Dutch Art: Reevaluating The Golden Age

With elaborate portraits and dynamic landscapes, Dutch Golden Age art illustrates a period of grandeur worthy of being characterized as “golden”. In many ways, the Dutch Golden Age did live up to its name. During the 17th century, the Netherlands enjoyed a period of economic, political, and cultural prosperity. With the new influx of money and culture, paintings were in high demand. Though iconic paintings were produced during this time, it is essential to recognize what funded these pieces—slavery and colonialism. Branding this period as the “Dutch Golden Age” minimizes the fact that this prosperity stemmed from poison roots. While many Golden Age paintings neglected African presence, the Dutch are coming to terms with their dark history through a new photography exhibit called “Dutch Masters Revisited”.

 Daniel Vertangen, Portrait of Jan Valckenburgh, c. 1660 www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-4969

The painting above, Portrait of Jan Valckenburgh, illustrates how Africans were portrayed as mere background characters in Dutch Golden Age art. The artist, Daniel Vertangen, depicts Jan Valckenburgh, a Dutch director-general of Elmina on the African Gold Coast (“Portrait”). Upon first glance, the viewer is immediately drawn to Valckenburgh’s theatrically painted image. The light reflecting off of his glistening armor catches the eye. Holding the baton in an extended manner, Valckenburgh seems ready to give his next command. In a matter of seconds, the baton could be pointed at the viewer. Valckenburgh’s side-eye gaze contributes to his air of importance. Not quite looking directly at the viewer, Valckenburgh once again asserts his power by looking down at the viewer. He asks, “Who are you?”. His gaze challenges the viewer to converse. With this assertive attitude, Valckenburgh claims subjectivity. 

Before the rise of theatricality, portrait sitters acted more as objects than human beings. Beyond appearance, nothing distinguished one sitter from the next. Thus, one of the major characteristics of theatrical portraits is the presence of props that give insight into the sitter’s character. Through these props, the viewer is able to connect with the subject. On the topic of props, Grootenboer explains, “[…] we can define portraiture as providing a space in which the sitter’s body, as the object of the painting, becomes legible as a subject when placed in a particular mise-en-scene surrounded by meaningful props” (Grootenboer 323). Essentially, a prop elevates a sitter from an object to a person. The subject is shown to have interests and passions that make his or her character more compelling. 

To cut Jan Valckenburgh’s puppet strings in order to establish subjectivity, Vertangen fills this painting with props and scenes related to Valckenburgh. For example, an impressive building is featured in the background of the framed window. This building depicts Fort Elmina located on the African Gold Coast (“Portrait”). It is here that Valckenburgh performed his role as director-general. The pointed baton held in his hand reinforces his occupational status. To Valckenburgh’s left, a shiny helmet sits on a table. All of these props contribute to Valckenburgh’s military persona; however, the gold medal held by the African servant boy is most representative of his position.   

Overshadowed by Valckenburgh’s size, the servant boy all but almost fades into the background, but the gold medal catches the viewer’s attention. The Dutch West India Company presented Valckenburgh with this medal for his services rendered (“Portrait”). Upon closer examination of the painting, the same gold color is used in Valckenburgh’s armor. Perhaps this incorporation is meant to symbolize that his role as director-general is a part of him? It is ironic that the African servant is holding this medal, as it represents slavery and colonialism. Even more so than the medal, the most representative prop is the African servant boy. Of course, this boy is a living, breathing human worthy of respect and individuality, yet he is not treated as such in this painting. 

Sadly, there is very little difference between how the boy is illustrated in comparison to the other props. In some cases, a prop like the baton is given more attention than the boy hidden away in the corner. None of the sunlight from the window reaches the boy; he is left in the shadows. With his body positioned toward Valckenburgh, the boy is simply another object used to direct the viewer’s eyes toward Valckenburgh. The boy wears a subservient gaze as he looks up at the towering general. With the red curtain’s color shifting to a lighter hue around Valckenburgh’s head, he almost seems to be wearing a crown or halo of some sort. Perhaps the servant boy is meant to be worshipping Valckenburgh’s god-like figure? The African servant boy in the painting is yet another prop to emphasize Valckenburgh’s power. Ultimately, most painters did not illustrate Africans with autonomy; their presence was solely used to represent the wealth and power of white subjects. 

Humberto Tan, Ruud Gullit as Jacob Rühle, c. 2019
https://www.amsterdammuseum.nl/en/exhibitions/dutch-masters-revisited

While Africans were often treated as subhuman, it is dangerous to only present them in subservient roles. Many paintings from the Dutch Golden Age minimize the presence and power of Africans during this time. These paintings only tell a single story—the white Dutch aristocratic version. Thankfully, the Amsterdam Museum recognizes the country’s dark history and is actively coming to terms with it. Through its exhibit, “Dutch Masters Revisited”, the museum highlights Black excellence. In a series of photographs, present-day influential Dutch people of color pose as historically important Dutch individuals from the 17th and 18th centuries (“Dutch”). 

