Representation Within 16th Century Dutch Art

Dutch artists of the 16th and 17th century evolutionized methods of creating art, both technically as craftsmen and honestly as Dutch (social) citizens. “Observers have always noted the uncannily real effect of many seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. Because of their verisimilitude, these pictures have often been considered uncommonly truthful and honest depictions of Dutch life” (Westermann, 71). From technical vantages, Dutch artists worked through technical obstructions within fine art, and instrumentally reimagined and perfected formulaic techniques of portrayal. They left an evolutionary impact on the advancement of fine artistry, by advancing ways of viewing and depicting two dimensional scenes and evolving them into three-dimensional realities. Despite these developed techniques, however, there still resided (an often denied) racial discourse in the Netherlands, that manifested culturally and was reflected in the artwork. Two works of art that utilize different technical properties to portray people of color are Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s “Bathsheba at her Toilet,” and Johannes of Lucas van Doetechum’s “Bruyntje Springh-in ‘t-Bed en Flip de Duyvel.”

Bathsheba at her Toilet,” Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, 1594

“Bathsheba at her Toilet” depicts the Old Testament scene of Bathsheba bathing outdoors, whilst being assisted by two maidservants. The biblical significance of this scene is the perspective of King David, who takes notice of the naked Bathsheba, propelling him into a series of events––an affair, then and an attempt to dissolve said affair by ordering her husband Uriah’s death in battle. While David is not present himself in van Haarlem’s interpretation of the scene, his presence is suggested in the placement of the far off castle. The artist, therefore, places the viewer in the position of both David and a third-party onlooker. Like David, we are watching Bathsheba bathe, however, we are also aware of the overall scene and the castle in the distance where David is presently watching. 

The story of David and Bathsheba can be found in 2 Samuel 11, in the Old Testament. It begins with David, the King of Israel, catching sight of the beautiful woman Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop––this is the scene depicted in the painting. The story continues with David and Bathsheba sleeping together, even though she is married to Uriah the Hittite, who is a soldier in David’s army. Bathsheba then gets pregnant, so to cover up his sin David tries to fool Uriah into returning home and sleeping with his wife, so that the affair is not revealed. Uriah, however, is noble, and refuses to return home while his comrades are still left camping during the season of battle. So David, in response, orders Uriah to by placed at the frontlines, assuring his death. Bathsheba then becomes David’s wife. However, in consequence of David’s actions against Uriah, the baby that is born does not survive. This story is significant within the Christian faith, because although David commit these sins, he is still called “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). This notion that God’s grace covers a mutltitude of sins is what is so significant with this story, and with David’s role particularly in this story. That even though David sinned, he did not play victim to his consequences, nor try to deny what he did; instead, he repented and continued to trust God with his future. The heart of all this, clearly, is not characterized in van Haarlem’s painting––David himself is not even painted. The intent behind the painter, and his usage of such a title, therefore, is questionable as to whether the artist truly desired to represent an image of faith, or merely an image of a nude woman. 

Though this story holds Biblical significance within the life of the Israelite king David, the capacity of importance in which it yields is not fully presented or depicted in van Haarlem’s painting. In fact, the scene that is portrayed seems to hold more significance in relation to Dutch culture and the male gaze, than it does Israeli culture––as is biblically accurate. First off, the anatomical viewing of a naked woman is forefront, similar to many 16th-17th century art, and even highly esteemed renaissance art. Biblical titles were often given––questionably as a cover up––to paintings portraying nudity, in a mix of religious and mythological scenes. So comparing the obscure relevance of David, in this Biblically profound scene, to the majorly apparent view of naked women, the validity of the artist’s intended Biblical importance is questionable. The other apparent nature, within this artwork, is the presented cultural social construct. The depiction of a black woman serves two purposes: the first figurative––within the story––and the second reflective––within the Dutch culture. Figuratively, the black woman is positioned as an attendant to the bathing Bathsheba within the story; reflectively, she is positioned as a representative of the racial dichotomy within 16th century Dutch culture, highlighting Bathsheba’s fair skin in contrast to the maid servants dark complexion.

