Gossip of the Golden Age

Revisiting the Golden Age through Arnold Houbraken en Johan van Gool 

Some have called it gossip. Others named it a chronicle of scandal. It has even been labelled as the source of all fabrications. I am talking about the Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen by Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719). This three-part work contains the biographies of over 600 Dutch artists of the seventeenth century. The encyclopaedic-like work was published almost three centuries ago and is therefore seen as the first comprehensive analysis and inexhaustible source of the lives of the Dutch painters of the Golden Age. Why then is this work received with such negative comments?

Facts or fiction?
The main part of the answer lies in Houbraken’s method by which he obtained the necessary biographical information for writing his life work. The task to find the crucial information about the lives of the painters was incredibly difficult for Houbraken. He did not have easy access to a large database full of biographical information, like we have nowadays. Houbraken had to start from scratch. By talking to family members, friends and pupils of the often dead artists, he gained lots of anecdotes and biographical information about the lives of the painters. These anecdotes and ‘facts’ became, altogether with poems, eulogies and illustrations, organized in chronologically order, the backbone of the Groote Schouburgh.

A portrait of Arnold Houbraken in the Groote Schouburgh.
In these anecdotes Houbraken frequently mentions the drinking habits of artists such as Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Frans van Mieris en Melchior de Hondekoeter. Of Frans Hals, for example, Houbraken says that he often was so drunk, that his pupils had to bring him home and put him in his bed. Jan Steen became such a fan of alcohol that he eventually started his own liquor store. According to Houbraken, Steen did not feel the need to take care of his children because they only stood in the way of him and his drinking hobby. His response to solve this problem was to poison his children with rotten herring. Luckily, his attempt failed. Later on, Steen and van Mieris developed a close friendship, and thus Steen found a drinking buddy in his newfound friend. Houbraken blames Steen for having a bad influence on van Mieris when Houbraken heard that van Mieris fell into the gutter when he got back from Steen’s house.

Frans van Mieris and Jan Steen pictured together in the Groote Schouburgh. Note that the monkey is a symbol for the painters job: aping reality.
Because Houbraken was not an eyewitness of these events critics became aware that these tales were anything but true. With the increase of scientific methods in the nineteenth century, the demand for factual information grew as well. As a result, Houbraken’s books were stamped as useless and were tucked away far from the public use.

Aims to continue
But not everybody thought of the books as total gibberish. The Dutch painter Johan van Gool (1685-1763) saw it as his duty to create a sequel of Groote Schouburgh. He wanted to continue the aims of Houbraken. These aims were to keep the memory of the great Dutch painters alive, so that they could serve as models for the young artists of his time. For Houbraken the Dutch art reached its peak in the period 1560-1660. Houbraken was concerned that nobody would fill the gap between these great masters and the modern artists, so he wanted to encourage the modern artist to take an example of these great masters of the Golden Age.

A portrait of Johan van Gool in the Nieuwe Schouburg.
Van Gool’s Nieuwe Schouburg, published in 1750-1751, continued the tradition of artistic biography in chronological order, starting at about 1630 and finishing at about 1725. Van Gool too was concerned about the lack of good work by the modern painters and tried, just like Houbraken, to provide stimulating examples. Van Gool wanted to offer a more objective – as far as possible in that day and age – work by using less anecdotes about the 190 artists he choose. He operated in a neutral style where his own meaning is not as manifest as with Houbraken. Nevertheless, the information that van Gool had was often from ‘eyewitnesses’ and thus not very objective.

How to become a great painter?
Both Houbraken and van Gool paid much attention to the status of the painters. They saw the success of an artist as a result of his social success. The biographies become in this way a moral compass and function as a model for the young new artists. Failure is interpreted as the result of irresponsible behaviour, like the alcohol abuse of Steen en van Mieris, and success as the fruit of virtue. Nicolaes Maes is, for example, described as a lovable person, just because he did not drink too much and was always nice to his costumers. Because of these virtues he became a great painter, according to Houbraken.

