Oud Holland

Review of: 'The mass market for history paintings in seventeenth-century Amsterdam' (2020)

February 2022


Review of: Angela Jager, The mass market for history paintings in seventeenth-century Amsterdam: Production, distribution and consumption, Amsterdam [Amsterdam University Press] 2020

Not long ago, CODART – the international network organisation of curators of old Dutch and Flemish art – published a canon of 100 masterpieces from 1350-1750.1 It samples some of the best and most important works that Dutch and Flemish artists produced in every sort of form and medium in that time period. Every art historian, however, is very aware that a great number of many more works of art were made in the Low Countries then and that by no means all of them were of that calibre. On the contrary: most of them would have been decidedly mediocre. Research into seventeenth-century estate inventories in towns and cities including Amsterdam, Leiden, Delft and Haarlem, reveals that broad swathes of the urban population at the time owned paintings, and that those people were certainly not all in the highest income groups. Foreigners who visited the Republic confirm this picture in their letters and travel journals: ‘the Dutch in the midst of their bogs and ill air, have their houses full of pictures, from the highest to the lowest.’2 Not all of these were works made by Rembrandt (1606-1669), Vermeer (1632-1675) and Dou (1613-1675).

But what sort of paintings did those of general modest means buy? What did the lower segment of the largest and most important Dutch art market, that of Amsterdam, really look like? Despite the ground-breaking socio-economic art historical research undertaken by scholars such as John Michael Montias, Marten Jan Bok, Marion Boers-Goosens and others since the 1980s, we did not have a clear idea of this topic, until very recently. Who made these cheap paintings and how, exactly, were they produced? Who sold them? Who bought them, and where did they hang them? It is these questions that Angela Jager addresses in The mass market for history paintings in seventeenth-century Amsterdam: Production, distribution, and consumption. In this book, which is the published version of her doctoral thesis, she makes an essential contribution to the art-historical research into seventeenth-century Dutch art, and significantly focuses our picture of it. Not only does she write about the cheaper paintings then mass-produced in quantity; she’s also tracked many of them down and illustrated them.

Jager opens her book by arguing that the seventeenth-century Republic had a mass market for paintings: they were produced on a huge scale, by innumerable artists, to meet the great demand. At that time, it was normal for urban residents with a regular income – from ordinary bakers and shoemakers to the most elevated patricians – to own at least one or a few paintings. Jager briefly revisits the explanations for this, already clearly set out by Eric Jan Sluijter, Marion Boers-Goosens and others, as follows.3 To begin with, the population of the Republic grew rapidly, due primarily to the influx of Flemish immigrants after the Fall of Antwerp (1585). At the same time, there was a rise in purchasing power thanks to the Republic’s economic growth. The Flemings were accustomed to decorating their houses with cheap paintings, though at first did not find works like this on the Dutch market. The result was the import of ‘Brabant rubbish’. To compete with this, local artists had to revamp their output by developing time-saving painting techniques, for instance, and/or specializing in certain genres. At the same time, new, different distribution channels opened for works of art. Initially, paintings were bought directly from the artist, but in the seventeenth-century Republic they could also be acquired at markets, in shops, at auctions, through lotteries and – from the 1630s and 1640s – from art dealers. Jager explains that, ‘as the century progressed, the supply of paintings and the variations in type, quality and price only increased. […] As a consequence, consumers, who often lacked the knowledge they needed to compare prices and quality, were increasingly dependent on the services of trustworthy art dealers when negotiating the goods for sale.’4 Over time, dealers began to target particular groups: some catered for the affluent, others for customers of modest means. It is this last group that Jager focusses on in her book.

Cover of: The mass market for history paintings in seventeenth-century Amsterdam

Left: fig. 1 Jan Fransz Dammeroen, figures by Jan Micker, Landscape with the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, panel, 60 x 83.3 cm, sale New York (Sotheby’s Parke Bernet), 15-3-1974, lot no. 143, current whereabouts unknown.

