While map is usually thought of as cartographic material standing alone on its own right, in the Dutch Golden Age appears a painting trend in which map is repeatedly depicted in the background of interior scene. Various seventeenth-century Dutch painters such as Willem Buytewech, Dirck Hals, Gerard ter Borch, Piete de Hooch, Jan Steen, Jacob Ochtervelt, Nicholas Maes include depictions of real maps in their artworks. The finest examples of this trend appear in Johannes Vermeer’s works. Much has been said about the cartographical sources of the painted maps, especially in Vermeer’s oeuvre. By drawing on the Dutch’s communal identity at the time of forming nationhood, the artistic life of the society—collecting and displaying art among different classes, and the Dutch’s distinctive stance on art—a mode of description, I wish to draw attention to the Dutch impulse to map the outer world and display the knowledge in interior space, perhaps in order to situate oneself in the world and to feel more at home in one’s space.
Nascent National Identity
The first Dutch artist who incorporated map into painting is Willem Buytewech (1591-1624). A specialist in the merry company subject, he worked at Haarlem from around 1612 to 1617, following that, he spent the rest of his career in his native Rotterdam. One of his five merry company pictures includes a map with the eligible title HOLANDIA (see fig. 1). The painted map is comparable to the map of Holland and the Seventeen Provinces by the Dutch engraver Jan Pietersz. Saenredam (1565-1607) (fig. 2). Saenredam’s map, engraved in 1589, was quite popular in the seventeenth century, appearing in at least three publications. As many maps made in this time, the decorative border and the texts were produced separately from the map. Except for the border ornamentation, Buytewech’s map is identical to Saenredam’s map in term of content. The map is oriented with the south at the top as designing maps with north at the top was not yet a standard. The painter’s coloring scheme follows conventional cartographic materials of the period. For instance, blue is assigned to the water area, while green, yellow, and red are used to distinguish different provinces.
The painted map is situated in a central position, on a wall of a narrow symmetrical space, accompanied a group of extravagantly-dressed people. The bearded figure on the left bears the traits of Hans Wurst, the figure of comic gluttony on Fat Tuesday, the last day of feasting before the ritual fasting in Christian tradition. To the left of Hans Wurst, a man holds a goblet of wine, while a figure next to him holding out a pisspot, mockingly prepares for the wine to revert. To the right, one man smokes pipe, and the other holds his hat dangerously close to the fire. The maid behind them carries a dish of artichokes, which are renowned for their power to aid sensual appetites. The group collectively represents various human foibles and follies, gaudy attiring, gluttony, and excessive indulgence. In that context, the map behind the company serves more than a decorative purpose. In the traditional vanitas theme, the map may be considered a didactic object, pointing to the ephemerality and the futility of the material life. It could also act as a humanist ambivalence, displaying the fine craft of man as “a badge of pride,” but at the same time denoting the vulnerability of the achievement.
Pictures after these festive scenes often carry mildly moralizing connotation about the idle, newly rich children of a harder-working generation. As the newly-founded Republic became more prosperous, so grew rapidly the middle class known as the burgher. The burgher was not simply a bourgeois, for the burgher was a citizen first and homo oeconomicus, or economic man second. The display of a map of one’s own territory in a space of the burgeoning middle class is an assertion of nascent national identity.
Buytewech’s merry company was painted in a period when many lakes north of Amsterdam such as the Purmer, Schermer, and Beemster were being drained and reclaimed for agricultural use. The high rate of erosion and the need for arable land gave rise to reclamation plans, and windmills were used to pump these lakes dry. The changing boundary between the sea and the land is perhaps also emphasized with the inverted color scheme of the map in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl (see fig. 12 – 13): luminescent blue is assigned to land, while earthly tone to water. In a country where one‐third of the land lies below mean sea level and without dunes, dikes, and pumps, sixty-five percent of the land would be under water at high tide, the relationship with water has never been easy.
