CHRISTOPHER D. M. ATKINS
Review of: Jan Blanc (ed.), Dutch Golden Age(s). The shaping of a cultural community, Turnhout [Brepols] 2020
The terms used to label the Dutch Republic throughout the seventeenth century have become contentious in more recent years. Many have questioned, publically and privately, how a period could be deemed ‘golden’ when the enslavement and forced migration of thousands of people and large-scale social inequity were propagated, enabled and even encouraged. In 2019, the Amsterdam Museum even made a public statement that it would no longer use the term ‘Golden Age’. As the museum’s artistic director Margriet Schavemaker told a New York Times reporter, “We believe that the Golden Age is, in a way, the story of the winners, and it hides the colonial past of this country, hides slavery, but also covers up poverty more generally. Not everyone participated in the Golden Age, not at all.”1 At the same time, the period saw new heights in artistic achievement. New styles and techniques emerged that positively influenced centuries of artists. Some of the artists who occupy the pantheon of artistry today worked and thrived in the period: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rachel Ruysch. This has led some scholars like Arthur Wheelock to rephrase the proposition as a ‘Golden Age for Dutch Art’.
The volume under review here entered the fray at the height of these discussions, and it has played a role in the scholarly conversations since. While the book appeared in print in 2020, it is important to remember that the publication is part of a multi-year research project that began in 2017 at the University of Geneva under the direction of Jan Blanc. The articles in it focus on but one of the four research threads of the project.2 The Geneva research project convened a conference in 2018, ‘The Dutch Golden Age: a new aurea aetas? The revival of a myth in the seventeenth century’. Many of the papers presented at the conference were revised and collected in the current volume. Two of the essays address the 2019 Amsterdam Museum statement, but the research project and many of the contributions in the book were conceived and written before the heated public debate commenced.
Four sections divide the book: ‘Myths and translations’, ‘Features and topoi’, ‘Landscapes and utopia’, and ‘Aftermath and posterity’. In the first section, Celine Bohnert traces early modern formulations of a golden age that developed from the writings of Ovid, Hesiod and Virgil. In this tradition, a golden age is one of four periods that mark a progression of history through increased technological and cultural achievement. Scouring, Italian and French texts especially, Bohnert establishes that golden ages were conceived as relational to other times and provides a European context from which Dutch perspectives explored in the pages to come can be understood. Maria Aresin begins the volume’s investigation of the Dutch Republic by examining Gerard de Lairesse’s (1641-1711) 1682 painted cycle The four ages of man. There the first painting in the cycle is the Age of gold, a naïve but bountiful state. Aresin argues that De Lairesse identified the Age of bronze – a prosperous time of science, navigation and justice – as the present due to his placement of his signature there which places the artist as present at that time. The section concludes with an essay by Blanc that provides numerous instances where early modern Dutch authors expressed the formulation that they were living in a Golden Age. The authors that Blanc marshals for his argument include Maerten Everart, Karel van Mander (1548-1606), Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), Johan de Bruen and Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719) as well as the pictorial decoration of the Oranjezaal at Huis den Bosch. Blanc concludes that the notion of a Golden Age was an active subject of discussion in the Dutch Republic, even if authors and artists differed in their perspectives on what exactly made their present golden.
Cover of Dutch Golden Age(s). The shaping of a cultural community
Left: Joachim Wtewael, The Golden Age, 1605, oil on copper, 22.5 x 30.5 cm., Metropolitan M of Art, New York City, inv. no. 1993.333
Middle: Adriaen Matham, after Hendrick Goltzius, Gouden eeuw, 1620, engraving, 305 x 420 mm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. RP-P-OB-23.164
Right: Philips Galle after Gillis Coignet, Golden Age, 1573, engraving, 245 × 248 mm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. RP-P-1926-415
The second section, ‘Features and topoi’, focuses on written sources that address the present’s relationship to the past. Jeroen Jansen examines seventeenth-century poetry, and how Van Vondel, Gerardus Joannes Vossius (1577-1649), Gerbrand Bredero (1585-1618) and Maria Margareta van Akerlaecken (1605-1662) departed from classical precedent in their quest for naturalness. This is followed by an essay by Stijn Bussels and Lorne Darnell that explores seventeenth-century discussions of medieval architecture, especially the writings of Arnoldus Buchelius. Buchelius praised buildings such as the Domkerk in Utrecht as monuments to the devotion and excellence of previous periods in ways that position the medieval era as a past ‘golden age’.