Right: fig. 2 Workshop of Jacob de Wet, The feeding of the five thousand, panel, 76 x 110 cm, Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent, inv. no. BMH s9588 (photograph: Ruben de Heer).

Jager begins her research with the art dealers, basing it on the shop inventories of three Amsterdam sellers of cheap paintings: Jan Fransz Dammeroen (1605-1658) – a painter as well as an art dealer – Cornelis Doeck (c. 1613-1664) and Hendrick Meijeringh (1639-1687), all with premises near Nieuwmarkt. The inventories of their shops, drawn up in 1646, 1667 and 1687, respectively, are a veritable goldmine of information about the lower end of the seventeenth-century art market. Because these are art dealers’ inventories, they go into extensive detail about their paintings: subjects, sizes and prices, and in the cases of Doeck and Meijeringh names of artists, too. Dammeroen’s inventory lists 213 paintings, Doeck’s no fewer than 576 and Meijeringh’s 344. The average value of the works is somewhere between three and five guilders, each. Jager succeeds in drawing conclusions from these inventories by combining them with other sources. She presents a wealth of new information about these dealers, about the makers of cheap paintings, about their production methods, about the customers for their painting and what those customers did with them. She devotes a chapter to each of these subjects to create a well-organised, fascinating and eminently readable book.

In her first chapter, Jager starts with a brief outline of her protagonist’s lives, after which she takes an in-depth look at the wares that they sold. She comes to the conclusion that, unlike dealers at the higher end of the market, for Dammeroen, Doeck and Meijeringh it must have been the subjects of the paintings, not the names of the artists, that were the most important selling point. The subject was described in most of the works. Only Doeck and Meijeringh also mention artists’ names in their inventories, and then in only about half of the works on the list. Interestingly, Doeck owned 64 paintings by the now unknown Leendert de Laeff (c. 1630-after 1665) while Meijeringh had 69 works by the equally obscure Barend Jansz Slordt (c. 1625-after 1690).

Jager uses clear tables to show that the three dealers focused on history painting – around 40 per cent of the works in the inventories are in that genre. They also offered a fair few landscapes, as well as still lifes, pastoral scenes, genre works, marines and portraits. In a separate overview, Jager lists the subjects of the history works in as far as they are specified. Far and away the most paintings were of Old Testament stories, with the New Testament in second place. Mythology comes in at a distant third. According to Jager, biblical subjects were probably popular because people in virtually every social class were familiar with these stories, and paintings of them would have held considerable appeal – for their religious significance and moral message, but no less for their narrative quality. Dammeroen, for instance, had five paintings of the meeting of Jacob and Rachel in stock and four of the annunciation to the shepherds, Doeck had five of Susanna and the elders, and five of the annunciation to the shepherds, Meijeringh had seven paintings of Joseph sold by his brothers. Other popular subjects were the discovery of Moses in the Nile, the gathering of the manna and Joseph discovering his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack.

At the time, these subjects were not particularly popular with established artists who had made a name for themselves, but they were painted in volume in the workshop of Jacob de Wet (c. 1610-before 1691) in Haarlem. Indeed, in their shops Doeck and Meijeringh had 28 and 26 paintings, respectively, from De Wet’s studio – by, among others: De Wet’s brother Gerrit and son Jacob and his assistants Adriaen Verdoel (1623-1675) and Adriaen Gael (c. 1618-1665). As well as stock in trade, these would also have served as examples for the output in their own Amsterdam workshops.

In her second chapter, Jager shifts the focus from the dealers to the 83 artists mentioned by name in Doeck and Meijeringh’s shop inventories. They do not appear in current art-historical directories or museum collections. Even in their own day, they were virtually unknown, as Jager establishes by juxtaposing the names in the shop inventories alongside the names in contemporary volumes of artists’ biographies and databases of seventeenth-century estate inventories (the Frick/Montias Database and The Getty Provenance Index). Who were they, and how did they come to be producing dime-a-dozen paintings? To get to the bottom of this, Jager attempted to discover where these artists were born and lived, and their fathers’ occupations. Her efforts produced sparse, but interesting information.

