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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Architecture, Furniture, and Silver from Colonial Dutch America

Established in 1614 by Dutch merchants as a promising fur-trading post, the colony of New Netherland took several decades to achieve a population prosperous enough to support craftsmen and merchants. Attempts by the Dutch West India Company to encourage Dutch settlement through the patron system were largely unsuccessful, but when the net was cast wider around 1650, colonists from northern France and other parts of the Low Countries began to immigrate as well, creating both a multicultural population and a growing commercial base. Despite this diversity, the persistence of Dutch customs and styles remained strong into the eighteenth century, even after the English gained control of the colony in 1664. Dutch heritage is evident in the craft practices of the housewrights, furniture makers, and silversmiths who settled there, as well as in the products of their workshops.

Homes in Dutch cultural areas of colonial New York and New Jersey, and the functional and decorative objects that adorned them, are highly distinctive. In their style and methods of construction, these houses differ considerably from their counterparts in New England and Virginia, and derive directly from late medieval and Renaissance building traditions in the Netherlands and the Low Countries. In Manhattan, western Long Island, central New Jersey, and the upper Hudson Valley near Albany, houses were constructed of H-shaped wooden frames called “anchor bents” that were arranged laterally in a series to create one or two first-floor rooms with an upper garret for storage. The spaces between the posts were filled with brick nogging to protect against air infiltration and the walls were covered with wide, sawn weatherboards or, in the most elaborate homes, a veneer of kiln-fired brick laid in distinctive patterns. In northern New Jersey and the central Hudson Valley, houses of the same essential plan as the frame houses were built, but with thick load-bearing masonry walls of local red sandstone and limestone.

In typical Netherlands style, colonial Dutch-American houses had steeply pitched single-gable roofs, leaded-glass casement windows, and exterior doors—one in each room—split at the center so the upper section could be opened independently of the lower half to let in light and fresh air while simultaneously keeping children in and unwanted animals and vermin out of the house. These so-called Dutch doors continued in use until the Revolution, even in English-style center-hall houses with gambrel roofs. Also of Dutch origin were the jambless fireplace typically found in these houses (although because of their inefficiency, most had been removed by the mid-eighteenth century). Jambless fireplaces lacked “jambs” or the brick side walls that formed a firebox as in English-style fireplaces. Instead, they had wide, open hearths of red terracotta tiles that extended from the back wall well out into the room, and a massive hood that lazily directed smoke upward into a chimney that rested directly on the anchor beams in the garret above. Oftentimes the white plaster back walls of jambless fireplaces would be adorned with courses of imported blue and white or mulberry and white Dutch tiles.

Just as traditional Dutch-style houses were built in New Netherland and colonial New York and New Jersey, so too were distinctive Dutch furniture forms manufactured by immigrant joiners and turners and their apprentices in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Unfortunately, early furniture of relatively pure Dutch style is exceedingly rare. This is due to the steady and ever-increasing influence of Anglo furniture forms and styles after the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664, as well as the relatively low survival rate of inexpensive moveables from the early Dutch period. One quintessentially Dutch furniture form that held on as tenaciously as the “Dutch” door in colonial New York and New Jersey and survives today in considerable number is the kast. These large closetlike case pieces meant for the storage of linens and other textiles were often purchased as part of a young Dutch woman’s uitzet, or outset of household goods and linens presented to her by her parents before her wedding. The kast’s impressive scale and architectural character, as well as its highly valued contents, made it the most important piece of furniture in colonial Dutch-American households. Only a handful of the earliest seventeenth-century oak kasten are known, and there is a small but important group of painted examples that depict symbols of fecundity and good fortune associated with furniture made on the occasion of a marriage. Literally hundreds of eighteenth-century hardwood kasten survive, however, attesting to the powerful attraction this furniture form held for people of Dutch descent in colonial New York and New Jersey.

Silver coinage was scarce in seventeenth-century New York, encouraging the importation of wrought silver from abroad. Demand was brisk enough to attract the attention of pirates, who plundered enemy ships for booty and made their sponsors wealthy. By the 1680s and 1690s, colonial silversmiths were being commissioned to fashion such items as spoons, tankards, beakers, and two-handled cups for domestic use and display. Vessels for use in the Dutch Reformed churches constituted a significant part of the silversmith’s trade, and in those objects the influence of the Netherlands remained especially strong.

The domestic silver that survives from colonial New York reflects a distinctive regional style, a merging of English, Dutch, and Northern European forms and ornament. Generally heavier and more capacious than silver produced in the other colonies, it is often enriched with ornamental devices such as engraving, embossing, or applied castings. The overall effect is one of boldness and luxury. Guided by imported objects, by immigrant craftsmen trained abroad, and by the demands and tastes of their patrons, the silversmiths of early New York crafted some of the most elaborate and substantial silver produced in colonial North America.