The Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century struck the foreign visitor as a society set apart from the rest of Europe. On a continent of beleaguered monarchies, the Dutch had founded a solid republic, and created a prosperous society. While Catholics and Protestants destroyed each other in bloody sectarian war, the Dutch provided an atmosphere of tolerance, if not equality, for people of many creeds. But like every other golden age, the Golden Age of the Republic did not last long. The Northern Netherlands began its revolt against the Spanish crown in 1566, and by 1598, after immeasurable hardship and struggle, had not only secured its status as an independent state but had become a major European power. Barely seventy-five years later, the soldiers of Louis XIV invaded Dutch soil and effectively reduced the nation to the secondary status it has occupied ever since.

When historians puzzled over the origins of this marvelous anomaly, an odd mixture of power, prosperity, and tolerance, they eventually centered their attention on the mercantile character of the Dutch. The wealth of the Dutch was derived from trade, and they were famous as the middlemen of Europe. Thus enriched, they formed what is often regarded as the first bourgeois capitalist society. For Max Weber the mainspring of this society was Dutch Calvinism, which, supposedly by discouraging consumption, promoted the process of capital formation. Or, as Simon Schama puts it in a characteristically colorful way, “Usually [the Dutch] are allotted the role of third-leg baton carrier in the race that took capitalism from medieval merchant venturers through Renaissance banking to the Dutch international staple economy and onwards at a sprint to the finishing line of British industrialization.”

Schama’s book is skeptical of single explanations of the “Dutch miracle.” He finds at the center of Dutch society not bourgeois complacency but the “anxieties of superabundance” and the “moral ambiguity of good fortune.” These caused the Dutch to rejoice in their fabulous prosperity while fearing that the pleasure they took in it was the very invitation to disaster. In Schama’s view Dutch society experienced a continual tension between the liberating ideas of humanism espoused by Erasmus and his followers and the narrow strictures of Calvinist preachers; between the flexible morality of commerce and the rigorous dictates of faith; between restraint and prodigality. To put it crudely, Schama’s typical burgher was a “binger,” whose bouts of materialistic overindulgence were followed by pangs of spiritual guilt; the tension between the two created a dynamic equilibrium in his social behavior.

Schama is first concerned to show how the Dutch defined themselves as a nation. Lacking common ground in a king or a creed (only 55 percent of the population was Calvinist), the Dutch invented a national mythology that served both to hold together the somewhat accidental agglomeration of people who inhabited the seven united provinces and to raise their self-esteem. The mythology combined the events of a legendary history, centered on the ancient Germanic tribe of Batavians, with dramatic episodes of the recent war against Spain to produce the image of the Dutch as a new chosen people. The first generation of the seventeenth century, Schama writes, “invested the struggle against Spain with the global importance of thwarting the Spanish Counter-Reformation…. The last generation saw their own sacrifices of purses and blood as part of the divinely ordained war against Catholic tyranny.” But the essential feature of the national myth was its versatility. “By synthesizing the ‘ancient’ seventeen-hundred-year-old history of Batavian freedom with the notion of a national birth through ordeal, exodus and redemption, it was able to avoid the kind of moral exclusivism that had brought other countries to civil war in the period.”

Schama puts a great many different activities and attitudes under scrutiny to demonstrate just how capacious and versatile Dutch society was. If the reader has thought of the Dutch as abstemious, the chapter “Feasting, Fasting and Timely Atonement” will correct that error. Great feasts were part of the religious calendar but were also staged as the occasion arose. Thus, to take an extreme case, a wake held in a small Frisian town in 1660 offered the guests a menu of 20 oxheads of wine, 70 half-casks of ale, 1100 pounds of meat, 550 pounds of sirloin, 28 breasts of veal, 12 whole sheep, 18 great venison in white pastry, and 200 pounds of chopped meat. Drinking and smoking nicely complemented the gluttony:

The smell of the Dutch Republic was the smell of tobacco. In the middle of the eighteenth century the French traveler Grosley counted three hundred smokers in a single modest inn at Rotterdam…. Foreigners were especially repelled by the spectacle of women blowing smoke from between tar-blackened teeth.

