Skip to main content
Scholarly Essay

Leiden Fijnschilders and the Local Art Market in the Golden Age

Print

Bakker, Piet. “Leiden Fijnschilders and the Local Art Market in the Golden Age.” In The Leiden Collection Catalogue. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. New York.

https://www.theleidencollection.com/archive/ (accessed December 19, 2018).

This page is available on the site’s Archive. PDF of every version of this page is available on the Archive, and the Archive is managed by a permanent URL. Archival copies will never be deleted. New versions are added only when a substantive change to the narrative occurs.

The year 1631 marked a turning point for painting in Leiden. An abrupt end came to a period during which, sustained by a favorable economy, the number of painters had grown without interruption. This growth began in all of the cities in the Dutch Republic () around 1610 and lasted until around mid-century in most of them. This was also true in Leiden, although it ground to a temporary halt in 1631 with the sudden departure of several painters, ushering in a period of artistic stagnation lasting close to a decade. By far the best-known painter to leave Leiden was Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) (), who moved to Amsterdam to run the workshop of the famous art dealer Hendrik Uylenburgh (ca. 1587–1661). His friend Jan Lievens (1607–74) () headed to London shortly thereafter in the hope of being appointed a court painter. In that year, Leiden lost even more painters who today rank among the most important of the seventeenth century. For instance, the highly successful landscapist Jan van Goyen (1596–1656) traded in his native city for The Hague; and even though the still-life painter Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606–84) was not born in Leiden, he had been working there for quite some time when he left to try his luck in Antwerp in 1631.

This exodus cannot be attributed to deteriorating economic circumstances. On the contrary, around 1630 the textile industry in Leiden—the mainstay of the local economy well into the eighteenth century—entered a period of spectacular expansion that would last until the late 1650s. The reasons for leaving, thus, would have been personal, motivated by the belief of finding greater success elsewhere; this is certainly true for Rembrandt and Lievens. Regardless, this loss of talent was a serious drain on Leiden’s artistic life. By the end of the 1630s, however, the situation changed with the success of Gerrit Dou (1613–75) (), whose star would rise rapidly in Leiden and shine beyond the country’s borders. Dou would found a local school of painting in Leiden that would extend late into the eighteenth century—Louis de Moni (1698–1771) was the last important artist—whose “members,” since the nineteenth century, have been known as the “Leidse fijnschilders” (Leiden fine painters). The term fijnschilder refers to a specific manner of painting: a highly precise and extremely detailed facture and a small-scale format. This essay examines their position in the local art market, as well as the liefhebbers, the “art lovers” or connoisseurs of their work. It will not, however, focus on the two leading Leiden fijnschilders Dou and Van Mieris, since they are discussed in separate essays. The artists considered in this essay are Quiringh van Brekelenkam (after 1622–ca. 1669), Jan van Staveren (1613/4–69), Dominicus van Tol (1630/5–76), Peeter Leermans, Jacob Toorenvliet (1640–1719), Pieter van Slingeland (1640–91), Carel de Moor (1655–1738), the brothers Jan (1660–90) and Willem van Mieris (1662–1747), and Frans van Mieris the Younger (1689–1763), all represented in The Leiden Collection. Before discussing these fijnschilders, however, it is important to understand the nature of the Leiden painters’ community and the changes it underwent in the course of the seventeenth century.

The Artistic Climate in Leiden in the Seventeenth Century

Until 1578, painting in Leiden, as elsewhere in the Netherlands, was done on commission. With its constant need for altarpieces and other devotional paintings, the Catholic Church was the most important patron. When after 1578 the Dutch Reformed Church became the official religion in the Northern Netherlands, demand for devotional paintings virtually stopped, although altarpieces and devotional pictures continued to be made for “hidden churches.” The Lutherans similarly felt the need to decorate their churches, from which Joris van Schooten (1587–1651)—himself a Lutheran—profited. Artists, however, had to look for new markets. They found them in part in public institutions on a local and regional level. For example, in 1594 the Leiden town council engaged Claesz van Swanenburg (1537–1614) to paint seven monumental allegories for the Saaihal, which occupied the artist until 1612. Other institutions, too, engaged artists. Leiden still boasts six civic guard paintings by Joris van Schooten and several group portraits of regents by Pieter Leermans, Mathijs Naiveu (1647–1726), and Carel de Moor, among others.

