Decoding Eroticism in Dutch Golden Age Painting

The wealthy middleclass of the 17th century Dutch Republic invented capitalism as we know it today. Through their dominance of international trade and the creation of futuristic financial models, they spawned an era of scientific advances, military might and fabulous riches. And, as a by-product of this, they gave us one of the greatest art movements the world has ever seen: the Dutch Golden Age.

If you don’t know anything about art in this period, then let me begin by saying they could paint exquisitely in a huge range of subjects and styles. Many artists from this time specialised in a particular type of painting such as flowers, tronie (expressive faces), group portraits (frequently showing guilds), history scenes (including religion, myth and allegory), interiors of places of worship and even winter snow scenes. Still-lifes were highly sought-after and made with photographic realism – as in this example by Pieter Claesz – where the reflections in the glass and silverware are so perfect, if you gaze into the round of the wine jug, you can actually see Claesz working at his easel.

The objects selected for this still-life are quite telling. Remember, this would have been owned by a middleclass patron and the objects which emerge from the canvas, almost in 3D, are the fruits of middleclass labour: good food, great wine, culture and education (music, books), trinkets from abroad (shells), and tableware which was probably expensive but almost certainly used. In short, the Dutch middleclass had money to burn and they wanted to own paintings which reflected themselves, and their tastes.

I’m especially interested in the Dutch Golden Age because this is the first time in Western culture when the stars of paintings are normal people. They aren’t the aristocracy and they aren’t religious icons. The people you see in these portraits are merchants, professionals, wives, servants, children, soldiers, clerks, tradesmen etc etc; they are members of the public, who live in ordinary households and go about their daily lives. They eat, they drink, they work, they rest, they have personal tragedies and triumphs. They’re just like you and me.

There’s something uplifting about this, something democratic, about the average man and woman being immortalised as fine art, previously the reserve of saints and nobles. These Dutch merchants have given us an egalitarian art movement, and their legacy is a treasure trove of social and historical goodies. This is even more impressive when you appreciate the quality of the art. Some of the very best work ever done in paint is to be found here. These aren’t shoddy daubs; these are breathtaking masterpieces.

Through their artwork, the 17th century Dutch middleclass have captured the spirit of a highly civilised society … What’s intriguing, however, is that at the same time their art is terribly revealing about their sexual vices. In addition to a testament of affluence and sophistication, they’ve unwittingly left behind numerous insights into their private lives, little telltale signs of their personal peccadilloes, in an apparently innocuous language of symbols and double-entendre.

What I’m trying to say is this: loads of them were obsessed with sex. I’m sorry to be blunt about it, but they were. It’s all there in their paintings – if you know how to decode it.

Appearances mattered, and these art-lovers were prepared to pay high prices to maintain them. They wanted to project not only success, but refinement. The Dutch ideal was to have few possessions, well-chosen, in a tidy and comfortable house. They venerated family. The man earned, while the lady of the house was esteemed in the roles wife, mother and hostess; the favoured colour worn by the bourgeoisie husband-and-wife team was black, as it was deemed pious in a predominantly Calvinist community, and it was the most expensive type of dye. This group by Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam shows a perfect god-fearing family at the dinner table, the embodiment of Dutch respectability. Nothing untoward going on there. Except, look through the door in the background …

Today there are a number of professions – such as nurses, secretaries and flight attendants – which can be exaggerated into sexualised female stereotypes. In the 17th century Dutch Republic, the equivalent fantasy was the domestic maidservant. Men of a certain persuasion considered maids fair game for sexual attention and adulation. Understand this, and you begin to understand why the maid turns up in Dutch paintings, again and again and again, and what this could actually mean.

I warn you now, the pictures you are about to see contain sexual material.

This woman painted by Gerrit Dou seems innocent enough. He’s even called her ‘The Dutch Housewife’ rather than ‘The Dutch Maid,’ but as I’ve mentioned above, she’s not dressed in black which is the colour of a truly moral huisvrouw. Her cheeks are ruddy, her hair is dishevelled, she seems rather preoccupied and a bit sweaty. She holds a bird for the table: it hangs limply, waiting to be plucked bare. The silver jug gapes open toward the viewer ready to be filled with liquid. The cage could be a symbol of bondage to her master. And do I need to spell out what the candle stub reminds one of? (Put Freud into a search engine if you’re unsure.) All these details have been carefully chosen to elicit a crude response.

Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam, who painted the family portrait above, painted this charming Maid Scaling Fish too. She’s gazing, unabashed, directly into the eye of the viewer and works with a playful smile on her lips. I’m not sure how many men today would find it attractive to be flirted with over some dead fish, but Dutchmen in the 17th century would have construed the fishy wetness and smelliness as verging on pornographic. Note that in this picture, the candle stub and bird for plucking appear again.

You might think I’m imagining it, that it’s me who has sex on the brain, that I’m representing these great artists and patrons unfairly. (Sometimes even I have to wonder if I read too much into an image!) But it’s this uncertainty which makes these portraits so sexually charged.

One of my favourites, for its beautiful execution as well as for it coyness, is The Apple Peeler by Cornelis Bisschop. Its brilliant perspective and slanting light make it a masterpiece of the domestic genre. However, take a moment to consider the slow, careful way the maid peels the apple and ask yourself if you have ever seen anyone peel an apple like that before? Is it sensual or is she simply being careful not to cut herself? The fact that she sits with her legs apart could just be to catch the peelings in her skirt; that one shoe has come off could be accidental; the broom just might be there for sweeping the floor and is not necessarily suggestive of anything. The clincher is in the backyard, where a male peacock displays his plumage for a peahen in anticipation of mating – and before you can say ‘forbidden fruit’ – you’ve got yourself an accumulation of nods and winks which would titillate any randy Dutch trader (and yet are oblique enough to appease his missus).

The double-entendres in these paintings can best be seen by comparison. The next two are by Nicholas Maes and dated 1655. Both women have one foot on a foot warmer – indicating the ‘heat’ they feel down below – and both have male suitors trying to attract their attention through a window.

The shameless woman’s window is open and the man has access to her. Her cheeks are rosy, she’s plucking a bird in her lap, there’s a bed warmer on the wall and several shiny receptacles waiting to be filled.

The virtuous woman’s window is closed, leaving her man out in the cold. She’s dressed smartly and demurely, is occupied with genteel needlework, and has her Bible next to her to keep her mind on spiritual matters.

It’s worth noting the difference in their situations too: the shameless woman is a poor proletariat girl who, though more gullible, seems self-conscious with it; meanwhile the virtuous woman is a lady of status and smiles contentedly.

Unravelling these naughty riddles can be entertaining. Once you know the language, it’s like sharing in a bawdy joke, with the added pleasure of a punch line which has taken over 300 years to be revealed. These pictures have a ‘Carry On Dutch Maid’ quality, something outdated but ostensibly harmless, especially when you consider the phenomenal skill that went into creating them.

The problem arises when you start to notice pressure being put on working class women more overtly, when you start to sense that the female body is craved, while female personhood is ignored. Suddenly it’s not funny anymore, but rather demeaning.

Three paintings by exceptionally distinguished artists imply that the sexual act between a rich man and a poor woman is little more than a transaction, without any emotional attachment or intellectual regard: the man wants it because he has an itch; the woman has to comply because she needs the money.

Man Offering Gold Coins by Godfried Schalcken is a stunning example of chiaroscuro (shapes shown in candlelight) and The Procuress by Vermeer has his customary delicacy and lightness of touch – but both pictures treat the subject matter as lewd and basically hilarious.

Only The Proposition by Judith Leyster puts the tension between the couple centre stage: the offer is shown in a shady and ambiguous light; this girl has ‘heat’ beneath her skirts (the foot warmer again), but there are many layers before her gent can access it. Her body language is cool, her expression remote. In all three pictures, sex and money – lust and greed – go hand in hand.

In yet other pictures, hardly anything is left to the imagination. In this thriving art market there was, of course, a demand to see some flesh. We’re still in the realm of fine art (just about), but I won’t display them here. If you’re interested, Woman at her Toilet by Jan Steen is one example; and Young Woman Going to Bed by Jacob van Loo is another.

Dutch genre painters gifted the world with many marvellous canvases, but like all art, what’s shown is an idealised and perfected version of reality. Exploitation existed in their age as it exists in ours. Beneath the embarrassment of riches which was the Dutch Golden Age, dark and sinister truths lay hidden. For example, there was a terrible human cost to their empire building; 17th century traders gave us modern capitalism, as I said before, and the strong prey upon the weak for personal gain.