Then, as now, beer was a staple of Dutch life and economy; indeed, producers and consumers were happily locked in a bibulous embrace. “It is known, for example, that in 1613 there were as many as 518 alehouses in Amsterdam alone, or one for every two hundred inhabitants.” The moralists moralized while the drinkers drank and the smokers smoked, albeit with somewhat troubled consciences, ready to practice bad habits until periodic disasters—waves of illness, for example—seemed to deliver the dire promises of retribution.


Another casualty of Schama’s account is the frugal Dutchman. “Despite prevailing stereotypes, then, the Dutch economy in its prime did not turn on the habit of thrift. There is as much reason to describe it as a spend-and-prosper economy as a save-and-prosper economy.” The author takes us through the Dutch patrician’s house, bursting with expensive furniture, imported carpets, and quantities of plate. Even in the popular lotteries, which were civic occasions usually held for charity, the prizes were luxury wares, including “fine tapestries and bedsteads with velvet draperies, all preciously embroidered.”

There is, too, or was, the prudent Dutchman, the proto-capitalist. Examine him closely, Schama suggests, and you’ll find a protectionist, not a free-marketeer; or you’ll find a gambler, not an investor. Writing of the Trip family, once regarded as the quintessential Dutch entrepreneurs for their international dealings in iron, munitions, tar, and other commodities, Schama quotes the study of P.W. Klein, who notes that the Trips “always made every effort to avoid [market] risks,” preferring monopolies over imported products and dealings within their own commercial network to free enterprise. The Dutch also discovered that the difference between the stock exchange and the gambling casino was largely a matter of interior decoration. The tulip mania of 1636–1637, when speculation drove up the price of a single bulb to several thousand dollars, is still famous in the annals of commodity markets. Less well known is the practice called “trading in the wind,” whereby a speculator hopes to turn a quick profit on a stock he never pays for. Yet in the financial world, as elsewhere in Dutch society, Schama finds a restraint for every excess that kept things on course if not exactly on an even keel.

In the third and most cohesive section of the book, Schama describes the intimate life of the Dutch by guiding the reader through a sociological house tour. The obsessive cleanliness of the Dutch is not a fiction; the Dutch truly believed that the road to salvation was washed once a week, like the pavement in front of their houses. They also invested cleanliness with patriotism:

To be clean was to be patriotic, vigilant in the defense of one’s homeland, hometown and home against invading polluters and polluted invaders. The Dutch could not help brandishing their brushes in the faces of grimier, heathen folk.

A well-regulated routine in home life was the “irreducible primary cell” of the social body, where the sustaining values of the society were observed by the old and inculcated into the young. Presiding over this tidy, privileged place was the housewife, the subject of a fascinating account on the lives of women in Dutch society:

While obedience was required from a wife, it was not unconditional. “If the man is the Head, then the woman is the neck on which it rests,” said one work, somewhat bleakly. That neck, though, was not to be stretched in meek submission. Violent, drunken or otherwise unwholesome conduct in the husband had to be lovingly corrected by the loyal wife through pious example and respectful admonition. Wives who had the misfortune to discover the stain of vice in their spouse only after they had wed were consoled by the commonplace that many a reprobate who had dissipated his life in “wijnte en’trijnte” (i.e., in wine and women) had been reformed after his marriage through the firmness and love of a good woman…. If, in spite of all these efforts, the delinquent was deaf to his wife’s entreaties and truly incorrigible, his faults could be brought to the attention of either the church council or the magistrates or both. And it was not uncommon for despairing wives to bring their own husband’s case before the kerkraad in the hope of chastening his way of life before ruin descended on their house…. At no time was a wife expected to be tyrannized by her spouse.

Yet, as Schama’s law dictates, for every good there was an evil, in this case the demimonde of illicit love inhabited by seductive prostitutes and unfaithful husbands.

In the “republic of children” we meet what the Dutch affectionately called the “little perishers.” Taking issue with the theories on the history of childhood advanced by Philippe Ariès, who saw children during this period as miniature adults, Schama assigns to children an important place in Dutch society. Dutch children, he finds, behaved like children:


Their repertoire of naughtiness is all too real: not just face pulling, dish banging, cackling, yowling, howling, bellowing pandemonium, but gleeful pulls on pipes, swigging jars of ale and roemers of Rhenish.