Interestingly, except for Rembrandt and Lievens, the stadholder’s court in The Hague did not patronize Leiden artists. The fact that the court never granted Gerrit Dou or Frans van Mieris commissions, despite their international reputation and the interest shown them by foreign rulers, may relate to the personal preference of Frederick Henry and Amalia van Solms for painters from Utrecht, Haarlem and the Southern Netherlands. Timing, however, was also a factor. Dou and Van Mieris garnered their great fame during the first Stadholderless period, which lasted from 1650 to 1672.

Leiden painters found their most important new patrons among burghers, particularly for portraiture () and (). While burghers only rarely commissioned portraits of themselves before 1600, they did so with increasing frequency in the seventeenth century. Moreover, portraits were no longer the sole preserve of the elite. They could be ordered in all shapes and sizes and for every imaginable price. In Leiden up to thirty percent of all of the paintings in homes on and nearby the elegant Rapenburg were portraits.

The Anonymous Mass Market and the Call for a Guild

Most Leiden painters pinned their hopes on the free market, which had become very active since the beginning of the Twelve Year’s Truce in 1609. An important consequence of the suspension of hostilities was that the free movement of people and goods between the Northern and the Southern Netherlands was possible again for the first time since the outbreak of the revolt. The Truce was a windfall for the art dealers from the Southern Netherlands, who crossed the border to the Republic in droves to sell their wares. They not only did so at the various weekly and annual fairs—the only days on which dealers from elsewhere were officially allowed to trade their goods—but also outside of the designated market days. This trade proved highly lucrative, in part because the dealers could offer pictures they had brought with them for relatively low prices.

Initially, the painters in the Northern Netherlands fell back on a proven recipe to protect their interests: protecting local production by prohibiting imports. Painters in all of the cities of the Republic petitioned their local governments to protect them from foreign imports. They generally found a ready ear, and were permitted to amend the guild privileges, mostly stemming from the Middle Ages, to suit their needs.

In Leiden the situation was somewhat different from the other Dutch cities. In 1609 a group of painters presented itself at the town hall to found a painter’s guild. Despite their efforts, the Leiden painters failed to convince the town council. The burgomasters, however, did prohibit the import of paintings for a year. They also promised to prolong the prohibition annually should it prove necessary, which they did until 1617, when a rise in local demand for paintings made the prohibition unnecessary. By then Leiden artists had also discovered that specialization and/or a cost-reducing painting technique resulted in higher production and lower prices, which placed them in a better position in the market.

In 1642 Leiden artists once again sought to found a painter’s guild, this time to protect local artists from competition from their compatriots. The painters were enraged that “diversche personen woonachtich in andere Steden ende Provincien hen onderstaen dagelijcx binnen dese Stadt te komen met hunne Schilderijen, ende daer mede buijten d’Ordinarisen jaermarckten, niet alleen voorstaen, maer oock deselfde presenteren by openbaere vendue te vercoopen, ende te gelde te maecken: ende in sonderheijt met deselfde door dese Stadt omme-loopen ende vercoopen” (various persons living in other cities and provinces force them [the local artists] to endure their daily presence with their paintings in this city, and this in part outside of the official annual fairs, and not only this, they present them [the paintings] for public sale to make money; and especially wander around the city peddling them [their wares]). On 14 April 1642, the city council forbade non-Leiden painters from selling paintings, prints, and drawings in Leiden outside of the annual fairs.

The request to establish a guild was submitted just two months after the publication of Lof der Schilderkunst, a speech the painter Philips Angel delivered at a gathering of colleagues and art lovers in Leiden on 18 October 1641. The desire for a guild was fueled both by the need for protection and the desire for social status. Angel’s treatise was intended to demonstrate the relevance and dignity of painting, and the career of Gerrit Dou, Leiden’s leading artist in these years, was his greatest example. According to Angel, an artist’s status was determined primarily by the deference wealthy art lovers accorded an artist. A special example of such homage, one without peer in the Republic, was the astonishing amount of 500 guilders that “the incomparable art lover” Pieter Spiering paid Dou annually for the right of first refusal for any painting he produced. That Angel held up Dou’s work to his confreres as an example worth following is thus entirely understandable.

First Pupils, or Followers?