Section three, on ‘Landscapes and utopia’, explores notions of place. Marije Osnabrugge argues that Dutch painters chose the locales, foreign and domestic, they depicted based on artistic practices rather than ideology or national associations. As a result, she argues that views of foreign locations should be considered alongside local scenes, rather than as a separate category, as they most frequently are in modern scholarship. Sarah Mallory focuses on Mauritius, the island off the coast of Madagascar that the Dutch controlled beginning in 1598. Her essay considers how Dutch image makers and printers formulated Mauritius as a paradise full of Dutch men with no reference to the enslaved people brought to the island by the colonisers. Mallory connects these images to the writings of Thomas More, whose 1551 book Utopia was in wide circulation thanks to recent translations and reprintings.
‘Aftermath and posterity’, the final section, departs from the seventeenth century to look at modern and contemporary meanings and interpretations of the terminology ‘Dutch Golden Age’. Maria Holtrop briefly traces use of the term in antiquity and the seventeenth century before diving deeply into invocations of it from the nineteenth century to the present, especially by Dutch people. She considers how the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth century, was a period of the distant past, which by then, had been ‘heroised’ and baked into modern Dutch history and culture. As a result, she considers how the term ‘golden age’ is difficult for Dutch people to eschew. Blanc’s second essay concludes the volume with an exploration of how the terminology has become politicized in the Netherlands in recent years, especially when invoked by conservatives. Blanc also offers concluding thoughts on the volume as a whole and what he considers the contribution of the volume to contemporary debates on usage of ‘golden age.’ These concluding remarks are worth more extended consideration here.
While each individual essay offers thoughtful analysis rooted in deep scholarship that leaves the reader with much food for thought, some of the contributions advance the book’s agenda more directly than others. Blanc writes in the conclusion, “the purpose of this book was to develop these reflections… by showing how the notion of the ‘Golden Age’ was not born in the nineteenth century as is sometimes claimed, but rather stems from the end of the sixteenth century, and as such was a mental category destined to give the young Republic of the United Provinces a shared imaginary community.”3 Indeed, Blanc’s own first entry, is the essay that tackles this stated purpose most directly. But, in total, the argument is most interesting, and convincing: that some living in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century grappled with notions of a ‘golden age’, and even considered themselves to be living within one.
By exposing how ‘golden age’ was not a modern appellation to the seventeenth century, the volume under review argues directly, and indirectly, for retention of the term. Blanc writes, “if we seek to eliminate an expression such as ‘Golden Age’, we prevent ourselves from actually reflecting on how a society or set of communities that make it up might have thought of itself, in a reflexive and partly fictional way.”4 Indeed, if some in the seventeenth century considered the time and place in which they lived as ‘golden’, should the term continue to be used within contemporary discourse? Scholarly parlance has a tradition of following period terminology, as in the preference for the Dutch word ‘tronie’ to describe painted heads. Comparably, many scholars prefer not to use ‘Baroque’, as this is modern appellation to the seventeenth century.
Rephrasing Blanc’s statement into a question: what are the implications of not using the term ‘golden age’? Avoiding the terminology is not neutral. Not using the phrase is a statement against it. However, even when individuals and institutions choose not to use the terminology, we have a long historiography that invoked it frequently. Innumerable publications on our bookshelves, in our bibliographies and on our course reading lists not only use the term ‘golden age’ but feature the words in the titles. How then, do we engage with the long and deep modern tradition that Holtrop elucidates? How do we frame these publications, and the history of our discipline, in our writings, in our museums and in our classrooms? These works make valuable contributions even if the eschewed periodisation is invoked. We should be prepared to address the matter, especially for the students of today and tomorrow who are steeped in inclusive perspectives. Indeed, if we do not address the use of the term in the past, instead of simply avoiding it, we are performing a disservice.
For discussions going forward, what are the alternatives to the ‘Dutch Golden Age’? ‘Seventeenth-century Dutch’ seems like the leading contender. It is largely accurate, but also a bit wordy and cumbersome. And it is certainly not as evocative as one-word monikers like ‘Medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’. Restricting the matter to the seventeenth century also complicates the drive of scholars to push into the eighteenth century to register the Dutch colonial enterprises in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, as well as engage with artists like Rachel Ruysch, who offer myriad opportunities for the exploration of the relationships between art and science. ‘Early modern’ would rectify these concerns, but it is problematic for non-scholarly audiences who associate “modern” with the early twentieth century.
