Worlds Within Worlds Part 2: Dutch Preoccupations in the 17th Century

Copy of 17th Century Amsterdam (1)

We’ve been introduced to Amsterdam in the 17th century. Let’s continue our journey by taking on the Dutch view of the world. The Dutch were keen on categorization: An assured, enterprising curiosity led to great advances in lens-cutting, medicine, navigation and cartography…


Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosities, 1690s

The entire universe could be boiled down to a single ‘kunstkamer’ or ‘cabinet of curiosity’ (often found in a gentleman’s study) – The kunstkamer was encyclopedic, connoisseurs would collect natural, scientific and artificial specimens to line the shelves of specially built cabinets, sometimes, even rooms. These objects would be handled and examined at range… We’re talking collation on a ‘universal scale’ reduced to things you could hold: shells, fish bones, coral, precious stones. There was a drive to bring the universe down to a human scale in this decided ‘Age of Observation’.

An elegant company in an interior with figures playing cards at a table

Jan Steen, Card Players in an Interior, ca. 1660.

Interestingly though, the broadening of the world’s horizons did not stop the world of the Dutch from retreating into the interior – as, parallel to advancement, the ‘cult of domesticity’ thrived. The ‘bourgeois way of life’ depended on the careful balance of both a private and public front.


Jan Steen, Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten, 1659-1660.

Let’s turn to Jan Steen’s Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten, a painting which I have chosen for its depiction of aspirations at work. It shows a lavish arrangement of furnishings and the family in question are deliberately set amongst them. This particular painting poses important questions regarding appearances and reality. Essentially, this family portrait was commissioned to broadly advertise the families wealth through the accumulated objects and staging of the scene.

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Frontispiece, taken from a London edition of Baldassarre Castiglione’s ‘The Book of the Courtier’ (1561), first printed in Italy, 1528.

Steen achieves this through a display of accomplishments. If we were reading this painting as a code, the code becomes pretty clear: You can read a fashionable Italianate influence from the marbles and sculptural groups which the family are interacting with… The eye is drawn by the glint of a silver service (expensive), the rich hues of luxuriously carved furnishings and we are reminded of the ‘virtuoso’, the ‘maestro’, by the musical instruments. The children are dressed fashionably, their clothes more luxurious than their parents to highlight the new possibilities and opportunities for the younger generation reaped from wealth. Trade and wealth equaled silks and lace. Austerity had become ‘old-fashioned’.


Reynier de la Haye, The Hague, circa 1640 – after 1695, ‘Portrait of a Young Woman Playing the Lute’, Indistinctly signed lower right and dated: 1674.

What we also see here is a father overseeing the accomplishments of his daughters – their education in refinement. Look, he’s saying, they can read and play instruments! Isn’t this domestic bliss! Every element of this painting has been staged for the purposes of display. Family life has been beautifully embellished to denote social ideals.


Gerrit Dou, The Young Mother, between 1655 and 1660 via Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain.

In Gerrit Dou’s Young Mother, a woman sits well within her sphere, the domestic sphere, her home. The Dutch 17th century home was seen as a sacred entity, here, birthing, feasting, entertaining [Roberts]… All the rituals of human life occurred. Dou shows us that, in the home, a woman was central: Within it, she has her tasks, her obligations and her limitations. These were all set out for her and they belonged exclusively to the home. Rather cleverly, this painting has an entirely didactic function, much like that of Jan Steens’: Fantasy Interior is concerned with ‘self-bettering’ whilst Young Mother reads as a textbook with a very clear picture – “this is the conventional framework for the running of a home”.

What was going on behind closed doors? Let’s take a look at De Hooch’s Family Portrait in an Opulent Interior (1663), Card Players in an Opulent Interior (c. 1663 – 1665) and Jacott-Hoppesack Family (1670). These read as a succession of wealthy burgher families, formal, well-attired and leaning towards a stylish classicism in their bearing. De Hooch sees the commercial opportunity of appealing to the rich and by highlighting their social rituals, the contrived luxury of their homes and what it meant, at that time, to be fashionable. To be elegant was considered modern, something learnt from foppish, courtly manuals on manners and ‘good taste’.

To start from the beginning, please follow the link to Part 1/3 of this written web series

Fancy a change of scenery? Get swept away to the world of Versailles

Sources Used: 

Abraham-Van der Mark, Eva, Successful Home Birth and Midwifery: The Dutch Model (Het Spinhuis, 1996).

Koeppe, Wolfram, ‘Collecting for the Kunstkammer’, The Met Museum: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2002. [accessed 06 September 2016].

Liedtke, Walter A., ‘Landscape Painting in the Netherlands’, The Met Museum: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art, December 2014. ]accessed 06 September 2016].

Roberts, Benjamin, Through the Keyhole: Dutch Child-rearing Practises in the 17th and 18th Century (Uitgeverij Verloren, 1998).

Smith, Roberta, ‘Art; Exotic Accumulations in Miniature Spaces’, The New York Times, 05 July 1998. _r=0 [accessed 05 September 2016].

Thank You-2

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