Around 1640 Dou was by far the most successful painter in Leiden. The price of his work could run as high as a thousand guilders. Even without Angel’s encouragement he would have been a model worth emulating. That Dou had pupils is certain, but upon reading the recollections of Dou’s workshop by the painter Joachim Sandrart (1606–88), it is unclear how a pupil with average talent could have learned the craft from a teacher who was so utterly absorbed in his own work. Dou had such high personal standards when it came to discipline and neatness that one wonders whether he was qualified to pass on the craft to others. Typifying his attitude to work was an uncompromising perfectionism. Dou lived for his art; he was absent from his workshop only when weather conditions prevented him from working. Moreover, he performed certain tasks himself that other colleagues delegated to their pupils. For instance, he prepared all of his own paints and ultimately ground the pigments on glass, according to Houbraken. He made his own brushes, and was so afraid of irregularities in the paint surface from dust that after painting he stored his palette, brushes and paint in a dust-free cabinet. When he resumed work the next day, he waited as long as was necessary for the dust to settle, and only then would he take out his equipment from the cabinet with upmost care and begin to paint. That he was also fearful of dust while painting emerges from some of his self-portraits, in which can be seen how he protected himself against it by placing a parasol above his easel ().

In 1642 Leiden was home to around thirty fine art painters, a number of whom worked in Dou’s technique, among them Jacob van Spreeuwen (1609/10–after 1650), Johan van Staveren (1613/14–69) (), Pieter Cornelisz van Egmondt (ca. 1614–64), and Isaac Koedijck (1617/18–ca. 1668). An anonymous, late eighteenth-century Leiden manuscript asserts that Dou trained Van Spreeuwen (“Discipel van G. Douw” [disciple of G. Dou]), Van Staveren (“de kunst geleerd bij Gerard Douw, en volgde zijn manier” [learned the art from Gerrit Dou, and followed his manner]); and Koedijck (“ook [was] uit het school van Gerard Douw” [also [was] from the school of Gerrit Dou]). The author of this manuscript, who did not mention Van Egmondt, included Koedijck, Van Staveren and Van Spreeuwen in a list of Dou pupils.

Surprisingly, if one is to judge from a study of seventeenth-century Leiden estate inventories that contain at least one attributed painting, these Dou followers do not seem to have been very successful in selling their paintings. As seen in Table 1 (), a total of 3,756 paintings are listed in these inventories, 1,950 of which carry an attribution. These works were attributed to 465 different artists, 147 of whom were from Leiden or worked there for some time. Of this first generation of Dou’s students, only Van Staveren is mentioned often enough in these documents that his name recurs in Table 2 ().

Van Spreeuwen is mentioned but 15 times, while Van Egmondt’s name appears only 7 times. Koedijck’s name is missing entirely; not only in Leiden, but also in Amsterdam, where he probably spent more time between 1640 and 1652 than in his hometown. However, if one is to judge by the number of inventories in which works by these painters occur, their place in the Leiden artistic firmament seems even less significant (see Table 3 ()).

For example, the majority of Van Staveren’s paintings belonged to a single owner who, moreover, was related to him: the clergyman Eduard Westerneyn, the husband of the painter’s sister Alida van Staveren, who had lived with her brother until she married in 1636 and was also his sole heir.

A cautionary note is nevertheless called for here since, with the exception of Van Spreeuwen, most of Dou’s followers practiced a second occupation that provided an additional source of income. Van Staveren came from a regent family, sat on the town council, and even became a burgomaster. Koedijck, too, was from a distinguished family, and was called a “merchant” on several occasions. Van Egmondt was also a merchant, a draper. He initially lived in comfortable circumstances, but went bankrupt in 1650, at which time he may have begun to paint seriously: he paid his first contribution to the Guild of Saint Luke only in 1661, just three years before his death. Thus, with the exception of Van Spreeuwen, painting was not the main pursuit of the first generation of fijnschilders working in Dou’s manner. This craft did not determine their social success or failure.

Nevertheless, the work of these artists probably found greater favor than would appear from the inventories. For instance, in the above-mentioned manuscript, Van Staveren is glossed as follows: “men hier te lande [pleeg] veele fraaijen stukjes van hem te zien, waar in men zeijde dat zijn meester [ = Dou] de laatste hand zoude gelegd hebben” (one was wont to say that they had seen many beautiful pieces by him in this country, to which it was said that his master [Dou] had put the finishing touches). However, “[d]e konsthandelaars hebben de meesten en besten (…) al overlang opgekogt en buijtenlands voor schilderingen van Douw verkogt” (the art dealers had already long ago bought up the most and best of them […] and sold them abroad as paintings by Dou). This situation applied to Van Spreeuwen as well, of whom “[m]en zegt, dat er hier te lande stukjes van hem plegen te zijn, die zeer na by die van zijn meester kwamen, en door handelaars naar elders gevoerd zijnde, voor die van Douw zouden verkogt zijn” (it is said that in this country there are pieces that come very close to those by his master, which having been shipped elsewhere by dealers are apparently sold as being by Dou). The actions of these art dealers may explain why few works by these painters are found in the Netherlands. It also seems plausible that the export of their paintings assumed serious proportions after Dou’s death in 1675.

