Love and tears in the Golden Age
Art-historical publications are not always thought of as enthralling and entertaining
literature. Academics tend to write for their colleagues and not for a wider audience. The
Hague's Painters of the Golden Age is a mine of art-historical information and presents a
host of new facts. To give this data a little zest, Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder decided to
approach the old masters as inhabitants of the city: as ordinary people concerned with
everyday affairs. A glimpse behind the scenes at the changing fortunes of The Hague's
painters in the Golden Age.
Most painters in The Hague came from an artisan background. They formed a tightknit social
group: buying and selling houses from one another, acting as witnesses for each other,
sealing friendships and beginning businesses together. These ties were all the closer
because of the proximity in which they lived. Particularly popular streets were Bierkade
and Veerkade. Often their spouse would also come from the same neighbourhood and many
future artists started as pupils of their father or some other member of the family. The
best way of completing training was a stay in Italy. But in Rome too, prospective masters
sought each other's company and formed a club of their own, the bentvueghels. Free from
parental control, there was a good deal of partying and drinking. The often absurd
nicknames of some of these artists, which have survived to this day, date from these
Investments and loans
In general, painting was no goldmine. Debts were more a rule than an exception. Apart from
the wealthy Adriaen Hanneman, who worked for foreign courts and the highest social circles
in The Hague, most painters were restricted to a tight budget or forced to augment their
incomes by taking on other work. Extra money might be earned by teaching apprentices,
dealing in art, repairing or restoring paintings, or selling painting materials. One or
two others tried their hand with varying degrees of success in quite different fields. Jan
Steen became a brewer and Otto Hackius joined up as an ensign in the Dutch army. Cornelis
Moninckx took matters into his own hand when his finances turned sour: he became an
assistant to a counterfeiter.
Jan van Goyen speculated in property. He had houses built on new sites in The Hague which
he rented out, preferably to colleagues. But when he invested in the lucrative tulip
market things all went horribly wrong. In 1637 the tulip bubble burst and the painter's
finances took a nose dive. When he died, he left debts to the tune of 18,000 guilders. His
widow and two daughters declined the estate.
Payments in kind
Artists often settled bills with retailers by payment in kind. In 1644, for example,
Pieter van der Croos agreed with a baker that in return for a large marine painting he
would receive free bread for twelve months. Some years later, his brother Anthony entered
a similar arrangement. Abraham van Beijeren, who painted fish still lifes, wanted to pay
his tailor in kind in 1652. The latter refused to deliver the garments as arranged,
complaining that the three paintings were overvalued. It was only after the portraitist
Adriaen Hanneman had assessed their value and an independent member of the tailor's guild
had assessed that of the garments, that the goods were exchanged.
Love and marriage
Young lovers often encountered less than enthusiastic parents (-in-law) on the path to the
altar. When Paulus Potter fell in love with the girl next door, Adriana, and asked her
father, master carpenter Claes Dircksz. van Balkeneynde, for her hand, the response was
not immediately positive. According to biographer Houbraken, Van Balkeneynde was not
particularly impressed by the painter's specialisation: if only Paulus had painted people;
but animals, that went against the grain. It was not until friends and influential figures
had assured him that Potter was a decent person, that he allowed the young painter to
marry his daughter. Potter was living in a house on Dunne Bierkade, which he rented from
his neighbour, Jan van Goyen. The house is still standing, today it is number 17.
Jan Steen was also to cause his father-in-law a headache, according to Houbraken. Steen
worked in Jan van Goyen's studio and fell for the charms of his daughter, Margriet. The
young Steen was well liked by Van Goyen who would sometimes take him out of an evening,
after he had finished painting, to drink a beer and chew the fat. Jan liked his master
too, but even more his daughter, to whom he acquired such a passionate attachment that she
gradually began to swell. Jan Steen had made Grietje pregnant and she urged him to tell
their parents and to quickly tie the knot. So the next time Steen told Van Goyen that
Griet was with child. The shocked father asked whether he knew this for certain, to which
Steen replied: well yes ... I ought to know, I caused it myself and I want to marry her.