However, I don’t wish to leave you with the impression that they were all sex-crazed voyeurs and unscrupulous fat cats. Unprecedented wealth seems to have provoked a degree of soul-searching, in some people at least. Consider again the luscious still-life by Pieter Claesz I showed you at the top of this article … Well, Claesz famously painted Vanitas still-lifes too.

Vanitas (‘vanity’) paintings were the inversion of Dutch decadence. They’re the acknowledgement of something distasteful lurking beneath the surface, that the love of money could be bad for you, that material possessions are decaying clutter and life is only fleeting anyway. In this example, the symbols of the skull and bone suggest mortality; the hourglass and instrument suggest the passage of time; the sheet music and quill are the vane pursuits of mankind; the smoke is life snuffed out; and the glass is emptiness.

Leaving aside the fact that this message is a paradox (because the artwork itself would have been outrageously expensive), it does give me hope. These were rounded and fragile souls; there is humanity here as well as vice, flawed human beings who were aware of their faults, to a certain extent. Knowing this helps me to appreciate their best work even better, to love it gladly.

Because, thankfully, not all their women-creatures are slutty maidservants or dowdy Bible bashers. Some of their female portraits are – in fact – beautiful, vulnerable, thoughtful and complex.

Woman Eating and Feeding her Cat by Gabriel Metsu for one. She’s shown in sober dress and modest surroundings – this lack of garish colour and florid detail brings forward other, subtler, aspects of the sitter’s personality. Her simple supper seems to be for one person and is eaten from her lap: this indicates she’s having a meal break between duties or eating quickly at the end of a working day. The tenderness towards her cat is suggestive of loneliness. The plucking-bird in the foreground is reminiscent of ruder paintings, but I wonder if it implies not sexual availability, but virginity? Her face is plump and pretty, and her hands are coarse. The most beautiful thing in the room is a vase of flowers which seem to be going over. Is this a painting about fading beauty? Is this a maid who longs – not to be taken roughly by her employer – but for companionship with someone who appreciates her? Or is the cat the spirit of independence and self-reliance? Yes, it could be.

Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter is another special painting. Here is a pregnant girl possibly receiving news of her baby’s father who – as the map on the wall implies – is far away trading. Is she respectably married or has she been taken advantage of? Does the letter contain good news or bad news? Her life story and her fate are for the viewer to decide.

The ambiguity is these works is what breathes life into them. Beneath their superficial beauty is a beating heart.

But I’ve saved the best for last. The greatest Dutch painter is unquestionably Rembrandt. There are days when I think he’s the greatest painter who ever lived. Here’s why …

This is a picture of Rembrandt’s real-life maid, who became his real-life mistress. She’s bathing, wearing a clingy chemise as she wades. This is the perfect premise for an eroticised nude, because she could be frolicking in her nakedness and it would be completely ‘justified’. When I look at this woman’s portrait, however, I don’t feel she’s there as a sex object. She simply looks like someone going for a wash, who proceeds cautiously because the water is too cold. As it happens, she’s giving the viewer a glimpse of her private parts, but even this is not very sexy, somehow. Other artists with maid fantasies have found dozens of cheeky ways to suggest what Rembrandt gently shows; their paintings arouse leering thoughts, while Rembrandt’s painting causes, if anything, shyness.

Rembrandt has painted her as an actual person, not a merely a thing to be desired, not just a conquest to be made or a body to be penetrated. She’s a real woman with real thoughts and real emotions. This is his genius: to see people as they are and then to paint them accurately but compassionately (even when they aren’t wearing many clothes). I look at her and I feel, rightly or wrongly, like I know her.

Why on earth did so many rich men in the 17th century have such a fetish for working class girls? Perhaps because they could dominate them. Or perhaps because their maidservants represented something ‘dirty’, and therefore a pleasing escape from their respectable married lives and clean public images.

And yet there were some, like Rembrandt, who saw women vividly and who elevated and immortalised them in divine portraits, despite them being common housemaids.

And some painters, like Claesz, forewarned that the glory days wouldn’t last forever. In the 18th century, the Dutch Republic lost its superpower status on the world stage and the economy significantly declined. The golden age was over.

Chapter 2 of Katie Ward’s novel, Girl Reading, is set in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt makes an appearance in it.

The following online sources are gratefully acknowledged: Wikimedia Commons, The Getty, WikiGallery, Rijksmuseum, The Wallace Collection, National Gallery, Wikipedia, and WikiPaintings.


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