Another possible explanation for the dearth of references to these artists in Leiden inventories is that the attributions of their works were not known. Then, as now, it would have been difficult for a notary’s clerk to distinguish between the work of Van Spreeuwen, for example, and that of other Dou followers. Their paintings, particularly their genre scenes, may have been listed as “anonymous.”

Adriaen van Gaesbeeck, Abraham de Pape, and Quiringh van Breklenkam

Towards the end of the 1640s, three more fijnschilders joined the ranks of those mentioned above: Adriaen van Gaesbeeck (1621–50), Abraham de Pape (ca. 1620–66), and Quiringh van Brekelenkam (ca. 1622–after 1669). As in the case of other fijnschilders, one seeks in vain for their names in Houbraken’s Schouburgh, although they are similarly noted by the anonymous eighteenth-century biographer who calls them pupils of Dou. The author is brief with respect to Van Gaesbeeck, who died young: “Hij is al mede uit het school van G. Douw, dog blauwer en kouder van coloriet, gelijk ook wat swaarmoediger” (He, too, is from the school of G. Dou, although with a bluer and colder palette, and somewhat more somber). The author also deals summarily with De Pape, who “heeft zijn stukjes zeer uijtvoerig bewerkt in de manier van zijn meester” (who fashioned his pieces very elaborately in the manner of his master). This observation finds confirmation not only in De Pape’s extant work, but in the inventory of his stock. Among the almost 100 paintings in it, there were at least 16 copies of works by Dou. Descriptions of subjects were present, too, such as “een vroutgen die een haen plockt” (a woman plucking a chicken), “een vioolspeelder” (a violin player), “een kleen hermitgen” (a small hermit), and “een spelde werckster” (a bone lacemaker).

It is noteworthy that De Pape’s stock was also large in scope, which raises the question of whether he, like Van Staveren, may have had difficulties in selling his paintings. Nevertheless, it is evident that De Pape did not have to make a living from painting. He had inherited so much real estate that he could live very comfortably from the rental income. Aside from the twenty-seven houses he owned and a small fortune in bonds, he possessed a large library, which indicates that he must have been a cultivated individual.

The position of Adriaen van Gaesbeeck in Table 2 () is also inflated, since forty-three pictures are part of a single estate, that of his father Cornelis van Gaesbeeck, who was called a deputy bailiff in 1652. Given that Adriaen died in 1650, it may be assumed yet again that this represents his stock. As Van Gaesbeeck was active as a painter for only four years, the limited distribution of his work may have been due to the brevity of his career.

The first fijnschilder to develop a personal style was Quiringh van Brekelenkam. According to the anonymous eighteenth-century biographer, Van Brekelenkam followed Dou “op eene lugtige manier” (in a light manner). Dou’s influence is evident in Brekelenkam’s work, but Hofstede de Groot noted correctly that Brekelenkam derived his use of color, compositional structure, and rendering of figures from Gabriel Metsu, his through-views in interiors from Pieter de Hooch, and his chiaroscuro from Nicolaes Maes. Brekelenkam succeeded in molding all of these influences into a style that garnered much success in Leiden (). His name is listed next to fifty-five paintings in no fewer than twenty inventories. It is striking that two individuals owned an exceptional number of his paintings: the wealthy Catholic merchant Hendrick Bugge van Ring had eighteen pieces, and the innkeeper Pieter van Grient eleven, possibly as many as sixteen.

Despite this success, Brekelenkam ended his years in poverty. According to his eighteenth-century “biographer,” Brekelenkam had a large family which required a high production rate to support, “tgeen oorzaak is geweest dat veele slegte stukjes van hem inde wereld zijn gekomen, die hij maar schielijk afgeroffeld heeft om maar geld in handen te krijgen” (leading him to produce many bad paintings, which he simply dashed off to earn some money). Indeed the prices that he charged for his work were of a very different order than those commanded by Dou. The value of the assessed paintings in inventories varies from four to sixteen guilders, prices that do not necessarily imply “dashed off” work, but certainly indicate that Brekelenkam was not working for the high end of the market. Brekelenkam probably also suffered from the crisis in the art market—already felt in other cities for some time—that affected Leiden in the 1660s. Although he was not the only fijnschilder who faced financial difficulties, the hardships were particularly acute in his case because his social background was less elevated than that of, for example, De Pape and Van Staveren. Brekelenkam’s father was a simple tailor without any assets.