Yet children were also regarded as the future of the young republic and thus became metaphors of nationhood. Their games provided not only amusement but also moral instruction.

All of this makes fascinating reading, not least because Schama writes with a verve that occasionally borders on the self-indulgent. After 612 pages of verbal pyrotechnics some readers may start to weary of the display, especially since the thesis of the book is constantly reiterated. But exhaustion is a small price to pay for the pleasure of reading him, say, in the meaty passage in which he contrasts the moral qualities of the national dishes of England and the Netherlands:

Roast beef was the man of action’s heroic dish, commingling muscle and blood, energy and power. The great stews of the Netherlands were more to the taste of ruminative humanism: patiently assembled, eclectic in content, moderately spiced, slowly cooked and even more deliberately eaten.

The Dutch hotpot, he continues, repeating his general thesis yet again, was “copious rather than gluttonous, modest rather than mean: the national stew was the perfect way to sanction abundance without risking retribution for greed.”

Schama is similarly lavish in his use of visual images as historical evidence. Indeed, his readiness to treat images with the same respect as written texts is characteristically bold for a historian. The study of works of art as part of the history of the early modern period is clearly increasing, as can be seen in recent books by such historians as Richard Goldthwaite and, in the field of Dutch social history itself, J.M. Montias.1 However, these writers are primarily concerned with art as a commodity and see the artistic achievement of a period within a network of social and economic constraints that both stimulate and limit creative activity. Schama uses art more like a conventional art historian, viewing it as “illuminating an interior world as much as illustrating an exterior one.”

However, in the field of Dutch art history these days, “conventional” does not mean “safe.” In recent years, the history of Dutch seventeenth-century painting, and especially genre painting, has become a battleground. For a long time, Dutch genre paintings were taken at face value as reasonably accurate representations of daily life in the republic. Typical is a famous remark of Théophile Thoré written in 1858: Dutch art, he said, is a “sort of photography of their great seventeenth century, of the people and the things, the feelings and habits, of all that was going on at the time.”

About a hundred years would pass before scholars looked at Dutch genre scenes with new eyes, and what they saw lay beneath the surface, as it were, of the carefully composed domestic paintings of ter Borch, de Hooch, and Metsu, to name only three of the artists who specialized in scenes of daily life. The groundwork of the new interpretation was laid in 1953, when Panofsky published his influential book Early Netherlandish Painting. Analyzing pictures by the great Flemish masters of the fifteenth century, Panofsky identified a phenomenon he called “disguised symbolism,” by which sacred meaning was invested in the commonplace. One of the best-known applications of the idea is Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (London, National Gallery), which Panofsky interpreted as a glorification of the sacrament of marriage. The key to the interpretation is the motif of the clasped hands of Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne Cenami, which was associated with the ritual of marital oath-taking as prescribed by canon law. Once the significance of the hand clasp is known, the mundane objects in the picture disclose their hidden meaning—the burning candle becomes the marriage candle and a symbol of the all-seeing Christ; the crystal beads and spotless mirror are familiar symbols of Marian purity; the little dog is an accepted emblem of marital faith; and so on.

Disguised symbolism came to be viewed as a magic device that empowered the user to convert base realities into moral verities, and it was soon being used to uncover the hidden meanings of Dutch seventeenth-century painting. The best-known and most adept practitioner of the method is the Dutch art historian Eddy de Jongh, whose book of 1967, Zinne-en minnebeelden in de schilderkunst van de zeventiende eeuw, is generally recognized as a fundamental work in revising the realist notion of Dutch genre painting. However, de Jongh was but one of a number of Dutch scholars who, in the 1960s and 1970s, turned the meaning of Dutch painting inside out.

