Still-Life in the Dutch Republic
Still-life paintings – delicate vases of Chinese porcelain, opulent serving tables with exotic fruits, glass wear and carpets, golds, silvers, and bright oranges and yellows.
All this comes to mind when visualizing the masterful still-life paintings by great artists of the Dutch Republic (1588-1795) like Willem Kalf, Jan Bruegel the Elder, or Juriaen Van Streeck. Objects, which demonstrate wealth, worldliness, and ownership.
So why is it that every now and again, while walking through renowned museums of 17th century Dutch art, we come across human beings in a still-life painting? What are they doing in a still-life? And what does it tell us about the lives of these people in the Dutch ‘Golden Age’?
The Life of Black Servants
The human subjects I am referring to are black servants. Although slavery was legally outlawed in the Dutch Republic, they were brought on ships which were used for slave trading by the United East Asia Company (VOC) and West India Company (WIC), from the East and West Indies to the Dutch Republic.
Little is known about the lives of black people in the Dutch Republic, but research shows that they were ‘set free’ upon arrival, and many were employed as servants. Their status of employment and freedom, however, is highly ambiguous. Young black servants (particularly boys) were often handed as gifts in upper-class households, and they were treated well in so far as they served as status symbols to the households for which they were working. They were exotic attributes that demonstrated the wealth of the house they worked for.
Paintings as Historical Documents
Still-life paintings which illustrate such black servants become an interesting testimony of the time – like documents, paintings can act as evidence to be analyzed and compared, in order to determine trends as well as silenced narratives of a given historical period.
Painters in the Dutch Republic were the first to popularize still-life paintings. Typically, these paintings depict a variety of objects which are displayed in careful composition on a tabletop. What sets them apart from other realistic genre painting of the time, is their occlusion of humans – as the name reveals, still-life generally includes lifeless objects.
Servants in Pronkstillevens: What Does it Mean?
By the mid-17th century, especially the pronkstilleven became popular. This is a genre of still-life paintings which shows particularly luxury items of the time; exotic fruits such as oranges and lemons, Persian carpets, or Chinaware.
All of these were rarities in the eyes of contemporary Dutch citizens. In fact, such goods were the symbolic embodiment of the wealth which the Dutch Republic had accumulated through their innovative shipping technologies, which allowed them to travel the oceans, to dominate world trade, and become a global naval power. What the beauty and exquisiteness of these paintings conceals, however, is the suffering of colonized peoples who paid the price for enjoyment of such luxury goods by the Dutch upper class.
It is in these pronkstillevens where black servants are frequently depicted, either holding an expensive dish with exotic fruits, glass wear, or a tray. They are positioned behind the typical still-life tabletops, or further in the background. Clothed in lustrous, colorful attire and golden jewelry – very untypical clothing for servants at the time – which matches the luxury goods in the still-life composition the servants merge into the color scheme and become a part of the composition on display. The servants become another object on display; an exoticized luxury good which symbolizes the wealth of the servant’s – or the painting’s – owner.
Portraits or Tronies?
This demonstrates that black servants in pronkstilleven are not individuals who are painted as they are. Rather, they are tronies, which are character types rather than portraits, who are adapted to the likes of the painting’s painter or patron. These tronies may have been based on a model, but this model has no agency over how they are portrayed.
Appearing in still-life paintings as luxury goods, they are stripped of agency and identity, as it is mostly unknown who these subjects are. Hence, they become symbolic of the role which black servants played in the upper-class society of the Dutch Republic: an objectification of Dutch wealth and pride.
More Than Wall Decoration
Pronkstillevens were often commissioned by upper-class patrons to decorate their mansions, as a way of showing-off their wealth and position in society. In the Dutch Republic, however, paintings like the still-lives were also affordable for middle-class households. Because the Republic was essentially a melting pot for different religious and cultural groups who came together in the face of oppression – particularly from the Spanish Empire –, there was no unified ‘Dutch’ identity or culture. In this sense, realist genre paintings such as still-lives, served a purpose of political cohesion. The unique accessibility to these paintings meant that middle-class households, just like the upper-class, could decorate their walls with paintings that displayed themes of winters on the ice, agricultural landscapes, maritime scenery showing storms and trading ships, as well as the luxurious goods. In fact, it was more affordable to own a painting of luxury items such as a Persian carpet, than to own the carpet itself.
These paintings exhibited a consensus about the values which should be upheld in the Dutch Republic. Values of tolerance, of pride, of togetherness in the face of an enemy, and of technological pioneering. By being displayed as a still-life object, Black servants become a part of this narrative of self-fashioning – a concept coined by Stephen Greenblatt (1980) in his book Renaissance Self-Fashioning, which illustrates a 17th century trend of using art as a way of representing and shaping one’s own identity according to newly developing societal norms. A pervasive trend of the ‘Golden Age’ in the Dutch Republic.
The ‘Golden Age’
Examining such efforts of self-fashioning through paintings elucidates some controversies around terminology of the ‘Golden Age.’ Recently, the term has been up for heated debate. In 2019, the Amsterdam Museum declared that it would refrain from using the term ‘the Golden Age’ because it is no longer appropriate as a representation of the “ethnic and gender complexity of Amsterdam’s citizenship.” This marked a milestone for the museum’s attempt at decolonizing its own institution.
Since, there has been much debate on whether one should uphold the terminology of the ‘Golden Age.’ Some, like the Amsterdam Museum, state that the term should be eliminated entirely because it conceals the colonial pillars on which the Dutch Republic was built. It connotates a sense of nostalgia, and paints a picture of a past which is desirable to return to, which is somehow more ‘Golden’ than today. Through this it silences the experience and point of view of the colonized, for whom this period of time was anything but golden, and whose descendants continue to carry the wounds of the past.
Others argue that eliminating the term runs the risk of “judging the distant past through today’s eyes,” and that the term should be maintained in order to open up a discussion about the shadows of the ‘Golden’ times. Eliminating it entirely would erase a history – the positive and the negative experiences.
The Power of a (Hi)story
In any case, opening up a discussion about the histories behind the characters who are depicted in artworks of the past is of absolute necessity. History, in the end, remains a story, whether written or painted. It is dynamic, told over and over again, and is constantly re-made in the present. And so, the position of the storyteller is one of power – the power to tell, or the power to silence. Looking at 17th century art is much the same. In looking, which narratives do you see, which ones do you challenge, and which ones to you share?
Eline is an undergraduate student at Leiden University College, following the Liberal Arts and Sciences: Global Challenges program in The Hague.Although Eline has chosen a major in Culture, History and Society, she also has an interest in environmental sciences and sustainability, as well as gender studies, human rights, and philosophy. Her interdisciplinary bachelor’s program has sparked a particular interest in the nexus between art and science, and she is currently writing her bachelor’s thesis on art-science collaborations in sustainability research. Through her passion for writing (academically and creatively), she hopes to communicate about her topics of interest through critical and context-specific lens.