To save the young artist from making bad decisions, van Gool overwhelms the reader with life lessons. For example, in order to become a great painter one must have a low number of children, so money worries will not be an issue. Of course, laziness and debauchery will not help your career and are not tolerated. As a result of these life-lessons the books of van Gool were not embraced as factual information, but equally  considered to be gossip. A duller form of gossip though, for they contained no amusing anecdotes. The legacy of van Gool had the same fate as Houbraken’s.

A turn in (art-)history
Towards the beginning of the twentieth century critics became more aware of these hidden treasures that had been neglected for over a century. Nowadays art-historians try to show the values of the works and bring them under the attention of a broader audience. While it is still a mater of discussion whether the information in the books is reliable, the books are a great source of cultural historic information about the lives of seventeenth century painters and of the world around them. These precious books deserve a place in the spotlight. And to be fair, who does not want to read a little gossip? Tattletale is a guilty pleasure of many human beings, even over time, as Houbraken and van Gool demonstrate. J. G. Leerdam

Johan van Gool [De Nieuwe Schouburg der Nederlantsche Kunstschilders en Schilderessen] De Nieuwe Schouburg der Nederlantsche Kunstschilders en Schilderessen: Waer in de Levens- en Kunstbedryven der tans levende en reets overleedene Schilders, die van Houbraken noch enig ander Schrijver, zijn aangeteekend, verhaelt worden. Door Johan van Gool, Kunstschilder. (imp. In ’s Gravenhage, gedrukt voor den autheur M. D C C. L. 1750).
2 volumes:
I: 8o, [20] – 473 – [8] p.
II: 8o, [16] – 532 – [47] p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato Kd Goo

Arnold Houbraken [De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen] De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen Waar van ‘er veele men hunne Beeltenissen ten Toonel verschynen, en hun Levensgedrag en Konstwerken beschreven worden: zynde een vervolg op het Schilderboek van K. V. Mander. Door Arnold Houbraken. Den tweeden druk. Van veele Drukfouten gezuivert en met Nieuwe Registers voorzien. (imp. In ’s Gravenhage, by J. Swart, C. Boucquet, en M. Gaillard 1753).
3 volumes:
I: Het I. Deel. ’T Welk zyn aanvang neemt met het Jaar 1466, en vervolgt met die Konstschilders, welker geboorte in dien tusschentyd tot het Jaar 1613. Voorgevallen is.
8o, [32] – 365 – [8] p.
II: Het II. Deel. ’T Welk zyn aanvang neemt met het Jaar 1613, en vervolgt met die Konstschilders, welker geboorte in dien tusschentyd tot het Jaar 1635. Voorgevallen is.
8o, [4] – 362 – [7] p.
III: Het III. Deel. ’T Welk zyn aanvang neemt met het Jaar 1635, en vervolgt met die Konstschilders, welker geboorte in dien tusschentyd tot het Jaar 1659. Voorgevallen is.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato Kd Hou

Cornelis, Bart. “Arnold Houbraken’s ‘Groote Schouburgh’ and the Canon of Seventeenth-Century
          Dutch Painting.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 26.3 (1998): 144- 161.
----. “A Reassment of Arnold Houbraken’s Groote Schouburgh.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the
          History of Art 23.2/3 (1995): 163-180.
Ford, Charles. “Diamante gedenkzuilen en leerzame voorbeelden. Een bespreking van Johan van
          Gools Nieuwe Schouburg. By Lyckle de Vries.” The Burlington Magazine 133.1062 (1991):
Hecht, Peter. “Browsing in Houbraken: Developing a Fancy for an Underestimated Author.”
          Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 24.2/3 (1996): 259-274.
Vries, Lyckle de. “Jan van Gool als Geschiedschrijver.” Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art
          History 99.3 (1985): 165-190.

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