Using contemporary printed sources, particularly emblem books, popular literature, and engravings with inscriptions, to interpret scenes and objects of everyday life, these writers worked out a new conception of genre painting in which each picture, like a stern Calvinist preacher, exhorted the citizens of the republic on the wages of sin and the rewards of virtue. To take but one example, in a subtle article entitled “Grape Symbolism in Paintings of the 16th and 17th Centuries,” de Jongh examined a series of pictures showing a woman holding a bunch of grapes by the stem.2 De Jongh turned to the works of Jacob Cats, whose books of cautionary poems made him the most popular moralist of the age. By referring to the moralizing illustrations to Cats’s work—the “emblems” showing the nuances of good and bad behavior—de Jongh was able to demonstrate the meaning of the motif as a symbol of chastity or maidenly virtue.

The interpretation of Dutch genre painting through such emblems proved to be dangerously easy, however, and uncritical applications of the method soon began to reduce great works of art to the level of Cats’s pedestrian poetry. A corrective was needed, as de Jongh himself acknowledged, but nothing seems to have prepared the world of Dutch art-historical scholarship for Svetlana Alpers’s The Art of Describing.3 Four years have passed since it appeared, but it has lost none of its power to stimulate and infuriate its readers.

The extraordinary impact of The Art of Describing has several explanations, but probably the most important is the answer it provides to this question: What are the distinctive elements of Dutch painting and how did they come into being? Alpers suggests that the answer will not be found in humanistic or other literary sources, a method devised for the analysis of Italian painting but irrelevant in her view to Northern European art in general and Dutch art in particular. Instead she sees Dutch art as sharing a fundamental Northern interest in describing and mapping the visible world. Painting, optics, and cartography are all inter-related manifestations of the Dutch “visual culture.” As an art dedicated to the principles of rational sight, Dutch painting conceals neither a moral nor anything else from the viewer.

Many specialists in Dutch art have credited Alpers with raising an important issue, but they have considered her thesis to be supported by partial and arbitrary evidence.4 Nevertheless, The Art of Describing is superb polemical writing. Consciously aligning herself with the revisionists in current art history, Alpers seems more intent on discrediting iconographical interpretation than on providing a new foundation for the study of Dutch art. When combined with her idiosyncratic method, this polemical position converts her book into an elusive target, yet an ever-present admonition to those who believe that Dutch art offers something more sustaining than a slice of Sir Francis Bacon.

It follows as a consequence of Schama’s decision to use visual images, and use them extensively (The Embarrassment of Riches has 314 illustrations), that he must take sides in the debate. Readers who remember his praising comment on the jacket of The Art of Describing may be surprised to discover that he has cast his lot with the iconographers. But as one who sees Dutch society engaged in a tug of war between the values of Erasmus and Calvin, he has no choice. Despite the courtesy he has displayed to Alpers, his book can be read in part as a sustained rebuttal to her vision of Dutch art as an extension of the natural sciences.

Schama, unlike Alpers, takes his examples from a wide range of images. Paintings abound, of course, particularly works by Jan Steen and Frans Hals. But he also makes good use of Dutch prints, which, because of their wide circulation, were probably the most important vehicle for didactic instruction among the visual arts. Dutch prints are unmatched in the seventeenth century for the vitality and variety of the imagery and, when used with circumspection, as here, are crucial for explaining paintings and drawings, as well as illustrating the value system of the society. Many of the prints showing domestic life and the behavior of women and children are drawn from the anonymous illustrations to Cats’s books, although we see examples by such fine printmakers as Romeyn de Hooghe as well. Schama also refers to architecture, sculpture, and even stained glass to show how political and moral ideas were diffused by images over the physical and mental landscape of the republic.

Sometimes Schama uses visual material in a purely illustrative way to give a sense of the time, the place, and the people. We see the landmarks of Amsterdam—the Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, the Bourse and the Port—and also the country houses of the patricians, portraits of William the Silent, battle scenes, ship-wrecks, and the bursting of dikes. Much more interesting, and pertinent to Schama’s arguments, are interpretations of images as repositories of values. True, there is no denying that many of the paintings (the prints, many of which come from books or were issued with accompanying titles, are more apt to lay the message on the line) have a “descriptive” as well as “prescriptive” value, to use the overworked terms of the debate among art historians. But it is clear that the Dutch liked to “read” paintings as well as look at them, a custom that was well-nigh universal in the seventeenth century. The Dutch artists enhanced the use of art for moralizing purposes by devising realistic formulas for depicting virtuous and sinful conduct. Now that these types of painting are being identified and classified, as in the work of Eddy de Jongh, it can be seen that the symbolism was no more “disguised” than the neighbor’s child in a Halloween costume.

