Art Through Time: A Global View
Domestic Life Art: Dutch Family in an Interior
Five figures are gathered around a table in room that is sparely furnished and modestly decorated.
A plain cloth covers the table and four paintings hang high on the walls. Among the figures is a woman standing to the left who appears to be dressed as a servant. At the table sit a couple dressed in sober, but rich, black garb, and a man in a broad-brimmed hat. A child stands by the seated woman. Several elements—a glass containing a red liquid on the table, a decorated vessel held by the maid, and a white object that may be a sheet of crumpled paper on the floor—appear to be additions intended to show the artist’s virtuosity.
This work by Jan Olis may be a portrait, but it might also be a genre scene depicting everyday life. Olis specialized in genre scenes, which emerged as an independent category of painting in the Dutch Republic in the early seventeenth century. Both portraiture and genre scenes were popular among citizens of the newly independent nation at least in part, scholars assert, because they were vehicles through which the Dutch could define communal identity and shared social ideals.
Both portraits and genre scenes were often set in domestic interiors. Although the portraits, for obvious reasons, tend to depict tasteful, orderly households in which family members abide by their expected social roles, genre paintings might present homes in which either virtue or vice prevails, offering a model or a lesson, respectively. Olis’s image depicts a household (real or invented) in which Dutch values, moderation principal among them, are embraced. The figures appear to take pride in their own appearance and that of their home. At the same time, the self-presentation and surroundings are neither pretentious nor ostentatious.
Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Curator of Northern Baroque Painting, National Gallery of Art
“In the late sixteenth century, the Dutch revolted against Spanish control. And it’s a small, little country, the Netherlands, the size of Maryland. And they were against enormous odds because Spain was one of the most powerful countries in the world. And so, with their efforts over the years, the Dutch established their independence in 1648. And there came a sense at that time of enormous pride in who we were, this small little country. They had this sense of a God-given destiny, but one that would only come to fulfillment with their own engagement, and they saw themselves entering into the Golden Age, if they worked hard, worked in concert with God, established a land, created the home, created the moral, ethical environment in which to live, established the trading possibilities, the fleets that would go out to the East Indies and West Indies and bring in wealth. They were very proud of the wealth that they accumulated. You see this in their homes, in the care with which they create a structure within the homes of the living spaces.
There were these emblem books for guidelines as to how one should behave. And the kind of messages that you see in those guides were also followed by the painters. And the same kind of projections of this is the proper way a home should be.
One of the exciting things about Dutch art is that the Dutch lived with their art. Most of the art created in the seventeenth century was for a domestic audience. They weren’t just paintings for wealthy clients. One of the joys of looking at Dutch art is that you feel the real love of what they are depicting. And whether it is an individual or a flower or a vase or a landscape or tiles on the floor, one of the things they want to capture is, in large part, a ghost of this allegorical character of this culture, which is that our being, our essence, our existence here is a God-given gift. And as an artist you want to capture, as much as you possibly can, the character of that gift. And to honor that which God has given you.”
Franits, Wayne. Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Hollander, Martha. An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.
Loughman, John, and John Michael Montias. Public and Private Spaces: Works of Art in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Houses. Zwolle: B.V. Waanders Uitgeverji, 2001.
Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Vintage, 1997.
Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585–1718. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Westermann, Mariët, et al. Art & Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2003.