Years of Flowering and the First Signs of Decline

In the 1640s, when the second generation of fijnschilders appeared in Leiden, there were no signs of a crisis in the art market. On the contrary, to judge from the growing number of active painters, it would have appeared that the city was on the verge of a period of great flowering. Although the departure of Rembrandt, Lievens and other preeminent painters in the early 1630s did initially lead to artistic stagnation in Leiden, the early 1640s welcomed the portraitist Pieter Dubordieu (1609/10–78), the still-life painter Pieter de Ring (ca. 1615–60), and the portrait and history painter Abraham van den Tempel (1622/3–72). Not long thereafter, Jan Steen (1626–79) and Gabriel Metsu (1629–67) () also became active in Leiden. The local painters’ community would reach its maximum level in 1649 with a total of fifty-four painters.

The gradual rise in the number of painters would ultimately lead to some problems. As mentioned above, in 1642 the request of the Leiden painters to found a guild had been denied, but the town council would grant it in 1648. Prior to this date, thirty-one Leiden artists had joined together in 1633 in an informal group that met every two weeks, at which times they recorded the sales of their paintings. They also complained about the swelling stream of paintings from elsewhere, which undoubtedly led the town council to permit the painters’ community to found a guild. Yet it never became a guild in the real sense of the word. While the painters annually elected to the board called themselves “deken” (dean) or “hoofdman” (headman), in the eyes of the burgomasters they were simply “opzienders” (supervisors), charged with regulating the painting trade.

Considerable quantities of paintings had been imported to Leiden for a long time, as is indicated by the large share of non-Leiden painters represented in the 258 Leiden estate inventories. Almost 49 percent of the 3,756 attributed paintings were works by non-Leiden artists. Many of these imported paintings came from Haarlem: of the 1,806 non-Leiden attributions, 693 (more than 38 percent) have a Haarlem provenance. This situation became acute in the early 1640s because of the marked rise in the number of artists in Leiden, who started saturating the market. A number of these artists had moved to Leiden from other cities. For example, three painters from Delft settled in Leiden in the 1640s, and no less than nine in the 1650s, including in 1655 Hendrick van der Burgh (1627–88), the brother-in-law of Pieter de Hooch, and Barent Fabritius (1624–73), whose brother Carel had died in the disastrous gunpowder magazine explosion in Delft. Jan Steen, who had left Leiden earlier in 1649, also returned from Delft in 1657, although he only stayed in Leiden for a short period of time.

It seems as though in 1642 painters did not realize that the arrival of ever more new colleagues would overwhelm the Leiden market. Although the actual decline set in only in the 1670s, when the Leiden textile industry had passed its peak, the first signs were visible already in the 1650s, when more painters left the city than arrived there from elsewhere. Gabriel Metsu was also among those who left Leiden in the 1650s. Around 1655 he found his way to Amsterdam, where the demand for paintings—judging from the number of painters—would stagnate only in the 1660s. Jan Steen left Leiden, once again, in 1660 and settled in Haarlem (). The painters who had earlier come from Delft, Van der Burgh and Fabritius, left for Amsterdam that same year, as did Abraham van den Tempel (1622/3–72). Moreover, the profession began to lose some of its appeal to the young local talent: the number of Leiden-born painters who established a workshop in the 1650s was significantly lower than in the preceding decade, a trend that persisted in the following decades.

Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris had no need or desire to leave Leiden. They did not work for the open market but for a select group of art lovers who, even when they did not live in Leiden, knew how to find their way to their workshops. Leiden was not the only city where the diminishing demand for new paintings would seriously affect employment opportunities: ultimately, not a single city would escape the decline.

Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt, Jacob Toorenvliet, and Dominicus van Tol

Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt (1640–91), like Frans van Mieris, belongs to the generation of Leiden fijnschilders who embarked on their careers between around 1655 and 1665. Like Van Mieris, Van Slingelandt was a pupil of Dou; the city chronicler, Simon van Leeuwen, held them both in high regard: in 1672 he noted “dat sy haar Meester gelijk werden, ende waar het mogelijk, te boven sullen gaan” (that they are equal to their master, and may possibly go on to surpass him). He had achieved fame as early as 1663, when the French traveler Balthasar de Monconys mentioned Van Slingelandt, only just then active as an independent painter, together with Dou and Van Mieris, creating the impression that he viewed them as equals. Slingelandt’s refined painting style is evident in his small-scale Portrait of a Man Reading a Book (), now in The Leiden Collection. It is thus not so surprising that along with paintings by Dou and Van Mieris, Cosimo de’ Medici also owned work by Van Slingelandt, even though no visit to his workshop is documented.