Fewer than half of these 83 painters were born in Amsterdam or Haarlem, some two-thirds of them lived in Amsterdam or Haarlem during their working lives, while no place of birth or residence could be found for almost all the others. Earlier research into the background of artists who are still known today revealed that, in general, they came from the respectable middle class or classes above. Their parents could afford the high tuition fees charged by masters like Rembrandt, gave their children access to a network of potential clients and helped them financially at the start of their careers. The artists Jager investigated had a significantly humbler background: they largely came from the lower-middle classes (which included, for instance, schoolmasters, small shopkeepers and small farmers). Jager convincingly concludes that herein lies an important explanation for their far from glittering careers: without starting capital in the form of an apprenticeship or training with a well-known master, access to an influential network, or hard cash to set up a workshop, it was difficult to make a career as an artist.

In chapter three Jager turns to the paintings themselves. This is the only part of the book with illustrations, and it immediately brings the subject to life. Using three case studies, Jager describes the ways in which dime-a-dozen paintings came about. It rapidly becomes clear why these kinds of works could be so cheap: with quick copying techniques, ingenious division of labour and the clever use of standard compositions and stock figures. We are quite familiar with processes like these in the practices of famous artists. In the workshop run by Joos van Cleve (c. 1485-1540/1541), for instance, series of copies of successful compositions were also made; Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) painted figures and animals in landscapes by Jan Brueghel (1601-1678); and Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) repeatedly reused certain motifs in his sketchbooks in any number of paintings. The producers of dime-a-dozen paintings elaborated these processes much, much further – albeit not with a refined result, as is evident from the many illustrations in Jager’s book.

Jan Fransz Dammeroen (1605-1658), for example, painted numerous landscapes that he had Jan Micker (1599-1664) populate. These scenes all look roughly the same: a hilly setting beneath a big sky, with a large group of trees off to one side or in the centre. A few people appear on a path in front of the trees – and it is only from this that it is possible to identify the story. One man, one woman and one child is the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael (fig. 1). If we see two men and a woman, it is Abraham leaving Egypt with Sarah and Lot. Dammeroen also had his landscapes populated by other artists whose names we do not know today, though he obviously presented them with Micker’s work as a good example; their figure groups always look like his. Since there is no clear relationship between Dammeroen’s landscapes and the stories the figures portray, Jager argues that he painted them without a specific subject in mind, and had the staffage added in response to the then-current demand, or a request from a client.

Given the prevalence of paintings from Jacob de Wet’s Haarlem workshop in the shop inventories, Jager chose them for her second case study.5 Thanks to surviving accounting notes in one of De Wet’s sketchbooks we know that he employed dozens of pupils and assistants.6 Jager’s most important sources for De Wet’s working practices, however, are the many paintings from his workshop that she has been able to trace. She discusses four related groups of works that show evidence of particular production and reproduction techniques. From the many paintings of the triumph of Mordecai, for instance, it can be established that a specific prototype by De Wet himself – inspired by examples by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) and Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533) – was copied at different sizes by assistants using a grid. Alongside the slavish – and often extremely clumsy – copies, there are also more attractive free variants of De Wet’s original composition. These were made by Gael and Verdoel, mentioned above, who probably worked in De Wet’s studio as ‘free guests’ (‘vrije gasten’– a sort of guest-painters-in-residence arrangement).

Sometimes assistants borrowed a composition by De Wet to illustrate a completely different story. A painting of the feeding of the five thousand, for instance, was the inspiration for paintings by Gael that depict Pharaoh’s army engulfed in the Red Sea (figs. 2 and 3). It was an excellent fit, for both subjects involve a leader addressing a group of people or going before them against the background of a hill or rocky outcrop. Jager succinctly states ‘De Wet’s pictorial arrangements and dense figural groups seem to have been deliberately designed to be adaptable to a number of different subjects. The design allowed for the contours of the figural group to be drawn, and the background painted, before the subject was definite. In this way, the composition could be set up easily and quickly in advance, speeding up the painting process while retaining maximum iconographic flexibility. This made it possible for De Wet to meet the demand with a limited number of standardised compositions.’7 Jager shows that De Wet may not have been a brilliant artist, but he was certainly a shrewd operator.

