Love and tears in the Golden Age

Art-historical publications are not always thought of as enthralling and entertaining literature. Academics tend to write for their colleagues and not for a wider audience. The Hague's Painters of the Golden Age is a mine of art-historical information and presents a host of new facts. To give this data a little zest, Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder decided to approach the old masters as inhabitants of the city: as ordinary people concerned with everyday affairs. A glimpse behind the scenes at the changing fortunes of The Hague's painters in the Golden Age.

Tightknit community
Most painters in The Hague came from an artisan background. They formed a tightknit social group: buying and selling houses from one another, acting as witnesses for each other, sealing friendships and beginning businesses together. These ties were all the closer because of the proximity in which they lived. Particularly popular streets were Bierkade and Veerkade. Often their spouse would also come from the same neighbourhood and many future artists started as pupils of their father or some other member of the family. The best way of completing training was a stay in Italy. But in Rome too, prospective masters sought each other's company and formed a club of their own, the bentvueghels. Free from parental control, there was a good deal of partying and drinking. The often absurd nicknames of some of these artists, which have survived to this day, date from these student years.

Investments and loans
In general, painting was no goldmine. Debts were more a rule than an exception. Apart from the wealthy Adriaen Hanneman, who worked for foreign courts and the highest social circles in The Hague, most painters were restricted to a tight budget or forced to augment their incomes by taking on other work. Extra money might be earned by teaching apprentices, dealing in art, repairing or restoring paintings, or selling painting materials. One or two others tried their hand with varying degrees of success in quite different fields. Jan Steen became a brewer and Otto Hackius joined up as an ensign in the Dutch army. Cornelis Moninckx took matters into his own hand when his finances turned sour: he became an assistant to a counterfeiter.

Jan van Goyen speculated in property. He had houses built on new sites in The Hague which he rented out, preferably to colleagues. But when he invested in the lucrative tulip market things all went horribly wrong. In 1637 the tulip bubble burst and the painter's finances took a nose dive. When he died, he left debts to the tune of 18,000 guilders. His widow and two daughters declined the estate.

Payments in kind
Artists often settled bills with retailers by payment in kind. In 1644, for example, Pieter van der Croos agreed with a baker that in return for a large marine painting he would receive free bread for twelve months. Some years later, his brother Anthony entered a similar arrangement. Abraham van Beijeren, who painted fish still lifes, wanted to pay his tailor in kind in 1652. The latter refused to deliver the garments as arranged, complaining that the three paintings were overvalued. It was only after the portraitist Adriaen Hanneman had assessed their value and an independent member of the tailor's guild had assessed that of the garments, that the goods were exchanged.

Love and marriage
Young lovers often encountered less than enthusiastic parents (-in-law) on the path to the altar. When Paulus Potter fell in love with the girl next door, Adriana, and asked her father, master carpenter Claes Dircksz. van Balkeneynde, for her hand, the response was not immediately positive. According to biographer Houbraken, Van Balkeneynde was not particularly impressed by the painter's specialisation: if only Paulus had painted people; but animals, that went against the grain. It was not until friends and influential figures had assured him that Potter was a decent person, that he allowed the young painter to marry his daughter. Potter was living in a house on Dunne Bierkade, which he rented from his neighbour, Jan van Goyen. The house is still standing, today it is number 17.

Jan Steen was also to cause his father-in-law a headache, according to Houbraken. Steen worked in Jan van Goyen's studio and fell for the charms of his daughter, Margriet. The young Steen was well liked by Van Goyen who would sometimes take him out of an evening, after he had finished painting, to drink a beer and chew the fat. Jan liked his master too, but even more his daughter, to whom he acquired such a passionate attachment that she gradually began to swell. Jan Steen had made Grietje pregnant and she urged him to tell their parents and to quickly tie the knot. So the next time Steen told Van Goyen that Griet was with child. The shocked father asked whether he knew this for certain, to which Steen replied: well yes ... I ought to know, I caused it myself and I want to marry her. And indeed they were married in 1649. Later, doubt was cast on the veracity of the anecdote, since their oldest son, Thaddeus, was only born in 1651. Perhaps the story was really about another of Van Goyen's daughters, who married the still-life painter Jacques de Claeuw in 1649 and whose first child was baptised two months later.

Personal losses and family crises
Family life brought its share of grief and worry. In the 17th century, cot and childbirth deaths were frequent occurrences. The painter/burgomaster Dirck van der Lisse saw half his children and his first wife go to early graves. With a sense of awe he noted in his diary when his wife died in 1646: May the Lord God Almighty allow that through her Example we be able to die as she did. Two years later he remarried and had another two daughters. With the loss of his two earlier children still fresh in his memory, he wrote as he noted the birth of his youngest children: May God Almighty allow that this child grow in His Grace. His prayer was not to be answered, however, as the youngest died within a week.

Disobedient adolescents were of course also a source of worry. Portrait artist Caspar Netscher had three sons, of whom the eldest, Theodorus, was something of a handful. Caspar's wife Margaretha Godijn ruled her family with a rod of iron, and one day literally so. Boiling once again with anger, she hit Theodorus so violently with a poker that his nose was almost permanently damaged and horribly knocked about. By 1680 he had had enough of his strict mother and left for Paris with Adriaen Helvetius, son of the famous doctor of The Hague. They appear to have lived the life of Reilly there, happy and unconstrained, without a penny to their names. Eventually the two miscreants returned to the straight and narrow: Adriaen became a physician to Louis XIV and Theodorus a famous portraitist.

Gossip and slander often led to an official complaint being lodged with a public notary. For example, in 1660 the painter of trompe l'oeils (tricks of the eye) Anthonie Leemans was forced, on the insistence of Catharina, housewife of Jacobus Croost, to declare that he had never stated that he, Leemans, had behaved indecently towards her. As a wild man Leemans already had a poor reputation. In 1653 he had been convicted of having attacked and stabbed a person in the neck at the Delft fair. Around 1665 he was again involved in a fight in which a friend was so badly wounded that he died some days later. Even Anthonie's son declared in 1687: You knew my father for the man he was, when he'd drunk his fill, he would come riding into my house like an animal and upsetting my wife.

Romantic adventures were also preserved in the notarial records. Jan de Baen had many an amorous encounter before and during his marriage. In 1671 one of his affairs ended rather unfortunately. It was on a snowy night and De Baen made his escape on stockinged feet from the home of burgomaster Johan Maes. His shoes were still on the ledge of the open window. But even worse: in his desperation to remain unseen he had wounded one of his fingers so badly that he subsequently had to make do with nine. In the literature this lost digit was attributed to an attack by rival artists.

Commissions and services
Painters regularly acquired commissions from official bodies through friends and relatives. For example, the portraitist Evert van der Maes was commissioned to paint group portraits for the St Sebastian militia corps because the captain of the company, Seger van der Maes, was his brother. Potter also received commissions through family connections. His influential father-in-law, Van Balckeneynde, introduced him into Hague society. This was how Potter met Maurits van Nassau-Siegen and Amalia van Solms, who invited him to paint a chimneypiece at Noordeinde palace. Eventually the draft painting was rejected after a confidante had drawn the princess's attention to the urinating cow: a far too unpleasant object [...] for Her Majesty to have to view every day.

These anecdotes about the everyday life of the 17th-century masters bring the art world to life. It gives the painters a sense of individual recognisability, with both good and bad traits, but in either case as people. Their joy and grief, pleasure and anger, cares and successes, were much like our own today. Clearly, emotions are universal and timeless.