The forming of the Dutch nationhood was inseparable from the struggle with rising waters and the primal flood. Simon Schama even describes the Dutch society as having a “diluvian personality.” Seaborne disaster epics sold very well in the seventeenth century. The most well-known work of all was the journal published in 1646 by Willem Ysbrandtszoon Bontekoe’s (1587 – 1657), a skipper in the Dutch East India Company (see fig. 3). The journal recounts his voyage with the Nieuw Hoorn, the shipwreck, his adventure to Java, and his subsequent years of service in East Asia. The book, illustrated with pictures, was a bestseller in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, being reprinted seventy times before 1800. The story follows a quite moralistic formula: good fortune was to be “struck by retributive calamity from which only the virtuous and the heroic might escape.” A fire at sea in the Sunda Straits in the East Indies in November 1619 caused the gunpowder magazine to explode and sink the ship (see fig. 4-5). The skipper, who was blown high into the sky and then down into the ocean, somehow miraculously escaped.
Memories of epic inundations in the late Middle Ages, and written and oral folklore—fables, ballads and fairy tales conditioned the sixteenth-century Dutch to consider themselves as “ordained and blessed survivors of the deluge.” Calvinist preachers of course seized onto this and connected the aquatic struggle with scriptural significance. Calamities were portentous in a sinful world, and from the retribution, a cleaner and better world was to be reborn. The Noah analogy was here transposed to suit the Dutch self-image as God’s new chosen people. Buytewech’s map and his jovial scene indicate the classic connotations of human follies before Noah’s Flood and transfer a moral message to contemporary circumstances of the new Republic.
Collecting and Displaying Pictures
Beside the map in Buytewech’s epicurean scene, painted maps are usually found displaying in interiors of the burghers. Jacob Ochtervelt (1634 – 1682), a genre painter and a contemporary of Vermeer, for example, painted a map to accompany the scene of a finely-dressed lady playing the virginal (see fig. 6). The man on her left, presumably her husband, is playing a string instrument while reading score from a book held out by a young woman, possibly their daughter. The dogs, usually read as fidelity symbol, are playfully chasing each other. The spotless floor, the clean wall, and an emphasis on horizontal and vertical compositions add a sense of familial harmony and domestic contentment to the scene. Like the map in Buytewech’s merry company, the map in Ochtervelt’s painting serves a vanitas theme, reminding viewers of the transience of pleasure and the vanity of human knowledge.
The appearance of the wall map in the middle-class’ interiors comes as little surprise as it was the class that was most hankering for prints and decorations in the seventeenth century. As the Republic became more affluent around 1600, particularly after the Twelve Years Truce in 1609, the market for pictures grew rapidly. Artists, before being able to sell pictures in the markets, had to pay a fee to be apprenticed under masters in a strict guild system. Once registered and enrolled as masters, they could produce and sell art and assume apprentices. Art in general was sold to an anonymous market, either directly through the studio or through an art dealer. Prints and paintings were sold in bookshops, inns, at kermis stalls, and Guild-organized exhibitions. Unlike other European markets, the Dutch picture market was virtually absent of Church patronage since Calvinists opposed the use of altarpieces and depictions of God and Christ in worship. They did, however, allow the use of images for didactic purposes or decoration in secular space.
Picture price varied greatly. Oil paintings on wood or canvas had a wide range of price; size and the quality of the frame were taken into account of the artwork value. Low-life scenes, barrack room, brothel scenes, interior genre, and “maidservant” pictures seem to be the cheapest. Small landscapes could also be cheap, while still lifes varied greatly according to size and subject. Portraits and history paintings were the most expensive; commissioned portraits historiés, the depiction of known individuals in the guise of historical figures, were the most expensive of all. The picture market catered to consumers of different income and social status, but most pictures were bought by the burghers, “from modest artisans to wealthy regents.” They hang pictures throughout their homes, the finest in living rooms and others in bedrooms, halls, and even kitchens.
As the burghers became more wealthy, especially after the Peace of Munster in 1648, they built larger homes to be able to collect and display more pictures. The doll’s house built by a contemporary woman, Petronella Oortmans-de la Court (1624-1707), is a window into the display of paintings in wealthy households (see fig. 7). Most paintings with elaborate frames or of large scale are displayed in the upstairs living room, but the first and the third floors are decorated with pictures too. The doll’s house by itself is a piece of miniature collection, in which De la Court commissioned 1,600 pieces of furniture and paintings and 28 dolls.