Left: fig. 3 Adriaen Gael, Pharaoh’s Army engulfed in the Red Sea, panel, 57 x 72 cm, sale London (Phillips, Son & Neale), 10-12-1991, lot no. 22, current whereabouts unknown (photograph: Phillips, Son & Neale, London)

Right: fig. 4 Barend Jansz Slordt, Pharaoh’s army engulfed in the Red Sea, 1680, panel, 71 x 107.5 cm, sale Amsterdam (Christie’s), 19-5-1984, lot no. 69, current whereabouts unknown.

The third case study involves two ‘galley painters’: Leendert de Laeff and Barend Jansz Slordt, who worked in the attics of dealers Doeck and Meijeringh, respectively, for a fixed wage. Both painters had little or no choice concerning the subjects they painted. Jager stresses that this is a very different arrangement from the one Hendrick Uylenburgh (c. 1587-1661) had with his assistants, who could to some extent decide what to paint, and were given a share of the proceeds.8 De Laeff and Slordt’s names crop up frequently in the shop inventories and they must have produced hundreds of works for their employers, but only a handful of signed works by them have survived. As can be expected, their output reflects their employers’ specializations: they made predominantly history works, often in series of the same subjects in different sizes. In terms of composition, the paintings by them that have survived (fig. 4), are very similar to De Wet’s work – a protagonist on an elevation and a compact figural group, often against an architectural background. This is more proof, if it were needed, that De Wet’s work not only sold in large numbers in Amsterdam but also served as examples for similar mass production.

In her fourth and final chapter, Jager turns her attention to the people who bought ‘dime-a-dozen’ paintings to decorate their homes. The starting point for her research into this subject was a 1991 article by Montias addressing the ownership of art in seventeenth-century Amsterdam.9 Montias wrote that, while earlier research had shown that the popularity of history painting had gradually dwindled in the seventeenth century in favour of landscapes, this trend was much less evident in more modest households. In estate inventories where only anonymous paintings were mentioned – in other words, the estates of people who could not afford art by the then well-known artists – there was a relatively higher proportion of history paintings than in the wealthy estates. Jager builds on these findings by looking specifically at estate inventories from the second half of the seventeenth century, grouping them into income level and supplementing the information from these sources with biographical data from the Amsterdam City Archives.

Her careful research and clever analyses show that history paintings were popular with the elite and the lower classes alike. A striking fact that emerges is that the richer households certainly did not own only expensive history paintings by famous artists: half of their history paintings were worth just a few guilders, so must have been the type of work that is the subject of Jager’s book. What’s more, surprisingly, they were not all hung in back rooms; they also appeared alongside the more expensive, better works of art in the formal reception rooms of houses. It is not entirely clear why this should have been so. Jager suggests that ‘owning such paintings was thus mainly about the story or message they imparted, not about the quality.'10

In percentage terms, history painting was more strongly represented in modest households than in wealthier ones, who owned landscapes and still lifes as well. This has been explained in the past by suggesting that the lower classes had the tendency, ‘to lag behind the trend of buying new painting genres’.11 Jager puts forward a more prosaic and believable explanation: anyone who had only a little money to spare would spend it first and foremost on one or two history paintings; someone with a larger budget could afford some variety and consequently also bought landscapes, genre works and still lifes. Jager does not give a clear explanation for the enduring preference for history painting among both modest and rich households. Estate inventories do not offer them either, since these sources give no information as to why certain works were acquired. It was most likely a combination of the traditional high esteem in which the genre was held, and the appeal of a narrative scene with lively details.

Further analysis of the subjects of the history paintings in households of different types reveals that biblical subjects were omnipresent. The modest households, however, clearly preferred the more narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments, whereas the wealthier households also owned devotional pictures (such as scenes from the Passion of Christ); according to Jager, it is possible that these were older works that they had inherited. It is also noteworthy that the elite – with an education in the classics – also owned many paintings of secular subjects, ranging from mythology or history. Erotic scenes were their favourites.