Van Leeuwen commented on the prices that Van Slingelandt charged for his work. When De Monconys offered the painter “60 escus” for a small painting, the painter demanded 400 guilders for it. Five years later, in 1668, his prices were even more exorbitant, as he charged 1500 guilders for a portrait. We associate these kinds of prices only with Dou and Van Mieris. Like them, he based his prices in part on the number of hours that he worked, which could add up. Regarding the above mentioned portrait, Houbraken noted that “hy een maand of zes weken heeft zitten schilderen over een Bef met kant” (he spent a month or six weeks painting a lace jabot).

All of this augured well for a successful career, yet in the end Van Slingelandt did not attain the same fame that Dou and Van Mieris enjoyed both in and outside of the Dutch Republic. Financially, too, his career left much to be desired. A contributing factor to his financial difficulties surely was “zyne tydslytende wyze van schilderen” (his time-consuming manner of painting), which kept production low.

Leiden estate inventories list only three owners of his paintings, with a total of seven works. Four of the paintings belonged to a single owner, the Mennonite cloth merchant Cornelis van Houck, who, at his death in 1684, possessed two portraits and “twee ebbehoute kasjes” (two ebony cases) by Van Slingelandt. The artist’s relationship with the cloth merchant must have been special, because Van Houck stood surety for him in a protracted legal battle over a portrait. In the wealthy Van Houck, Van Slingelandt may have hoped to find a benefactor comparable to De Bye (for Dou), but four paintings—no matter how expensive—are too few to justify such a conclusion. That estate inventories, however, do not convey every detail about the distribution of his work is evident from the fact that a few dozen portraits are attributed to the artist, indicating that he did not lack for work.

Two of Van Slingelandt’s contemporaries, the slightly older Dominicus van Tol (ca. 1635–76), and Jacob Toorenvliet (1640–1719), who also had studied under Dou, had less artistic success. Toorenvliet did not join the Guild of Saint Luke, probably because he worked in the workshop of his father Abraham Toorenvliet, the well-known glass painter. He would leave Leiden, not in 1670 as has always been assumed, but much earlier, in or shortly after 1662; and not for Rome (although he would visit the Eternal City) but Vienna (). What exactly prompted him to do so is hard to gauge. He set off for Vienna not long after a few pictures by Van Mieris and Dou entered the imperial collection, and perhaps thought that as a pupil of Dou he stood a good chance of finding an appointment at or close to the court. His hopes do not seem to have materialized; however, much is still unknown about Toorenvliet’s Vienna period.

Upon completing his training Van Tol, who was Dou’s nephew, may have worked for some time as his uncle’s assistant, for he joined the Guild of Saint Luke only in 1664, thus at a relatively advanced age. The earliest mention of a painting by him, “een nachtje” (a nocturnal scene), occurs in the 1665 estate inventory of the wine merchant Joris van der Lip. One such night scene is in The Leiden Collection: Boy with a Mousetrap by Candlelight (). According to the anonymous eighteenth-century biographer, of all of the fijnschilders, Van Tol “’t allernaast bij zijn ooms manier gekoomen en heeft zig daar bij gehouden” (most closely approximated his uncle’s manner and stuck with it). His public—the middle range of the market—was entirely different however. Interest in his work seems to have been limited. His move to Utrecht in 1669 appears to have been dictated by a lack of success. His situation did not improve when he reestablished himself again in Leiden in 1675. In fact, he continued to be dogged by debt, and when he died in 1676, his widow had to hand over his estate to his creditors.

Van Tol was not the only Leiden fijnschilder to feel the pinch in selling his work in the 1660s. Johannes van Swieten, whose pictures appear only in his own estate inventory, also experienced this difficulty in selling his works. Fortunately for him, his family was well off and he could switch to a different occupation. As of 1657 he is mentioned in the archives only as a cloth merchant. Ary de Vois—the only fijnschilder not trained in Leiden to be discussed here—could not ward off adversity after a promising start when he first settled in Leiden in 1653. Only eighteen of his paintings are found in six estate inventories, two of which were those of his colleagues Abraham Toorenvliet and Johannes van Swieten, who owned five and two of his paintings respectively. From other archival documents, De Vois appears to have regularly stood surety for others who borrowed large amounts. De Vois’ situation seems to have changed after 1673, when he divested some property, including fifty paintings, to settle a debt to his brother. From then on all of the documents relating to him concern financial problems.

