in population, the influx of capital, and the huge number of artists, all supported by the incredible amount of trade-which permitted the city to become the benefactor of such beautiful rivalry. The olive branch and the caduceus came together in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century to yield an abundance of magnificent paintings.

JACQUELYN N. COUTRE is the Bader Curator and Researcher of European Art at Queen's University's Agnes Etherington Art Centre. She received her doctorate from the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University with a dissertation on the late work of Jan Lievensz. Her research has been funded by the J. William Fulbright Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. She is currently an associate editor of the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art.
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Author:Coutre, Jacquelyn N.
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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