In Elisabeth de Bièvre’s book Dutch Art and Urban Culture, 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 offers a snapshot of each of these seven cities as expressed through a set of representative artworks.
On the small river Amstel where it reaches the Zuider Sea, Amsterdam developed in the 13th century, about two centuries later than the cities previously discussed in this series — The Hague, Dordrecht, Haarlem, Delft, and Leiden. At first fed by local fishery, the settlers soon had to go beyond the surrounding waters and marshland to satisfy their needs. They sailed to the Baltic to acquire wood to build houses and bigger ships, and grain to feed the growing population. With the profits of a newly established carrier industry and protected by their own militias, the Amsterdam transporters became independent traders. Grain was transmuted into gold, which in turn was deployed to amass further riches, eventually pursued all over the world. The initial city seals and early paintings reflect the community’s naval and military priorities.
On the seal above, an armed man bears the community’s banner aboard a sailing vessel; he—the vigilant citizenry so to speak—acknowledges another figure representing the authority of the feudal lord, the count of Holland. The following century, a group portrait of Militia Fraternity officers celebrates their new independence around a sober meal. The staging of pride in self reliance had become ever more obvious. Among the Netherlands’ first secular narrative paintings these militia images were produced about fifty years earlier in Amsterdam than in any other city.
The translation of daily practices into dramatic histories became a hallmark of the city’s pictorial production. This was most clearly realized in the early 17th century by the first large group of local painters, including Pieter Lastman. Grain distribution and commercial exchange mechanisms are paramount, now sanctified through biblical role models enacting hierarchical relationships between dominant administrators and hardworking laborers.
Lastman’s pupil Rembrandt, arriving from Leiden, well understood the Amsterdam demand for time-honored history and drama. He turned portraits into theatrical scenes, not only his double portraits, such as the Shipbuilder and his Wife, but his most famous group representation, known as the Night Watch, in which the dynamic interaction of about thirty life-sized militiamen astounded friend and foe and still today attracts large crowds.
Following the Peace of Munster (1648), the appetite for such dramatic tableaux diminished. A new generation of more established rulers built a palatial Town Hall. Their taste was both grandiose and restrained, as can be appreciated in the Citizens’ Hall, clad entirely in white marble. Here, any citizen of Amsterdam could stride over enormous images of the terrestrial and celestial hemispheres.
If the Town Hall embodied the new dream of the Amsterdammers, shipping scenes continued to display the realities of their commercial success, safeguarded by naval power.
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.