The Decline Persists

The misfortunes encountered by painters such as Van Tol, Van Swieten, and perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent by Van Slingelandt and De Vois, were caused by a number of factors that affected the entire Dutch art market in the 1670s (Table 1 ()). The market for new paintings had simply become saturated, and there was ever less space for them on the walls of homes. The durability of works of art was also in part why painters were progressively troubled by the secondary market. Rather than paintings being distributed among heirs, probate estates came to be auctioned with increasing frequency, which meant that the supply of second-hand paintings rose proportionally. Bankruptcies, too, generated a growing supply of second-hand work and, given that this financial instability intensified in times of war, the supply around 1672 was enormous. Moreover, the shrinking economy reduced purchasing power, a development with disastrous consequences for the lower range of the market. When the economy collapsed in the Year of Disaster, the art market followed suit; it never recovered, except for the highest range, the one in which Dou and Van Mieris were active in Leiden.

Other contributing factors to this recession were new developments in interior design. Particularly influential were the refinements in the houses of the elite, the only group to remain unaffected by the shrinking economy; in fact, fortunes in this group only multiplied. Many wealthy individuals retired from business life or assumed full-time board positions. With increasing frequency, meetings were held in private homes, and making a good appearance became paramount. There was ever more to choose from to display wealth and status. Paintings had to vie for a place on the wall with other decorative objects, such as tapestries and gilt leather hangings, or luxury colonial wares such as porcelain and lacquer ware. Furthermore, painting experienced increasing competition from other types of painted work such as painted wall hangings, which became increasingly fashionable after 1660. Fixed paintings also appeared more often above doors and mantelpieces, and on ceilings. The growing demand for ceiling paintings and for painted ornamental decorations signaled the radically changing role of the fine art painter in interior display.

Just as earlier growth had followed an independent pattern in every city, so too did the period of decline. The turning point was first reached in Delft (see cities in Table 1 ()), which already took place in the early 1640s, thus well before the city witnessed the achievements of Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), Pieter de Hooch (1629–84), and Carel Fabritius (1622–54). In Leiden, this point was reached more than a decade later, around 1660. Between 1648, the year in which the Guild of Saint Luke was founded, and 1655, the number of painters hovered around fifty. In the next ten years there were always around forty painters active in Leiden, but this number only diminished thereafter, from thirty-nine in 1665 to eighteen in 1682 and around ten in the 1690s.

As can be seen in Table 1, the decline was not equally dramatic everywhere, but it was, nonetheless, definitive. The good times were gone once and for all after 1660, and fallout was inevitable. Several fine art painters switched to other professions. Others developed from specialists into generalists in hopes of attracting a broader public, or turned to decorating the houses of the wealthy. One such artist was Jan Mortel (1652–1719) who, according to the anonymous eighteenth-century biographer, began painting portraits in Leiden in 1672, but soon stopped in order “bloemen en fruijtstukken te maken, het zij voor schoorstenen of theetafels en al waar geld mede te winnen was” (to paint flower and fruit pieces, whether for overmantles or tea-tables, and anything that would make money). It is hardly surprising that in the last quarter of the century a boy would think twice about becoming a painter. More and more workshops stood empty because painters had either left the city or had died and their studios were no longer taken over by a new generation.

Table 2 () would seem to indicate that the fijnschilders as a group withstood the crisis fairly well, yet, as has been seen, the crisis had a serious financial impact on many fijnschilders. Not spared were members of the last generation of fijnschilders who, with the exception of Abraham Snaphaen (1651–91) and Jacob van der Sluijs (1660–1732), had trained under Dou or Van Mieris. Mathijs Naiveu (1647–1726), Bartholomeus Maton (1641/5–after 1693) and Abraham Snaphaen, who began working as independent masters in 1670, all left Leiden around 1680 and moved to Amsterdam, Stockholm and Dessau, respectively. Jacob van der Sluijs followed suit a year later. He moved to Amsterdam to complete his training under Jacob van Toorenvliet, who had just returned to the Republic after spending close to twenty years abroad (). Both artists moved to Leiden in the 1680s, where they struggled financially. Van der Sluijs supplemented his income by working as a bailiff.

In contrast, two other Leiden fijnschilders, Carel de Moor (1655–1738) and Willem van Mieris (1662–1747) (), did find success in the last quarter of the seventeenth century and thereafter. Like his father, Willem van Mieris became a famous painter who commanded steep prices for his work and enjoyed privileged patronage, including that of several foreign princes. His most important benefactor was the fabulously wealthy Leiden cloth manufacturer Pieter de la Court van der Voort (1664–1739), who granted him numerous commissions, chiefly after 1700. Willem’s brother Jan van Mieris (1660–90) also benefited initially from the patronage of the De la Court family (), but in 1688 he decided to seek his fortune in Italy, where he died in 1690. Carel de Moor, who studied with both Dou and Frans van Mieris, rapidly developed into a famous artist whose reputation extended well beyond Leiden. Much like Willem van Mieris, De Moor was not dependent on the free market. He had wealthy patrons and amassed a vast fortune primarily painting portraits. The Leiden elite eagerly frequented his workshop and could easily afford the high prices he charged.

