Oud Holland

Sep 2022: Chance, strategy and success in the lives of Dutch artists

New issue: Oud Holland 135 (2022) 2/3

6 Sep 2022

The current double issue is concentrated on a new and vibrant topic: the ways in which Dutch painters, between 1600 and 1920, actively and consciously resisted fate while in search of artistic success. The introduction and five articles that comprise the issue stem from the Moving Masters programme on artistic mobility, which was led by Elmer Kolfin at the RKD – Netherlands Institute of Art History in 2018-2019.

This is also the issue with which Edwin Buijsen bids farewell to the editorial board, of which he has been a member since 2006. Over the years, his broad knowledge, expertise and interest have enabled him to review countless manuscripts and supervise many authors. We would like to warmly thank him for his many years of dedication to the journal.

Edwin will be succeeded by a colleague who, like him, advocates for a strong object-oriented approach that fits in well with the ambitions of Oud Holland: Abbie Vandivere. Abbie has been a paintings conservator at the Mauritshuis since 2015. She has since published, among other topics, on Lucas van Leyden, seventeenth-century genre painting and Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring (c. 1665) – the latter also from the perspective of technical research and conservation. Her expertise offers a highly valuable addition to our editorial team.

Oud Holland wishes readers a fruitful late summer.

Theme issue: Chance, strategy and success in the lives of Dutch artists (1600-1920)


Elmer Kolfin – Going to the market: Chance, strategy and success in the lives of Dutch artists (1600-1920) – pp. 58-64


This article introduces the topic of this Oud Holland issue; it explores the relationships between chance, success and strategic choices in the careers of artists from the Netherlands. Chance is a relatively little researched phenomenon in socioeconomic art history, but proves to have been a major theme for artists. In seeking to shape their careers, they deliberately sought out circumstances in which they could engineer as many opportunities for success as possible. Their awareness of what it would take to achieve this is found to be both remarkably consistent and in keeping with modern theories that describe success as a social phenomenon, namely that of active networking. Their strategies are associated with various forms of mobility.
The essays in this issue draw on seventeenth and eighteenth-century art literature and on notable artists such as Herman Saftleven (1609-1685), Cornelis van Spaendonck (1756-1839), Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). The authors investigate how network strategies are deployed to avoid leaving success to chance and to orchestrate it – or at least render it possible – through one’s own actions. In pursuit of connections, artists have systematically travelled to locales where they expect to find ample opportunities: to meet fellow artists and see other works of art so as to further develop their own; to display their own work; and to find private and institutional buyers, ideally in a consistent flow. Success can then appear natural at times, but this is far from accurate.
Art historians who report in texts on processes of this kind tend to emphasise the element of necessity. However, the sources they work with, the literary genres they draw on and the field to which they belong generate narratives that are inherently bound by causal relationships, obscuring the underlying contingency.


Elmer Kolfin – Success and chance in Dutch art literature (1604-1752) – pp. 65-84


The idea that chance plays a role in a person’s life seems trivial nowadays. Yet early-modern Dutch writers on the lives of painters did not see it this way at all. Despite all the attention that recent socioeconomic art historiography has paid to routes to success, the structural focus of early-modern writers on the role played by chance in the pursuit of painterly success has not previously been noted. The painter-authors Karel van Mander, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Arnold Houbraken and Johan van Gool, whose texts are analysed in this article, reveal that chance was perceived as a dominant force that artists had either to exploit or to resist.
This article discusses which instruments these practical men believed were available to artists. It shows how and why faith in the efficacy of these instruments gradually eroded and how the writers went about supporting their arguments. As the seventeenth century progressed, chance and patronage were mentioned in the same breath. Securing a patron was viewed as the best guarantee against the vagaries of fate, which ruled an open art market that had been in decline since the third quarter of the century. Achieving success was thus considered to be primarily a social matter too, a conclusion consistent with recent theoretical formation in sociology and network science on the subject of artistic success.
Finding patrons required a special set of social skills, a willingness to travel and a readiness to change painting styles. Whether or not this social talent was available, however, was itself regarded as a matter of chance, while patronage was seen as fickle. To mitigate this, the painter-authors sought to instruct artists on how to become adept networkers, and patrons on how to be reliable and knowledgeable partners. In this way, they and their books did their bit for the greater glory of art within the never-ending struggle to ward off misfortune and to attract good fortune. A struggle which, in their view, constituted the life of artists.