Significantly, the Dutch did not buy pictures exclusively for pure decoration or artistic value. Many collectors gathered drawings and prints primarily to amass knowledge about the world’s diverse cultures, its flora and fauna, and its geography. In Amsterdam, the Catholic lawyer Laurens van der Hem (1621-1678), for example, collected printed maps, landscape prints, portraits, and historical scenes to create 29 volumes about the world and its history. Van der Hem commissioned drawers and colorists as well as included texts to enrich his encyclopedic work. The Atlas van der Hem was quite well-known and attracted distinguished foreign visitors. Its geographical coverage reflected the far-reaching range of the Dutch trading empire. A map of America in the atlas, for instance, shows ships with the Netherlands flag approaching the coasts of North America and Brazil, indicating the country’s dominions oversea (see fig. 8). Particularly interesting are the views on the top of the map and the various depictions of the natives on the two sides. The natives are portrayed as rather primitive—tribal, naked, warlike, and engaging in human sacrifice (see fig. 9). Their bodies are represented as strong and muscular.
Not all owners of pictures were as affluent as De la Court and van der Hem, nor pictures were only found accompanying the leisured middle-class as in Buytewech’s merry company and Ochtervelt’s music making. To the amazement of the English traveler Peter Mundy, the shops of Dutch butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, and cobblers were decorated with a picture or two—suggesting the unusually prevalent activity of art collecting in the Republic. Quiringh van Brekelenkam’s Interior of a Tailor’s Workshop shows the displaying of picture in the home of the craftsman (see fig. 10). A cheap paper map is secured on the wall with a couple of nails. It looks tattered and worn-out, keeping with the other objects in the household such as the old book on the shelf and the fading wall paint. Another picture of still life on the wall indicates the family is able to get by with the craft. The workshop overall looks well-kept, and the work mess is present but under control, and the materials for cloth making are relatively in order.
Quiringh van Brekelenkam (1622 – c. 1669) was born in Zwammerdam, where his father worked as a tailor. The shops of tailors and cobblers, the very environment that Brekelenkam grew up with, were depicted thoroughly in his art; from 1653 to 1664 he produced around twenty-five variants of the theme. It may be important to point out that Brekelenkam was active from 1648 to 1668 in Leiden, the center of the Dutch textile industry. The textile industry boomed in the Netherlands and particularly in Leiden between 1580 and 1660, thanks to the flow of textile workers emigrated from the Southern Netherlands in the face of religious persecution. With the thriving industry came various problems. Leiden was possibly the most “socially stratified” of Holland towns, with a large number of textile workers living in crowded residences and subjected to wage cutting. Women and girls comprised about thirty percent of the labor force in Leiden and were “worked harder for less.” Painters who depicted artisans at work like Brekelenkam might consider what to leave out and what to record for an audience that was predominantly middle-class collectors. His picture therefore might correspond to the urban audience’s perception of its own society as “ordered, civilized, and preposterous.” Nonetheless, the painting is still telling of the pre-industrial era, with the youngster contributing to the labor force and the family working together to produce goods. The two boys seat on a platform with the father, sewing clothing by the sunlight entering from the window. On the right, the mother is cooking with the vessel, suggesting the mixing of the living with the working space, unlike a burgher’s interior which is devoid of work and labor. The dilapidated map on the wall perhaps embodies the family’s struggle to make end meet in an unsettling world.
Be it in the middle-class or the working-class interiors, the wall map found in many genre paintings attested to the dynamic art market in the Netherlands. It were the Dutch who were the first to seriously produce maps as wall-hangings. Maps were also produced and disseminated widely, and the Republic was the world leader in cartographic production. But perhaps more fundamentally, maps were collected and displayed in the same manner as paintings because of the close affinities of art and cartography in the seventeenth century: “map makes on us as a piece of painting in its own right,” as Alpers said. Maps are meant to provide us with quantitative data of places and the relationship between places, while landscape pictures give us some quality or feel of the place: one is science, the other is art; one is the work of cartographers, the other artists. Yet, this distinction is not clear-cut for the Dutch in the seventeenth century, “when maps were considered to be a kind of picture and when pictures challenged texts as a central way of understanding the world.” Seventeenth-century Dutch artists such as Pieter Saenredam, Gaspar van Wittel, and the Visscher family, were employed in mapmaking; maps were often sold by the same dealers who sold other kinds of prints. Maps were very often adorned with city views and figure portrayals as we have seen in a print from the Van der Hem atlas (fig. 8). The atlas by itself unproblematically combined maps, views, and drawings to create a personal view of the world. The Leo Belgicus map by Claes Jansz Visscher was not only informative because of its geographical data, but also visually striking because of the lion form imposing onto the seventeen provinces (see fig. 11).