And indeed they were married in 1649. Later, doubt was cast on the veracity of the
anecdote, since their oldest son, Thaddeus, was only born in 1651. Perhaps the story was
really about another of Van Goyen's daughters, who married the still-life painter Jacques
de Claeuw in 1649 and whose first child was baptised two months later.
Personal losses and family crises
Family life brought its share of grief and worry. In the 17th century, cot and childbirth
deaths were frequent occurrences. The painter/burgomaster Dirck van der Lisse saw half his
children and his first wife go to early graves. With a sense of awe he noted in his diary
when his wife died in 1646: May the Lord God Almighty allow that through her Example we be
able to die as she did. Two years later he remarried and had another two daughters. With
the loss of his two earlier children still fresh in his memory, he wrote as he noted the
birth of his youngest children: May God Almighty allow that this child grow in His Grace.
His prayer was not to be answered, however, as the youngest died within a week.
Disobedient adolescents were of course also a source of worry. Portrait artist Caspar
Netscher had three sons, of whom the eldest, Theodorus, was something of a handful.
Caspar's wife Margaretha Godijn ruled her family with a rod of iron, and one day literally
so. Boiling once again with anger, she hit Theodorus so violently with a poker that his
nose was almost permanently damaged and horribly knocked about. By 1680 he had had enough
of his strict mother and left for Paris with Adriaen Helvetius, son of the famous doctor
of The Hague. They appear to have lived the life of Reilly there, happy and unconstrained,
without a penny to their names. Eventually the two miscreants returned to the straight and
narrow: Adriaen became a physician to Louis XIV and Theodorus a famous portraitist.
Gossip and slander often led to an official complaint being lodged with a public notary.
For example, in 1660 the painter of trompe l'oeils (tricks of the eye) Anthonie Leemans
was forced, on the insistence of Catharina, housewife of Jacobus Croost, to declare that
he had never stated that he, Leemans, had behaved indecently towards her. As a wild man
Leemans already had a poor reputation. In 1653 he had been convicted of having attacked
and stabbed a person in the neck at the Delft fair. Around 1665 he was again involved in a
fight in which a friend was so badly wounded that he died some days later. Even Anthonie's
son declared in 1687: You knew my father for the man he was, when he'd drunk his fill, he
would come riding into my house like an animal and upsetting my wife.
Romantic adventures were also preserved in the notarial records. Jan de Baen had many an
amorous encounter before and during his marriage. In 1671 one of his affairs ended rather
unfortunately. It was on a snowy night and De Baen made his escape on stockinged feet from
the home of burgomaster Johan Maes. His shoes were still on the ledge of the open window.
But even worse: in his desperation to remain unseen he had wounded one of his fingers so
badly that he subsequently had to make do with nine. In the literature this lost digit was
attributed to an attack by rival artists.
Commissions and services
Painters regularly acquired commissions from official bodies through friends and
relatives. For example, the portraitist Evert van der Maes was commissioned to paint group
portraits for the St Sebastian militia corps because the captain of the company, Seger van
der Maes, was his brother. Potter also received commissions through family connections.
His influential father-in-law, Van Balckeneynde, introduced him into Hague society. This
was how Potter met Maurits van Nassau-Siegen and Amalia van Solms, who invited him to
paint a chimneypiece at Noordeinde palace. Eventually the draft painting was rejected
after a confidante had drawn the princess's attention to the urinating cow: a far too
unpleasant object [...] for Her Majesty to have to view every day.
These anecdotes about the everyday life of the 17th-century masters bring the art world to
life. It gives the painters a sense of individual recognisability, with both good and bad
traits, but in either case as people. Their joy and grief, pleasure and anger, cares and
successes, were much like our own today. Clearly, emotions are universal and timeless.