Laurens Schoemaker – The flying start of Herman Saftleven’s painting career: His early Utrecht years (1633-1643) – pp. 85-103


The early career of Herman Saftleven (1609-1685) is characterised by a rapid succession of styles and genres. In his native city of Rotterdam he painted landscapes in the vein of Jan van Goyen. After moving to Utrecht in 1632 (or early 1633), Saftleven devoted himself to Italianate landscape painting, drawing inspiration from works by colleagues who had returned from Italy, such as Cornelis van Poelenburch. Together with his brother Cornelis Saftleven, Franchoys Ryckhals and David Teniers II, he stood at the cradle of an entirely different genre: the peasant interior with crockery and vegetables, often supplemented with people and animals.
In Utrecht, Herman Saftleven quickly got to know the right people, who helped him to move up the social ladder. He married Anna van Vliet, daughter of Levina van Westhuysen and master painter Dirck van Vliet, in 1633. From Anna’s guardian – the influential Utrecht magistrate Godard van Reede – the Saftleven brothers received a crucial commission to produce a portrait of the magistrate’s family. On a large canvas, dated 1634, Cornelis painted the portraits and Herman took care of the Italianate vista.
Herman’s second important commission was to create the painting Silvio and Dorinda, which he realised together with Hendrick Bloemaert in 1635. The Stadholder couple Frederik Hendrik and Amalia van Solms had ordered it as part of a decoration programme for a room in Honselersdijk Castle, south of The Hague. Herman was again responsible for the landscape, while Bloemaert executed the figures. These two commissions gave Herman the flying start he needed to make a living from painting.
In 1639 Godard van Reede sold a house to Herman and Anna in Achter Sint Pieter in Utrecht. The couple had likely rented it from him in the previous years. They would go on to live there for the rest of their lives. As members of the Remonstrant Church they belonged to a small, but influential religious minority. In the early 1640s, Saftleven produced several paintings with biblical scenes, including Christ predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, in which he incorporated a part of Utrecht’s Dom Church. By freely ‘quoting’ architectural elements from his surroundings, Saftleven deliberately placed himself in a tradition established and carried on by several Utrecht artists.


Mayken Jonkman – The inadvertent success of a still life artist: Gerard van Spaendonck’s career in Paris (1769-1822) – pp. 104-119


This article analyses Gerard van Spaendonck’s successful career in Paris in the years between 1769-1822, taking his own actions and reactions to coincidental events as starting points. The network scientist Albert-László Barabási defined success as a collective social reaction to an artist’s performance which in the case of sustained success grows over time. Therefore Van Spaendonck’s networks and background are studied with particular attention.
If Gerard van Spaendonck (1746-1822) had stayed in Tilburg, he would undoubtedly have remained a local painter of shop signs, an anonymous, although accomplished, decorator of cabinets. By travelling to Paris Van Spaendonck created the best possible opportunity to become successful. His choice was a gamble but he was well-equipped to do so as a gentleman’s son with the manners and knowledge of social mores, probably speaking French and a talented young artist with a thorough training in Antwerp. Although no record exists, several Antwerp artists whom Van Spaendonck had met, had probably furnished him with letters of introduction. As a stranger in a foreign city, all he needed was someone to introduce him.
His encounter with Claude-Henri Watelet (1718-1786), who actively put his networks in the service of the Dutch artist, was the turning point in Van Spaendonck’s career. Once was launched, he kept on accumulating subsequent achievements, becoming an artist of repute, and even a member of the Académie royale de peinture et sculpture. The French Revolution did nothing to diminish his prestige: on the contrary, Van Spaendonck was appointed one of the original members of the board of the Institut de France. Part of Van Spaendonck’s success can be attributed to coincidence, but it becomes obvious that the artist was aware of various possibilities and chances which he seized to his advantage using his talent as an artist as well as his diplomatic skills to succeed in the French art world. To that end, he also adapted his paintings to reflect the ideologies of those with political power.