The mapping-picture relationship dates back to at least Ptolemy’s Geography. Ptolemy distinguishes between geography, which concerns measurements or mathematics and the entire world at large, and chorography, which concerns descriptions and particular places. He connects the skills of the mathematician to geography and those of the artist to chorography, and restricts his work to the former. This distinction, however, was again blurred in the Netherlands. Dutch artists were accustomed to printmaking, inscriptions, labels, and calligraphy—suggesting a close relationship between picture and writing, both possessing the descriptive power. In a broad sense, mapping shows an impulse to record or describe the land in pictures—an impulse shared by surveyors, artists, printers, and the general public in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. More narrowly, mapping could be defined as encompassing picturing and mapmaking, as producing pictures with descriptive interest that integrate the landscape and geographical forms such as maps and topographical views.
A Mode of Descriptive Art
The trend of painting map in interior scenes reached a new level in Vemeer’s art, especially in Officer and Laughing Girl (see fig. 12 – 13) and The Art of Painting (see fig. 14 – 15). While other painters simply indicate there is a map on the wall, Vermeer always renders the maps in precision and even captures the print materials. For practical reason, the detailed rendering of the map might have had to do with selling price. The paintings of Vermeer, Gerand Dou, and Frans van Mieris, uncommonly elaborate and polished in techniques and possibly taken longer than average to paint, fetched as high as several hundred guilders, compared to averaging twenty guilders for a less meticulous picture.
But Vermeer’s elaborate maps are important among the numerous painted maps because they speak powerfully for a pictorial mode of Dutch art—a mode of description. Significantly, with much time and effort devoted to rendering the map, Vermeer claims he himself is a mapmaker. In The Art of Painting, Vermeer signed his name I-Ver-Meer on the border of the map meeting the bottom text and the blue cloth of the model, who represents Clio the muse of history (see fig. 16). We know that Vermeer bases his painted map on the no longer extant map of the Seventeen Provinces attributed to Nicolaus Visscher. But in the Dutch pictorial mode of description, Vermeer’s claim the painted map is of his own making is not presumptuous, as in seventeenth-century Dutch art, resemblance is less important than distinction. Looking at the world in resemblance is problematic as it introduces confused identities; it is the discrimination between things and individual identities that matters in Dutch art.
The Dutch artist and writer Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627 – 1678) dedicated one chapter of his magnum opus, the Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World (1678), to talk about resemblance. In the chapter, Hoogstraten gathers examples from texts and real life. One account that is particularly suggestive is the story of a nobleman riding through the street of London attracted a large crowd of followers because he was mistaken for a king. What one can deductively infer from Hoogstraten’s chapter is that Dutch art by turning away from resemblance desires to “preserve the identity of each person and each thing in the world.” Italian art, on the country, tends to depart from individuality in favor of general human traits and general truths: resemblance to certain ideals of appearance, of action, or between things was “constitutive of truth.” Interestingly enough, centuries later in Germany, the concept of resemblance resurfaces in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), in what he terms “family resemblance.” In Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, all members of the family resemble each other even though they do not share a single common feature. Resemblance is also at the core of visual recognition in today’s technology as we see that convolutional neural networks could group together images of visual similarity.
The importance of distinction in Dutch art is most illustrative in a print after Pieter Saenredam (see fig. 17). The etching represents several cross sections cut through an old apple tree growing on a farm outside of Harleem. Saenredam makes the image to refute the widespread belief that that the dark core of the apple tree represents the miraculous appearance of Roman Catholic priests. Significantly, to make the print, Saenredam looks through the glasses. Saenredam calls attention to the variety of the shapes and points out that the mistaken belief is founded on a reliance on resemblance. To return to the painted maps in Vermeer’s art, so precise in rendering that they have been used to postulate Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura, they are distinctive semblances of the original models, all the more descriptive in the Dutch picture landscape.
It is only in a country with a new sense of nationhood that we find map displaying like flag in almost any kind of interiors; in a society proliferated with pictures that we see map hung like works of art; and in a culture that painting under the glasses, the microscope, and the camera obscura becomes a source of style that we encounter elaborately rendered maps as in Vermeer’s oeuvre.
. James A. Welu, “Vermeer and Cartography.” PhD diss., Boston University, 1977, 8.
. Ibid., 8-9.
. Ibid., 9.
. Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, University of California Press, 1988, 216.
. Ibid., 218.
