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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dutch Art

If the working artist today were to choose a time and place in the past where one could most comfortably make a good living, perhaps the best choice would be Holland in the seventeenth century. Actually, you would find surprisingly little difference between the art world now and then. The economy was robust and trade flourished in this densely populated, seafaring, mercantile society. There was little or no church patronage nor was there any great governmental control of the arts as in France or England. There were a great number of people (mostly painters) who called themselves artist, working both full and part-time at their craft. Paintings were sold in all venues from open markets to shops, galleries, and of course the painter's studio. Prices of work fell over a very broad range determined, much as they are today, by the quality of the work and the painter's name recognition. It was a nation hungry for art at all socio-economic levels. Even the lower classes bought art, usually prints from etched plates at prices ranging from quite cheap up to Rembrandt's Christ Healing the Sick, better known as the Hundred Guilder Print.   

The Hundred Guilder Print, 1647-49
Rembrandt van Rijn
Our time-traveling painter would find about the same broad range of acceptable subject matter as today (except for abstracts, of course). Without photography, portraiture flourished. And of course, in a nation almost synonymous with tulips and other flowers, floral paintings were highly prized. Rather than setting up floral arrangements of cut flowers, which might wilt before the painstaking oil painting process could be completed, artist made sketched catalogs of various individual cut flowers then "arranged" them in painted, pictorial compositions much as a florist might arrange real flowers today. Also, still-lifes abounded. They were even subdivided into classifications such as "men's" still-lifes, or "breakfast" still-lifes. In fact food with dinnerware, including silver as well as china, were among the most popular still-life subjects. Some foods, such as citrus fruits, were even vested with sexual implications.   
All was not quite the same then as today, however. One important type of art in seventeenth century Netherlands has long since been antiquated by science and technology. That would be the illustration of scientific investigations. The artist was an indispensable member of any research team. Perhaps the best in this genre was Anna Maria Sibylla Merian. Born in 1647, she made outstanding contributions to both art and science in this area. Though German by birth, she enjoyed a Flemish training in art. Her hand-colored engravings illustrated the life cycles of various "lower life forms" in scientific journals as well as on the walls of shops, offices, schools, and homes. She was described by a Dutch contemporary as, "A painter of flowers, fruit, birds, worms, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, and other filth."

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