Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 24, 2017
Junko Aono Confronting the Golden Age: Imitation and Innovation in Dutch Genre Painting, 1680–1750 Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015. 272 pp.; 129 color ills. Cloth $99.00 (9789089645685)

Junko Aono’s Confronting the Golden Age: Imitation and Innovation in Dutch Genre Painting, 1680–1750 focuses on the generation of Dutch genre painters that succeeded the “great masters” of the seventeenth-century such as Gerard Dou and Frans van Mieris I. The book’s main objective is to investigate how artists working in the waning light of the Golden Age dealt with the illustrious artistic past, and particularly how they emulated the inventions of their predecessors in order to create a niche market for themselves.

This subject is in line with renewed interest in Dutch art from the later decades of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century. The conference Holland nach Rembrandt: Zur niederländischen Kunst zwischen 1670 und 1750, the proceedings of which were published in 2006 under the same title (Ekkehard Mai, ed., Cologne: Böhlau), explored several topics Aono touches upon in her book: the market for Dutch paintings in the early eighteenth century; the reception and appreciation for seventeenth-century Dutch painting in the eighteenth century; and the shift toward a more classicistic, idealized style. The conference preceded the exhibition Vom Adel der Malerei: Holland um 1700, in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; the Dordrechts Museum; and Schloss Willemhöhe, Kassel (2006–7). This exhibition introduced the general public to numerous high-quality paintings created between circa 1675–1750—a period long excluded from the celebrated Dutch Golden Age. Over the past decades, scholars have also paid extensive attention to the art-theoretical literature that was produced in the eighteenth century in the northern Netherlands, including its relations to the works of art produced in that period, with publications on, for instance, Gerard de Lairesse’s Groot Schilderboeck of 1707, Arnold Houbraken’s Groote Schouburgh of 1718–21, and Johan van Gool’s De nieuwe Schouwburg der Nederlantsche kunstschilders en schilderessen of 1750–51. Additionally, several monographs have been published on artists active during this later period, such as Eglon van der Neer, Godefridus Schalcken, and Nicolaes Verkolje. Finally, there have been a number of dissertations that focused on the eighteenth-century art market and the taste for Dutch paintings in the Netherlands and Europe.

Aono aims to demonstrate how genre painters active between 1680 and 1750 adjusted their style and subject matter to the taste of affluent collectors—which shifted toward more refinement and classicism—while simultaneously including clear references to the popular imagery of seventeenth-century genre painting. Interestingly, by doing so, she takes into account the fact that the Dutch art market had changed significantly in the period under discussion toward a smaller market with fewer well-to-do buyers who increasingly acted as direct patrons or maecenases. Following Aono’s line of argument, one could draw the conclusion, as she does briefly in her final chapter, that the open Dutch art market of the seventeenth century had shifted back toward a more traditional market, driven by direct relations between patrons and artists. As Aono argues, this changing market prompted artists to tailor their work to the specific desires of their clientele.

The first chapter discusses how artists established enduring relations with collectors, how they answered to the demands of these patrons, and to what extent they employed their “Golden Age heritage” to their own benefit. Aono convincingly concludes that by emulating the inventions of their predecessors, these artists updated seventeenth-century genre painting, transforming it into a new genre.

The practice of making copies after seventeenth-century genre paintings is the main topic of the second chapter. Aono convincingly describes how copies could serve as less expensive substitutes for original paintings and how they helped popularize specific themes and motifs. She clearly tracks a shift in the function of copies from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, arguing that commercial objectives became increasingly important, as is illustrated by her case study on Louis de Moni.

The third chapter elaborates on the artists’ choice of motifs and subject matter and the manner in which they borrowed, cited, and emulated popular inventions of seventeenth-century masters. This mechanism is well illustrated by Aono’s discussion of the production of companion pieces, specially made to match existing pictures. She highlights which elements were borrowed directly from the prior picture and where departures were made in the expression of individual style. The case study on the commissions that Johan Hendrik van Wassenaer Obdam gave to Willem van Mieris strikingly illustrates the interaction between artists and patrons, while elaborating on the influence of the collector’s personal taste on the choice for pictorial motifs, resulting in clever combinations of traditional elements with newly invented motifs.

The increasingly refined and classicist character of genre painting in the eighteenth century is investigated in the final chapter. Aono discusses how this shift in style can be contextualized within a larger civilizing process, and she connects this to notions of classicism as expressed in contemporary literature on painting. Significant for this discussion is De Lairesse and his Groot Schilderboeck, which contains recommendations on how to “ennoble” contemporary genre painting by employing elegant subject matter and depicting figures with ideal beauty and classical proportions. Willem van Mieris is a key figure, whose workshop practices and use of drawings after (prints of) classical sculpture closely match De Lairesse’s instructions. The chapter concludes by asking why artists in the eighteenth century became more versatile in subject matter instead of specializing in one particular genre as their predecessors had done. According to Aono, this tendency can be explained by taking into account the declining numbers of both artists and affluent collectors: a smaller artistic community meant that all types of paintings had to be produced by fewer painters. Such versatility was a means for artists to establish and maintain strong ties with patrons.

The book concludes with a catalogue of genre painters that were active from 1680 to 1750 in the northern Netherlands. Aono explains that she does not aim to provide a complete survey, but that the catalogue presents artists whose practices can be considered exemplary for the period. The purpose of this catalogue unfortunately remains unclear, since the information provided consists merely of biographical data and a description of each artist’s oeuvre.

A question that comes to the fore when browsing through this catalogue is whether Aono’s broad conclusions also apply to minor painters such as Adriaan van der Burg, Hendrik I Carré, Frans Decker, Olivier van Deuren, Abraham van der Eyk, and Jan Tilius. Do we know who their patrons were or to whose taste they attempted to respond? This calls into question Aono’s use of Willem van Mieris as exemplary of this generation of genre painters. Even though he is indeed one of the most significant artists of the period and fits perfectly within her argument, one cannot help but wonder how lesser-known artists operated in the competitive market situation Aono describes. Similar questions could be asked about patronage. By addressing well-known and important collectors such as Johan Hendrik van Wassenaer Obdam and Pieter de la Court van der Voort, Aono appeals to knowledge with which the reader might already be familiar. Her use of these collections as examples to support her argumentation is understandable, yet it would have been interesting to learn about lesser-known collectors, and to test if the mechanisms Aono describes also apply to them.

Apart from these questions, Aono’s research opens up many stimulating areas for further investigation. While her focus is genre painting, it would be interesting to see if similar artistic strategies were employed by artists producing other kinds of paintings, such as flower still lifes, for instance. Did such artists similarly engage with the legacy of their predecessors? Attention might also be given to the reception of Dutch (genre) painting by foreign collectors. As the research of several scholars has begun to show, seventeenth-century Dutch paintings were avidly collected throughout Europe during the eighteenth century, and many noble courts engaged Dutch artists as court painters. Was the glorious past of the Dutch Golden Age as important to these foreign collectors as it was to their Dutch counterparts? And would they have recognized and appreciated artistic confrontation with previous inventions?

Aono’s research delivers important insights into a specific type of painting produced during a specific period. Her hypotheses are plausible and supported with plenty of well-chosen illustrations, along with primary and secondary sources. The elaborate notes show the solid research that lies at the basis of the book and testifies to the great amount of information Aono has gathered. Confronting the Golden Age has the potential to revive interest in and appreciation for a long-neglected period in Dutch art history, and it forms a significant contribution to the scholarly discourse on the dynamics between market strategies and artistic choices.

Ellis Dullaart
RKD—Netherland Institute for Art History