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Art in 17th Century Holland
If the working artist today were to choose a time and place in the past where they could most comfortably make a good living, one of their best choices would have to be Holland in the seventeenth century. Actually, they would find surprisingly little difference between the art world then and now. 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 artists, 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 on up to Rembrandt's Christ Healing the Sick, better known as the Hundred Guilder print.

Our time-travelling painter would find about the same broad range of acceptable subject matter then 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 catalogues 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 along with dinnerware, including silver, crystal, 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 then 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. Described by a Dutch contemporary as, "A painter of flowers, fruit, birds, worms, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, and other filth", her hand-coloured engravings nevertheless illustrated the life cycles of various "lower life forms" in scientific journals as well as on the walls of shops, offices, schools, and homes.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
23 May 1998


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