In the photo above, football player and manager, Ruud Gullit, poses confidently as the successful 18th-century businessman, Jacob Rühle. As the captain of the only Dutch team to ever win the UEFA European Football Championship, Gullit is a household name in the Netherlands and throughout Europe (“Gullit”). Similar to Rühle, who was born to a Dutch father and an African mother, Gullit is also biracial. Gullit grew up with his Dutch mother and Surinamese father in a one-level split room apartment (Ruud Gullit). Unlike Ruud Gullit, Jacob Rühle enjoyed a very privileged upbringing. He had access to an excellent education and family connections that other Black individuals did not have during this time. Apart from his family’s money, Rühle gained his wealth as a merchant profiting off the slave trade for the governors of the West India Company and for himself (“Hollandse”). 

Rühle’s involvement in the slave trade complicates his image in Dutch history. On one hand, his success is a testament to the important roles that Black individuals played in Dutch society. Yet, this success was built off of the suffering of other Black people. Rühle’s dark past also places Ruud Gullit, an advocate for social justice issues, in a difficult position. Why would a vocal supporter of anti-racism choose to pose as a slave trader? Perhaps Gullit believes that it is better to tell Rühle’s complicated story rather than to erase yet another Black figure from Dutch history. Ultimately, the viewer can form his or her own opinion on Jacob Rühle, but this can only happen if his story is told. 

In Jacob Rühle’s photographic portrayal, Ruud Gullit’s theatrical pose brings this historical figure to life. Like any good theatrical portrait, Gullit looks directly at the viewer. His facial expression oozes confidence. Similar to Jan Valckenburgh, Gullit asserts his authority through his stance. Gullit seems to mimic Valckenburgh as he extends one arm to physically claim the portrait space. Through their stances, both establish their power. Despite their similar stances, Valckenburgh and Gullit do differ concerning one major issue—props. Although props are a key characteristic of theatrical portraits, this photograph only includes one prop, a wig, that has little meaning to Jacob Rühle. As previously mentioned, Grootenboer commented that meaningful props are necessary to elevate subjects from the status of a puppet to a person (Grootenboer 323). Yet, despite the absence of props, this photograph loses none of its theatrical quality. 

Because Ruud Gullit is a prominent Dutch figure, viewers automatically recognize him and understand the theatrical nature of this photo. Props are not needed to give Gullit subjectivity because the viewer already knows him as a real person. Since viewers can recognize themselves in Ruud Gullit, they can more easily relate to Jacob Rühle. Overall, good theatricality comes down to whether or not the subject can speak to the audience. Props are helpful in bolstering the image of the subject, yet no number of props can animate a lifeless figure. Thus, Gullit’s posing alone encaptures the viewer. As light beams around his outline, there is no doubt that Gullit is the main subject. With his right eyebrow slightly raised, Gullit questions why the viewer has entered his domain. Unlike the African servant boy hidden in the shadows, Gullit is the clear master of this scene. While Valckenburgh had to use the servant boy as a prop to demonstrate his power, Gullit radiates importance in his stance and facial expressions alone. Ruud Gullit demands attention, while the servant boy fades into the background. Both Jacob Rühle and the African servant boy lived relatively close to each other, yet the way they are each depicted seems as though they lived several centuries apart. 

Ultimately, visibility is important. Solely depicting Africans in a servile manner spreads misinformation about the so-called Dutch Golden Age. In reality, there were powerful African figures during this time period; however, a viewer would never guess that from Daniel Vertangen’s Portrait of Jan Valckenburgh. To show the full history of this time, museums must feature artwork that portrays Africans as independent individuals and not mere objects of white masters. As Jacob Rühle and Ruud Gullit demonstrate, the experience of a biracial person in Amsterdam is not a straightforward one. Factors such as occupation, social status, colorism, and wealth all contribute to the number of obstacles a biracial person must overcome to achieve success. While these are complicated issues, this photograph starts the conversation on what it means to be Black in the Netherlands.

References:

“Dutch Masters Revisited.” Amsterdam Museum, 2 Oct. 2019, www.amsterdammuseum.nl/en/exhibitions/dutch-masters-revisited.

Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits.” Art History 33.2 (2010): 320–333. Web.

“Gullit and Davids: We Need to Talk about Racism in the Netherlands.” DutchNews.nl, 22 June 2020, www.dutchnews.nl/news/2020/06/gullit-and-davids-we-need-to-talk-about-racism-in-the-netherlands/.

“Hollandse Afrikanen.” Slavernij En Jij, 4 Sept. 2013, www.slavernijenjij.nl/situatie-afrika/hollandse-afrikanen/.

“Portrait of Jan Valckenburgh, Daniel Vertangen, c. 1660.” Rijksmuseum, www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-4969

Ruud Gullit – Early Life – RuudGullit.net, http://www.ruudgullit.net/early_life.html.

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One thought on “Dutch Art: Reevaluating The Golden Age

  1. Really nice contrast here, and extension of Grootenboer’s theory beyond just the props. That bit about no sunlight reaching the little boy kills me; nice, terrible little detail to point out there.

    Like

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