The debate around ‘golden age’ is ultimately a matter of taxonomy and periodisation. It is about devising and employing a discrete set of words that provides a short hand definition of a historical period. A period that has a beginning and end, and that is distinct from adjacent or adjoining periods. As the essay by Bohnert makes abundantly clear, at least since antiquity, writers and thinkers have sought to divide human history, including artistic achievement, into periods. These periods are also often defined by geography, especially in modern nationalist perspectives although the practice in art history goes back to Vasari (1511-1574) and Van Mander. As scholars excavate and interrogate interconnectedness with greater frequency in both global studies and transhistorical ones, perhaps we need to ask questions about the very notion of periodisation.5 What are the opportunities, but also the limits of relying on any periodisation of what occurred in the Dutch Republic?
It also might be worth considering periodisation terminology alongside other ‘golden ages’. As many authors in the book under review note, the Dutch experience was not the only one that has been labelled golden. The American ‘Gilded Age’ of the nineteenth century also has many parallels to the circumstances of the nascent Dutch Republic. Alternatively, the Spanish Siglo de Oro was a period of artistic achievement, though also one of political decline. As a result, the seventeenth century in Spain is also strongly associated with the country’s waning global influence, disenchantment and disempowerment; and offers an interesting foil for the economic, political and artistic ascendance of the Dutch following the revolt against Spanish rule. Might the Siglo de Oro – with its negative connotations that are perhaps not unlike those found in antique writers, and De Lairesse’s cycle, which does not position a golden age as the pinnacle of civilization – offer possibilities to those who work with Dutch art, history and culture? Considering the circumstances within the Dutch Republic and how the history of scholarship has framed them alongside, or counter to, these and other related periods, might yield new perspectives and new research paths when going forward.
Perhaps similarly, excavation and invocation of alternative viewpoints from seventeenth-century writers, thinkers and artists might prove fruitful. Blanc does just this. He quotes Vondel’s description of the greed that accompanied Dutch maritime trade, Adriaen van de Venne’s (1589-1662) painted satires and the statements of religious leaders who lamented a lack of piety among the citizentry at large. In the context of the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes that raged through many European intellectual circles wherein the superiority of the present or the past was actively debated, it is not surprising to find a robust dialogue about the relative merits of the situation in the Northern Netherlands. In the modern usages that Holtrop and Blanc chart, progress is widely assumed to be a positive, but that has not always been the case. One wonders then if it is possible to reframe or redefine ‘golden age’ as a problematic or layered concept in the seventeenth century, rather than as a totem of forward progress.
As the myriad questions put forth in this review suggest, Dutch Golden Age(s) is not the final word on the debate. Rather, it is a stimulating prompt for scholars and students to participate in an ongoing conversation.
Christopher D. M. Atkins
Van Otterloo-Weatherbie Director
Center for Netherlandish Art
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
1 N. Segal, ‘A Dutch Golden Age? That’s only half the story’, New York Times, 25 Oct. 2019.
2 “The will focus on the conditions of artistic production, by re-evaluating it within the context of recent social art historical studies. It will address the question how the artists themselves, by selecting and developing certain iconographical themes and aesthetics, have contributed to the construction of the image of a ‘Golden Age’. The third axis will address the same question, but from the perspective of the demand for art. It will examine the social, economic, religious and theoretical expectations, to be able to indicate the ‘need’ for a Golden Age’ in the Dutch Republic. Finally, to strip seventeenth-century Dutch art from its supposed exceptionality, the fourth axis will show the strong connections between the Dutch Republic and the different European regions, by means of a reflection on the importance of artistic exchange during this period.” https://www.dutch-golden-ages.com/
3 J. Blanc, ‘The Dutch “Golden Age” today: Risks and methods’, Dutch Golden Age(s), Brepols 2020, p. 211.
4 J. Blanc (2020) note 3, p. 212.
5 Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s recent exploration of earlier chronologies might provide some pathways for consideration of this issue. A. Nagel and C. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance, Princeton 2020.
Christopher D. M. Atkins, ‘Review of: Dutch Golden Age(s)’, Oud Holland Reviews, November 2023.