The Dutch art market in the 17th century

Jan van Goyen, The Beach at Egmond-aan-Zee, 1653, oil on panel, 49.2 x 74.3 cm (Center for Netherlandish Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re standing in the gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that’s filled with paintings from Holland in the 17th century. There’s a whole wall filled with landscape paintings. Each of which looks different.

Dr. Christopher Atkins: [0:18] Dutch artists went out, looked at the world around them, but they painted that world in highly individualized ways, an extremely large market. To be competitive, one had to differentiate one’s products from those of another.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] We are talking about an enormous market for paintings.

Dr. Atkins: [0:35] People acquired paintings just like they acquired textiles and furniture, rich goods and spices from all over. They also bought paintings in large numbers for their homes.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] It was remarked upon by foreigners when they visited.

Dr. Atkins: [0:50] We have accounts of travelers of walking into homes of bakers and seeing a hundred paintings on the wall. It’s really astounding.

Dr. Harris: [0:58] In the history of art, we generally think about paintings that are made for an elite: the church, the nobility, kings. But in Holland, we have an enormous class of merchants.

Dr. Atkins: [1:09] The merchant elite was enormously wealthy, in large part due to its global trade and enterprises. They had excess money, which they could use for fineries, including paintings to decorate their homes.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] Holland is a Protestant country. The church is no longer a primary patron for art. We have artists who are working for the market. They’re painting and then they’re selling, instead of being commissioned to paint a work of art that then goes to the patron.

Dr. Atkins: [1:38] This was the first period in time where the majority of the works of art were exchanged on an open market rather than in a patronage system.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] But when you’re an artist working for the open market, there’s much more uncertainty.

Dr. Atkins: [1:49] Artists didn’t know who the buyer of a picture was going to be or even if their picture was going to sell. Not only was it an open market, but the artist would sell a work to a gallery or a dealer who would then sell it to someone else. The artist often had no contact whatsoever with the eventual purchaser.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] We have increased demand for paintings. We have more people becoming artists to meet this demand, but also artists who have to differentiate themselves from one another. This painting is a great example of how an artist adapted to the art market.

Dr. Atkins: [2:22] Jan van Goyen hyper-specialized. He was a landscapist. He painted scenes of the local countryside but did it in a way that looked completely different from the landscapes of his fellow painters.

Dr. Harris: [2:33] When you look at this wall, it’s clear that his palette is reduced to these browns and pale blues.

Dr. Atkins: [2:39] What’s innovative here too is the use of the browns, that most of the browns peeking through in the foreground are actually exposed underlayers in the painting process. We can get a sense of the textures if we look, for example, at the hill. We get a sense of the brushwork going back and forth.

[2:56] He’s able to show off his brushwork through that wet-on-wet passage while presenting this scene of the everyday. He’s also showing us that he’s a really good painter.

Dr. Harris: [3:04] He’s not applying many layers of paint. He wants to paint quickly.

Dr. Atkins: [3:08] From an economic perspective, he’s reducing the amount of time required to produce an individual picture. He’s also reducing the amount of materials needed to produce a picture, lowering his costs in two ways.

[3:20] Artists essentially created a brand, a brand based on a recognizable stylistic approach to picture making. This was art, but it was also their business.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] And so, if you have a reduced palette, maybe you don’t have to buy as many different pigments. If you create a formula for a work of art that’s popular, you can keep repeating it and selling it.

Dr. Atkins: [3:39] He created a large number of paintings with this approach. He was able to achieve financial success even while selling them for relatively low sums.

Dr. Harris: [3:48] I read somewhere that Dutch artists often produced two paintings a week.

Dr. Atkins: [3:53] Some artists produced a high volume at a low price point. There were others who also found ways to succeed in the market by creating a lower number of pictures and selling them for higher prices. Both strategies were successful. We have to remember the overall size of the market.

[4:08] We’re talking in the span about a hundred years, as many as five million paintings may have been produced in a geographic area that’s the size of the state of Maine.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Christopher D.M. Atkins and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Dutch art market in the 17th century," in Smarthistory, January 20, 2023, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/the-dutch-art-market-in-the-17th-century/.