Cornelis van Haarlem wields an array of artistic techniques, in this painting, that coalesce the periodic pre-Christ story to his contemporary 16th century customs. The artist’s own abilities are to credit for the exaggeration of skintone in order to contrast both woman’s race distinctly. With the use of light, by brightening, highlighting, and exaggerating skin tone, the extremity of racial distinction is exemplified. With the additionally blackening out of the surrounding environment, the brightness of Bathsheba’s white skin is even more extremely highlighted.

“Bruyntje Springh-in ‘t-Bed en Flip de Duyvel,” Johannes of Lucas van Doetechum (possibly), after Pieter Bruegel (I), 1612 – 1652

Bruyntje Springh-in ‘t-Bed en Flip de Duyvel,” by Johannes of Lucas van Doetechum, is an etching of two unknown subjects––who likely commissioned van Doetechum for personal portraits. They resemble personal mementos one would have carried in a locket or souvenir, or have hanging in their home. The stylistic differences between these etchings and grande-scope paintings correspond with the social class and subject of each art work. 

Large paintings, like van Haarlem’s “Bathsheba at her Toilet,” stand out for their magnitude, and were customarily commissioned for a high price. They tended to portray certain models, either chosen by the artist but usually of the commissioner themselves. The grandeur and technique of these paintings contrast prints, like van Doetechum’s “Bruyntje Springh-in ‘t-Bed en Flip de Duyvel.” While the size is substantially smaller, the portrayal of each persons––individually and racially––is methodically procured is different ways, producing a variance of portrayals. While painting allows an array of colors, etching comprises only black and white-space. Therefore, the use of color and light in paintings works differently, whereas with etching there is only shadow and light to work with.

The way race and different skin pigmentation comes across varies in prints. Examining “Bruyntje Springh-in ‘t-Bed en Flip de Duyvel,” line work is clear and precise. The use of different etch-marks makes up for the lack of expression in color that painting utilizes. Hair follows a rhythm of flow that is characteristic of each individual’s style, however, with not-as-obvious textures––such as skin––the technique of cross hatching is impertenant. Besides hair-strokes, cross hatching is the technique that differentiates the facial components of the portraits, from the decorative components. Van Doetechum follows the design of the individual’s clothing, and to emphasize the subject themselves, he decided to use simple horizontal lines and spare the photoframe from any markings, in order to keep the background simplistic.

Since reflection and depth in portraiture must be portrayed, while the subjects are seemingly black (judging by their facial features), it is perhaps not as obvious compared to paintings, since the artist is unable to undeniably differentiate a black subject’s skin color (by blackening them out) from a white subject. This hurdle within etching is another aspect that distinguishes this form of mark-making from that of a paintstroke. To realistically formulate an image with three-dimensional depth requires shadowing and light, which in these two portraits is visible in the beams, left as white space, reflecting off their facial features. Since the only depiction of light comes in the form of white-space, whether the individual being portrayed is black––like the two in “Bruyntje Springh-in ‘t-Bed en Flip de Duyvel”––or white, both forms of exhibiting light hold true. Therefore, the artist must rely on the detail of facial features to more accurately represent each individual.

In both paintings, race and racial status, within the Dutch culture at the time, is represented. Both Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem and Johannes of Lucas van Doetechum’s influences of their own culture are shown to a degree, within their work. While the painting, “Bathsheba at her Toilet,” is perhaps more evident of this––since the racial components are those of 16th century European customs––the fact that prominent depictions of centerpiece people of color were, if ever, only presented on smaller-scale canvases––such as the print, ““Bruyntje Springh-in ‘t-Bed en Flip de Duyvel”––the hierarchy of who could have their picture shown on large scale is reflected. This reflection is evidence of the racial dichotomy within the Dutch culture.

Westermann, Mariet. A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, “Virtual Realities.” New York: A Times Mirror Company (1996). (71-97)


One thought on “Representation Within 16th Century Dutch Art

  1. Nice attention to the techniques of depicting African skin tones, which help create the difference in interpretation of Africans as people. The back story on David is helpful to your interpretation as well–what might it mean that the painting puts us in the position of David, viewing the African woman, who is equally nude as Bathsheba?


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