In Elisabeth de Bièvre’s book Dutch Art and Urban Cultures, 1200-1700, the author explains how distinct geographical circumstances and histories shaped unique urban developments in different locations in the Netherlands and, in turn, fundamentally informed the art and visual culture of individual cities. In seven chapters, each devoted to a single city, the book follows the growth of Amsterdam, Delft, Dordrecht, Haarlem, Leiden, The Hague, and Utrecht over the course of five centuries. By embracing the full gamut of art and architecture and by drawing on the records of town histories and the writings of contemporary travelers, de Bièvre traces the process by which the visual culture of the Netherlands emerged to become the richest, most complex material expression in Europe, capturing the values of individuals, corporate entities, and whole cities. In a series of posts, de Bièvre will offer a snapshot of each of these seven cities as expressed through one or two representative artworks.
Elisabeth de Bièvre–
Haarlem developed around 1000 CE as a frontier bulwark of the County of Holland against the hostile Friesians in the North, and for many centuries it faced problems of aggression. In the late sixteenth century it became the first town to challenge the government of the then count of Holland, Philip II, and was as a result besieged and brutally punished. These acts of violence inspired a local ethos, expressed in the town’s motto, Vicit Vim Virtus (Virtue Conquers Violence). This in turn stimulated local imagery of the Greek super-hero, Hercules, whose idealized classical body, personifying virtue, became a frequent subject in the Haarlem arts. Johan Colterman, the Burgomaster’s son, chose Hercules as the role model for his extraordinary portrait by Hendrik Goltzius as a muscular, full frontal nude.
Hendrick Goltzius, Hercules and Cacus, Portrait Historié of Johan Colterman, monogrammed and dated 1613 (oil on canvas, 207 x 142.5 cm). Haarlem, Frans Halsmuseum
The outspoken taste for “the nude” in Haarlem’s artistic repertoire can also be associated with its vicinity to wooded dunes and rare forests, non-agricultural landscapes praised in contemporary literature as reminiscent of the Paradise Garden, where Adam and Eve before the Fall dwelt in all their innocent, naked purity. Just beyond the lush Haarlem dunes – outside of Paradise, so to speak – stretched fields composed of soil perfect for the cultivation of flax, the main ingredient for the production of linen, of which Haarlem became the dominant European producer. Jacob van Ruisdael canonized this landscape in his so-called “Haerlempjes,” the popularity of which is testified by the many versions still present today.
Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem from the Northwest with Linen Bleaching Fields in the Foreground or Haerlempje, between 1650 and 1682 (oil on canvas, 43 x 38 cm). Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
As Haarlem was a rare example of a town where the raw materials for the main industry were supplied by the surrounding countryside and controlled by the municipality, constant travel between town and country was taken for granted. Some of the typical Haarlem still-lifes with ‘simple breakfasts’ spread out on white linen table cloths can be seen to be inspired by this distinctive feature, which generated a tradition of taking picnics, either for work or for pleasure, from the urban homes into the rural outdoors.
Floris van Dijck, Table with Cheese, Nuts and Fruit on Linen Table-cloth, 1613 (oil on canvas, 49.5 x 77 cm). Haarlem, Frans Halsmuseum
Elisabeth de Bièvre is an independent scholar who has taught at the University of East Anglia Norwich, the University of California, Los Angeles, and University College London.