To my mind, the importance of this publication is hard to overestimate. Its scope is impressive and the number of new insights it offers (which are often confirmations of prior hypotheses by earlier researchers, or tweaks to previous conclusions) are almost impossible to count. The book seems to be two dissertations in one: an investigation into the trade in, and use of, cheap works of art and research into their production. Despite this vast scope – and its rather uninspired design – the book is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Dammeroen, Doeck and Meijeringh’s shop inventories weave its main arguments together, and Jager’s pleasant tone of writing and concise reasoning will keep readers’ attention, when leafing from front to back.

However, this is not to say that there remain no unanswered questions. On the contrary, I have already touched on some above. Another point that particularly surprised me, is that during her research into estate inventories of several Amsterdam households, Jager came across plenty of cheap history paintings, though the Bible stories that they illustrated almost never coincided with the ones listed on Dammeroen, Doeck and Meijeringh’s shop inventories. Jager herself has no satisfactory explanation for this, and it is then certainly a subject for further research.

With the recent publication of The mass market for history paintings in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Jager is the first author to create an impression of the type of paintings that must have accounted for a lion’s share of painting output in the Republic; the type of works most Dutch town-dwellers were certainly familiar with. This is a very enlightening, though sometimes also a rather humbling experience, for these are most definitely not the type of works that we know today, from our modern museum galleries, exhibition catalogues and reference works – as CODART’s new canon. The book is, therefore, essential reading for anyone who wants to expand their view of painting in seventeenth-century Holland.

Christi M. Klinkert
Curator of Old Masters
Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar

Translated from the Dutch to the English by Lynne Richards

1 100 Masterpieces: Dutch and Flemish art: CODART canon: 1350-1750, Tielt 2021.

2 W. Aglionby, Painting illustrated in three diallogues [sic], London 1685, pp. 23-24 (quoted in, E. J. Sluijter, Verwondering over de schilderijenproductie in de Gouden Eeuw, address given upon accepting the post of Professor of Art History of the Renaissance and Early Modern Period at the University of Amsterdam on Friday, 25 October 2002, Amsterdam 2003, p. 12).

3 See, also: E. J. Sluijter, ‘Over Brabantse vodden, economische concurrentie, artistieke wedijver en de groei van de markt voor schilderijen in de eerste helft van de zeventiende eeuw’, Nederlands kunsthistorisch jaarboek 50 (1999), pp. 112-143; M. Boers, De Noord-Nederlandse kunsthandel in de eerste helft van de zeventiende eeuw, Hilversum 2012.

4 A. Jager, The mass market for history paintings in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Amsterdam 2020, pp. 39-40.

5 Jager previously published this part of her research in: Oud Holland 131, no. 2 (2018), pp. 67-108 (‘The workshop of Jacob de Wet (1610-1675) and his mass production of history painting’).

6 On this sketchbook, see: A. Bredius, ‘Het schetsboek van Jacob de Wet’, Oud Holland 37 (1919), pp. 215-222.

7 Jager 2020 (note 4), p. 145.

8 On Uylenburgh’s workshop, see: F. Lammertse and J. van der Veen, Uylenburgh & son: Art and commerce from Rembrandt to De Lairesse 1625-1675, London/Amsterdam 2006.

9 J. M. Montias, ‘Works of art in seventeenth-century Amsterdam: An analysis of subjects and attributions’, in D. Freedberg and J. de Vries (eds.), Art in history/history in art: Studies in seventeenth-century Dutch culture, Santa Monica 1991, pp. 331-372.

10 Jager 2020, p. 232.

11 Montias 1991 (note 9), pp. 346-347.

Christi M. Klinkert, ‘Review of: The mass market for history paintings in seventeenth-century Amsterdam: Production, distribution and consumption’, Oud Holland Reviews, February 2022.