Julia Krikke – Royal commissioner of fine arts: Hendrik Willem Mesdag’s work for the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904) – pp. 120-137


On 17 February 1903, the artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag was appointed by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands as commissioner of fine arts for the Louisiana purchase exposition. This World’s Fair was to take place the following year in St. Louis (Missouri, US) and, as government commissioner, Mesdag was responsible for the exhibition of Dutch art. Using archive documents, this article reconstructs Mesdag’s methods as an organiser and the results that he achieved.
The context of the growing popularity of Dutch art in the United States around 1900 is described first to highlight a general awareness of the fact that ‘international expositions’ presented ideal opportunities to bring Dutch artists to the attention of the American public. Next, an analysis of the organisation and reception of the Dutch art department in St. Louis shows how Mesdag used his strong networks in the Netherlands and abroad to generate publicity and recognition for Dutch artists in St. Louis. With his connections in Dutch politics and among the American organisers, he was able to secure a grant and arrange favourable exhibition space. Thanks to the efforts of his confidant Willy Martens and Mesdag’s contacts in the United States, the artists were well represented on the international jury that awarded prizes, and many American art critics and collectors visited the Dutch art department.
However, not all Dutch artists were able to benefit from Mesdag’s influence. The selection of artworks and the way they were presented to the public were designed to uphold the existing image of the Netherlands and its art – as realistic, simple and pure – which enjoyed great popularity in the United States. This created a narrative which, though favourable to Mesdag’s closest friends and artists who belonged to his inner circle, perpetuated and reinforced a one-sided image of modern Dutch art.


Wietse Coppes & Leo Jansen – Beyond categorisation: On Piet Mondrian’s artistry and success (1911-1919) – pp. 138-156


This article examines the strategies and means Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) employed to attract attention to his work and ideas, and the kind of success this brought him. The authors have concentrated on the years 1911-1919, because Mondrian’s work underwent drastic changes at this time and the period is well documented. Our findings were tested against the ‘laws’ of success as formulated by Alan Bowness in The conditions of success (1989) and Albert-László Barabási in The formula (2018). Although, as a case study, Mondrian could be considered to conform partially with the theories laid down by Bowness and Barabási, his career also flouts them.
Joining various artists’ societies and exhibition initiatives allowed Mondrian to build up a reputation as a talented artist in the years to 1910. He also created a strong network of collectors, critics and museum curators, which enabled him to sell his work, although he still had to make other kinds of work to earn a living. When, around 1908, what he produced became too modern for the art climate of the Netherlands, he looked for new ways to gain recognition for his endeavours, which were focused on finding an expressive form for a new, spiritual art. In 1912 he moved to Paris to take advantage of the modernising influence of Cubism there. However, his stay was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War. Back in the Netherlands, he had to find new supporters for his now radically changed art. He did this by once again choosing suitable moments to strike up new relationships, or maintain existing ones, with the right people in the art world. Meeting Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) led to the founding of De Stijl magazine, in which Mondrian published his art-theoretical creed ‘De nieuwe beelding in de schilderkunst’ (‘Neo-Plasticism in painting’). This positioned him within the context of the international avant-garde for a long time to come.
Yet Mondrian never enjoyed major success among a broader audience. In fact, he was unsuccessful, according to the models formulated by Bowness and Barabási, because he did not become rich and famous. However, Mondrian’s priority was never personal success, but the dissemination of his art and his theory of art, which pointed the way to a better society for the people of the future.