Probably the most effective examples of art in the service of cultural history are found in Schama’s discussion of domestic life, where almost half of the illustrations are clustered. (It is annoying and inconvenient that reference numbers to the illustrations are not given in the text.) Here Schama, by drawing on his resources as a cultural historian, can expand the possibilities for interpreting pictures. For instance, he considers the view of modern historians that there was a linear “evolution from ‘patriarchal’ to ‘companionate’ styles of marriage” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But in Holland, he argues, there was at first a “complicated mingling” of the two sentiments, which is better seen in visual rather than textual evidence. In Frans Hals’s portrait of a couple informally posed in a park, Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (1622), conventional motifs—ivy and thistle—“allude to proper marriage roles.” But “despite the crowding of this formal, symbolic visual vocabulary, it is the affectionate pleasure of married companionship that remains the most arresting feature of the painting’s tone.” Forty years later, when Hals came to paint another couple, Stephanus Geraerdt and Isabella Coymans, the “companionate” concept had taken hold, as the matched portraits convincingly show. “Neither he [Hals] nor, presumably, they had any inhibitions about turning the figures in half profile to meet each other’s gaze…. They feast their eyes on each other with pleasuring smiles.” It is, Schama comments, “a fresh moment in the history of European marriage,” and his analysis deepens our understanding of the pictures as well as our notion of matrimonial relationships in Holland.

Even more effective is Schama’s deft use of imagery in his account of the “republic of children.” His point of departure is Lawrence Stone’s thesis that, in Schama’s words, the “crushingly high rates of infant mortality induced a kind of protective callousness in parents and siblings that expressed itself in stoical resignation or even indifference.” Against this he convincingly places evidence drawn from contemporary texts and pictures, including Gabriel Metsu’s Sick Child, in the Rijksmuseum, which, “were there no other scrap of evidence available…would stand all by itself as the most eloquent testimony imaginable to the tender pain felt by Dutch adult culture for its threatened schaapjes [children].”

With its emphasis on social history, the book offers only a partial view of the full range of Dutch art in the seventeenth century. Landscapes are absent and still life is represented only by a few examples Rembrandt makes a brief appearance, but Vermeer is left out of the book entirely. And the Italianate painters of the later part of the century, Nicolaes Berchem and Karel Dujardin, who do not seem to fit Alpers’s nationalistic-naturalistic premise, are also slighted by Schama. Indeed, the weighty contribution of Italian to Dutch art remains in need of consideration. The Cambridge historian Charles Wilson, whose book on Dutch civilization is a kind of springboard for Schama, puts his finger on a central point to which Schama could have given more attention, even if it somewhat reduces the apparent singularity of Dutch high culture:

The Dutch had also helped to transmit to Northern Europe much that was culturally Mediterranean in art, architecture, medicine, mathematics and philosophy. Defoe had described them as “the factors and brokers of Europe,” but they were the middlemen of culture as well as trade.

Schama’s emphasis on content, which is inherent in a work of cultural history, means that formal analysis tends to be bypassed, although at times it might have helped to enrich the interpretation and give us a deeper sense of the states of mind of both the artists and their audiences. For instance, it adds something to the appreciation of Metsu’s Sick Child to notice, as Christopher Brown does in his excellent study of Dutch genre painting, that the “depiction of the mother’s tender care has strong and profound echoes of the subject of the Virgin and Child.”

But these remarks take us beyond the stated intentions of the author, which are to reconstruct “the physical and mental bric-a-brac that describe a culture,” or, more solemnly, to undertake a “descriptive enterprise that emphasizes social process, habits rather than institutions,” with the aim of revealing a dynamic society that thrived on the very contradictions which bedeviled it. In writing a book that is rich in insights and expression, Schama has rescued the seventeenth-century Dutch people from gloomy stereotypes and restored them to life. And if this were not accomplishment enough, he has also restored a sense of balance to the study of Dutch art and offered a model of “companionate” marriage between art history and social history.

This Issue

January 21, 1988