As the J. Clawson Mills Fellow at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for 2010–11, my research has focused on the artistic community in the city of Utrecht during the seventeenth-century "Golden Age" of Dutch painting. Through close examination of this network of artists, I have explored Utrecht's role in the magnificent flourishing of the arts that occurred at this time in the Netherlands, despite the civil discord caused by the Dutch fight for independence from Spain. This circle of artists used several different avenues—including displays of camaraderie, strong professional organizations, an emphasis on artists' education, and joint artistic endeavors—to keep their community strong even as Utrecht buckled under the political, religious, and social strain of war.
At this point I should warn casual admirers of the Dutch Old Masters that art from Utrecht should be approached with trepidation; it can alter one's entire conception of the field. For many contemporary viewers, the appeal of Dutch art stems from its most iconic imagery: the psychologically complex portraits by Rembrandt, the lively brushstrokes in paintings by Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael's naturalistic landscapes, and the serenity of Vermeer's interiors, which appear eerily modern.
Art from Utrecht, on the other hand, provides little of this comforting familiarity. Utrecht artists repeatedly created colorful, brash, overtly religious works that are very clearly not of our time. Artists such as Abraham Bloemaert and Joachim Wtewael produced paintings in a Mannerist vein, while members of the younger generation such as Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst painted Caravaggist scenes.
Artists like Jan Baptist Weenix and Jan Both are known for their sun-dappled landscapes more reminiscent of the Mediterranean than the wet skies and dune-filled terrain indigenous to the Dutch provinces. Diverse, and at times even wild, the art of Utrecht is not for the faint of heart.
Throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, display and collecting trends in Europe and North America overlooked the more unique aspects of art from Utrecht. Visitors to the Met's 2007 exhibition The Age of Rembrandt will remember that it was organized chronologically, based on the year of acquisition. Most of the dramatic religious subjects and vivid color common in Utrecht painting were not found until the later galleries, added to the earlier acquisitions as "curatorial corrections."
Various factors contributed to Utrecht's distinctive imagery, including the city's independent identity as part of the province of Utrecht as well as its geographic distance from the artistic centers of Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Delft in the province of Holland. A former bishopric, Utrecht was not a commercial hub; it was the land-owning elite, rather than mercantile burghers, who dominated the local economy. Finally, the city maintained a significant Catholic population in comparison to the rest of the Protestant-dominated Northern Netherlands. Utrecht's slightly separate character makes it a useful site for close study of a defined network of artists, which, in turn, engages larger themes.
One such theme is the narrative of Dutch independence. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the predominantly Protestant inhabitants of the Northern Netherlands chafed under the rule of the Catholic king Philip II of Spain. The rebellion that followed resulted in a split from the Southern Netherlands and the establishment of the self-ruling Dutch Republic. The South remained under Spanish control. In Utrecht, a city with both Protestants and Catholics, these divisions had local ramifications, and control of the local government vacillated between Reformed (Protestant) factions in the early 1600s.
Meanwhile, art in Utrecht thrived in part because artists of different religious and political convictions focused on unity, asserting their solidarity by setting up an independent guild in 1611, the Guild of Saint Luke. While establishing a new guild during a time of unrest—and essentially asking artists to place their professional identity ahead of their religious and political beliefs—must have been challenging, it served the mutual professional benefit of all Utrecht artists.
Education was a crucial activity of the guild, and its founding members included a number of prominent teachers. Several Utrecht artists opened a drawing school, which is depicted in the 1643 drawing manual of the Utrecht-trained artist Crispijn van de Passe the Younger (Bloemaert and Moreelse can be seen instructing students drawing after a live model; see image). By taking on educational responsibilities for younger artists, members of the guild ensured the future strength of their organization.
As Marten Jan Bok has noted (Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age), collaboration was common among artists in Utrecht. Several artists contributed to a series of twelve Roman emperors dating from about 1616 to 1625. In 1631, Moreelse, Bloemaert, Ter Brugghen, Honthorst, and Jan van Bijlert created a series called the Five Senses as a prize for an archery contest in Delft, and four years later Bloemaert, his son Hendrick, Herman Saftleven, and Cornelis van Poelenburch, among others, painted scenes from the sixteenth-century pastoral play The Faithful Shepherd for the hunting lodge of Prince of Orange Frederick Hendrick and his wife Amalia van Solms. Such projects attracted patrons from outside the Netherlands and in 1637 King Christian IV of Denmark and Norway commissioned Utrecht artists to produce a series depicting important moments in Danish history. Although never fully realized, the elaborate project generated a rich group of almost sixty preparatory drawings, oil sketches, and paintings.
These examples of collaboration demonstrate that artists of different generations came together regardless of religious beliefs or political views, and display the strength and depth of the entire Utrecht artistic community. The artists overlooked personal beliefs and relied instead on professional bonds, working together even at times at the expense of individual recognition or traditional hierarchies.
More generally, artistic cooperation in Utrecht can be seen as a compelling intersection of two major areas of discussion surrounding the Netherlands during this period: artistic competition as it fueled the art market, and the nature of tolerance in Early Modern Dutch society. As a vital link between these concepts, collaboration acted as a driving force in the incredible artistic flowering in the nascent Dutch Republic at the very moment when civil strife threatened it most.
Elizabeth Nogrady is the J. Clawson Mills Fellow at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for 2010–11.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Low Countries, 1400–1600 A.D.
Joaneath A. Spicer et al., Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age (Baltimore, San Francisco, & New Haven, 1997)
Paul Huys Janssen, Schilders in Utrecht, 1600–1700 (Utrecht, 1990)