Conclusion: The Leiden Fijnschilders in Perspective

In examining the Leiden fijnschilders and their position in the local painters’ community, it is useful to review the situation in Delft. Montias, in his book about the artistic character of Delft, touched on the concept of a “painters’ school.” According to him, a local “painters’ school” could develop only when the community was large enough. The interaction between the artists would then be sufficient to give rise to a “painters’ school” with typical artistic features associated with the city. Montias did not indicate the size of this “critical mass,” although in Delft—where such a school had arisen around Vermeer, De Hooch, and Fabritius circa 1650—the number of active artists was about thirty-five.

At first sight the situation in Leiden seems comparable to that in Delft. Both cities accommodated a school of painting with a recognizable individual character, which arose in a painters’ community large enough to sustain it. Yet there are also differences. The Delft school lasted only a few years, while the Leiden school endured far into the eighteenth century. Montias explained the Delft school’s brief life as being due to the rapid decline in the number of painters, which soon dropped below the critical mass. Given how long the Leiden school held out, one might assume that the critical mass in Leiden remained constant all these years, and yet as demonstrated in Table 2 () this was definitely not the case.

Upon further consideration, the situations in these two cities have much less in common than initially would seem to be the case. The Leiden school of painting was not, as in Delft, the result of mutual interaction and reciprocal influences, but chiefly the work of two brilliant painters, Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris, teacher and pupil, in which the pupil (Van Mieris), after first working in the style of his teacher and then deriving inspiration from painters from elsewhere, developed his own style. Gerrit Dou was its bedrock. After Rembrandt’s departure in the early 1630s, he independently developed the smooth and detailed manner of painting about which Angel waxed so lyrical in his address of 1641. Some took Angel’s advice to heart and followed Dou’s style, sometimes so literally that their work can hardly be distinguished from that of their model. This desire to emulate Dou’s manner proved to be a windfall for art dealers who, according to the anonymous eighteenth-century biographer, bought up the best pieces and sold them abroad as originals by Dou.

The financial success of Dou’s followers fell far short of that of their master. Many of them had no need for such success per se, as they also plied another trade, particularly painters of the first two generations. Brekelenkam was the first pupil of Dou to set his own artistic course, a decision that, judging from the dissemination of his work, did him no harm. Nevertheless, even he proved to be helpless in the face of the crisis in the art market that began to manifest itself seriously in Leiden as of the 1660s. The same fate awaited most of Dou’s followers; not even Van Slingelandt could live up to the high financial expectations. Except for Dou and Frans van Mieris, commercial success was granted to only two painters of the last generation: Willem van Mieris and Carel de Moor.

The success enjoyed by Willem van Mieris did not come of its own accord. Cloth merchant Pieter de la Court van der Voort’s patronage was doubtless dictated by the artist’s own work, but his ability to copy the work of Dou and his father had been equally important. Van Mieris did this so skillfully that most of the copies cannot be distinguished from the originals, and De la Court had no qualms about including them in his collection as such. There is a similar anecdote about De Moor. In 1773, the well-known Leiden collector Johan Aegzn van der Marck owned no fewer than eleven works by the artist. Regarding the finest painting of “een Juffertje die een brief gelezen hebbende in de hand heeft, en een oude koppelaarster, die haar dezelve gebragt heft” (a young lady reading a letter, and an old procuress, who brought it to her), the eighteenth-century biography noted that it “… bij alle kenners [is] gehouden voor’t alderbeste kabinetstukje dat hij ooit gepenseeld heeft, zijnde in’t Juffertje veel van de oude Frans van Mieris, en in’t oude vrouwtje van Gerard Douw die, (….), beide zijn meesters geweest zijn” (… is considered by all connoisseurs as the very best cabinet picture that he ever painted, with much of the old Frans van Mieris evident in the young lady, and of Gerrit Dou in the old woman, […] both of whom had been his masters). These two stories illustrate that even the most accomplished and successful Leiden fijnschilders after Dou and Van Mieris never managed to emerge fully from the shadows of their illustrious predecessors.

- Piet Bakker
2017
Scroll back to top