Seventeenth-Century Dutch

Elmer Kolfin, The Young Gentry at Play; Northern Netherlandish Scenes of Merry Companies 1610-1645. Transl. by Michael Hoyle. Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2005. 312 pp, 14 color, 192 b&w illus. ISBN 90-5997-013-6.

In this book, a translation of his 2002 Leiden dissertation, Elmer Kolfin has written the first comprehensive study to date on the merry company in Dutch art during the first half of the seventeenth century, expanding the subject to inlcude an extensive treatment of the roots of this iconography in the preceding century. The book comprises three parts; the first two divide the material into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Part I, “Ideal, Moral and Satire; The iconological development of merry companies in the sixteenth century,” attends to both Southern and Northern Netherlandish paintings and prints from the middle of the fifteenth century on, and considers links with the Dutch merry companies of the next century: Hans Bol, who emigrated from the South to Amsterdam in the 1580s, emerges as a key figure in the transmission of the imagery to the North. The book therefore offers more than the geographical or chronological parameters that its title suggests.

Kolfin’s organizing thesis, on which he plays minor variations throughout, is that merry companies can be divided into three iconographic categories: “ idealistic”, which present mainly positive views of the festive activities depicted; “moralistic”, in which such activities are condemned from a moral point-of-view; and “satirical”, in which they are held up for ridicule, but chiefly for comic rather than moralizing effect. Kolfin’s terminology can mutate in confusing ways. “Idyllic” appears at least once as an apparent synonym for “idealistic”. “ Satirical” and “comic” are mostly interchangeable, though the author at times seems to attempt a slight distinction between the two (p. 52). These categories (described by Kolfin variously as “lines of development”, “traditions”, or “ modes”) will strike some readers as overly rigid. In fact, the author acknowledges that they are not airtight, speculating that with certain prints “it must have been possible (as it still is) to link the associations across modes, giving the prints rich clusters of meanings” (p. 43). There is here perhaps some room for dialogue with scholars more enamored of clusters than categories. Kolfin’s laudable balancing act between the Southern and Northern Netherlands tips towards the latter in the concluding pages of Part I, which offer much more abbreviated glances at what happens to the Flemish merry company in the seventeenth century, chiefly as a foil to the Dutch part of the story that will follow.

Part II, “From Workshop to Parlour; Production, sale and ownership of merry companies, 1620-1660,” shifts attention to the Northern Netherlands in the seventeenth century. A chapter on “Stylistic and iconographic developments” examines the work of David Vinckboons, Esaias van de Velde, Willem Buytewech, Dirck Hals, as well as that of the Amsterdam painters Pieter Codde, Willem Duyster, and Pieter Quast, among which the subtype of the guardroom scene appears in the 1630s. Here we encounter Kolfin’s view of the relation between the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries: that the “ moralistic” mode largely vanishes, ceding the future of the Dutch merry company to the “idealistic” and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, the “satirical” categories. Such categories may seem all the more reductive in Kolfin’s narrative because he rarely enters into a sustained reading of individual images. Interpretation tends to stop once an artist’s work is positioned on the idealistic-moralistic-satirical scale. Thus “[Esaias] Van de Velde’s approach appears to be more light-hearted than rigidly moralistic” (p. 105), is all Kolfin has to offer on the meaning of that artist’s merry companies – a remark that probably struck this reviewer as particulalry unsatisfying because of his own past involvement with (what seemed to him) certain interesting subtleties in Esaias’s work (see R. Nevitt, Art and the Culture of Love in Seventeenth-Century Holland, 2003). But Kolfin’s rather strict division between the ‘light-hearted’b and the “moralistic” surely leaves out a lot. The author’s informative journey into the realm of lesser known artists continues in Part II with sections on painters in Utrecht (Jacob Duck and Jan van Bijlert), Delft (Anthonie Palamedesz.), Dordrecht (Jan Olis) and Middelburg, where one Laurence de Neter, who probably worked there in the 1630s, finally gets his due. Kolfin notes that De Neter may have been influenced by Christoffel van der Laemen, who worked in nearby Antwerp, reminding us of all the seventeenth-century Flemish material that is of course excluded from this book; the welcome breadth of Kolfin’s account, however, makes one yearn for even more.

Part II continues with chapters on “ The merry company in the studio,” which considers the physical production of paintings, focusing on Dirck Hals’s compositional methods, his invention and replication of poses, and his application of paint – all designed, it seems, with the aim of streamlining the process and lowering costs (though one wonders how to draw the line exactly between market-driven brushwork and that produced by a genuinely painterly taste: Dirck’s brother comes to mind) – “The market for merry companies,” including what we know of the sale, distribution and pricing of the paintings, and finally “The merry company in the parlour,” which finds indications in probate inventories of the time of how pictures were displayed in Dutch homes. There are limitations to what can be extracted from documents of course: that some merry companies were hung in the most public rooms of houses probably does imply that they would not have been seen as “offensive” to many viewers, yet this is a long way from the notion that such paintings were unproblematically “ light-hearted”. Kolfin’s discussion of merry companies in the context of painting technique, the art market and contemporary modes of display however achieves genuine insights into the appeal of such paintings at the time, and dovetails nicely with his previous argument that the iconographic erosion of the moralistic merry company in the seventeenth century was the product of painters trying to reach a wider market. Dirck Hals is indeed a plausible hero of this account.

Kolfin rounds off his volume with Part III, “ ’Why the young once came together in gaiety’; Youth, amusement and love as fashionable subjects in illustrated literature, 1600-1650,” which examines the merry company as it appears in the illustrations to three types of books: amatory songbooks and love manuals; didactic, moralizing literature like the voluminous writings of Jacob Cats; and the various genres of emblem books, secular and religious. To consider the genre of illustrated books separately, rather than together with those of paintings and independent prints, is not without justification: on some level, such texts and images do deserve their own treatment rather than merely being pressed into service to explicate the independent works. It also seems symptomatic of a method that privileges somewhat the historical taxonomy of clearly defined “pictorial traditions” over the close reading of works within a literary, social and cultural context. The former approach has its own very real contributions to make to our understanding of the pictorial tradition of the merry company, as Kolfin’s book amply demonstrates.

Rodney Nevitt, Jr.
University of Houston

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