. Mariët Westermann, A Worldly Art: the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718, Yale University Press, 2005, 119.
. Ibid., 7.
. Ibid., 217.
. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, 15-50.
. Ibid., 44.
. Ibid., 30.
. Ibid., 29.
. Ibid., 34.
. Ibid., 34-5.
. Ibid., 218.
. Westermann, A Worldly Art, 33.
. Elizabeth O’Mahoney, “Representations of Gender in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Alchemical Genre Painting,” PhD diss., University of York, 2005, 21.
. Ibid., 21.
. Ibid., 22.
. Westermann, A Worldly Art, 33.
. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, 318.
. Ibid., 319.
. Westermann, A Wordly Art, 33.
. Ibid., 34.
. Westermann, A Worldly Art, 34.
. Westermann, A Worldly Art, 40.
. Ibid., 43.
. Alison M. Kettering, “Men at Work in Dutch Art, or Keeping One’s Nose to the Grindstone,” The Art Bulletin 89, no. 4 (2007): 694-714, 704.
. Welu, “Vermeer and Cartography,” 13.
. Donald Harreld, “Dutch Economy in the “Golden Age” (16th-17th Centuries),” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 12, 2004. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-dutch-economy-in-the-golden-age-16th-17th-centuries/
. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, 569.
. Ibid., 168.
. Kettering, “Men at Work in Dutch Art,” 695.
. Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, University of Chicago Press, reprint edition (April 15, 1984), 120.
. Welu, “Vermeer and Cartography,” vii.
. Alpers, The Art of Describing, 120.
. Ibid., 124.
. Ibid., 126.
. Ibid., 128.
. Westermann, A Worldly Art, 77.
. Alpers, The Art of Describing, 133-5.
. Alpers, 147.
. I refer to Alpers’ notion of seventeen-century Dutch art in The Art of Describing. By “descriptive,” she refers to characteristics of artworks that are casually referred to as realistic. Descriptive artworks are characterized by actions being suspended and by a stilled or arrested quality. There exists a tension between description and narration—what she called the Albertian mode that characterized Italian art: attention to the surface of the world described is attained at the expense of narrative action.
. Westermann, A Worldly Art, 43.
. James A. Welu, “Vermeer: His Cartographic Sources,” The Art Bulletin 57, no. 4 (1975): 529-547.
. Alpers, The Art of Describing, 77-8.
. Ibid., 77-8.
. Ibid., 78.
. Ibid., 80-3.
. Ibid., 82.
. Ibid., 80-3.
. Scholars have postulated the use of the camera obscura in Officer and Laughing Girl using deformation analysis. The fitting position of Utrecht in Vermeer’s painted map and Berckenrode’s model map supports theory of the use of the camera obscura. See Livieratos, Evangelos, and Alexandra Koussoulakou. “Vermeer’s Maps: a New Digital Look in an Old Master’s Mirror.” e-Perimetron 1, no. 2 (2006): 138-154.
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. University of Chicago Press, reprint edition (April 15, 1984).
Bakker, Piet. “Quiringh van Brekelenkam.” In The Leiden Collection Catalogue. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. New York. https://www.theleidencollection.com/archive/ (accessed April 22, 2018).
Harreld, Donald. “Dutch Economy in the “Golden Age” (16th-17th Centuries).” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 12, 2004. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-dutch-economy-in-the-golden-age-16th-17th-centuries/
Hoeksema, Robert J. “Three Stages in the History of Land Reclamation in the Netherlands.” Irrigation and Drainage 56, no. S1 (2007), doi:10.1002/ird.340
Kettering, Alison M. “Men at Work in Dutch Art, or Keeping One’s Nose to the Grindstone.” The Art Bulletin 89, no. 4 (2007): 694-714.
Livieratos, Evangelos, and Alexandra Koussoulakou. “Vermeer’s Maps: a New Digital Look in an Old Master’s Mirror.” e-Perimetron 1, no. 2 (2006): 138-154.
O’Mahoney, Elizabeth. “Representations of Gender in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Alchemical Genre Painting.” PhD diss., University of York, 2005.
Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. University of California Press, 1988.
Welu, James A. “Vermeer and Cartography.” PhD diss., Boston University, 1977.
—. “Vermeer: His Cartographic Sources.” The Art Bulletin 57, no. 4 (1975): 529-547.
Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art: the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718. Yale University Press, 2005.