I often leave museums unsatisfied. True, I have enjoyed the beautiful objects presented but I have the feeling that the insight they could give me into the object’s period has been neglected. A painting by Uccello for instance is not only valuable for its artistic value but also as a witness of its time. Its size, its price, its mode of production, the clientele it was made for, its components are all valuable clues to understand a culture and an economy that are long-gone.
Thankfully, the book A Wordly Art. The Dutch Republic 1585-1718 by Mariët Westermann offers us an introduction into one of the richest periods of art history. I will devote several of the coming posts to some Dutch paintings used as sources for economic history.
Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait in Painter’s Costume is one of the abnormally numerous depictions of the artist by himself. Even though the sheer amount of Rembrandt’s self-portraits is exceptional, it is also symptomatic of a period when the individuality of the artist was a newly recognized value. Many 17th-century Netherlandish painters went out of their way to apply their trademark on their work. Unsurprisingly, the habit to sign one’s work spread at that time.
Signatures and the varied ways of stressing the individuality of an artist were also designed to hide the fact that master painters were commonly hardly involved in a growing portion of their workshop’s output. Including a trademark was also a useful way to authenticate a picture at a time when the resale of painting was becoming increasingly important.
During the Dutch Golden Age, for the first time, a mass market for art developed. Numerous artists all over the country were working full time to match the growing demand for painting from the middle class. In these conditions, only a distinctively unique painter could hope to command higher prices. A high degree of self-awareness combined with the ability to be recognized as unique was essential to become successful.
This painting by Rembrandt is also some sort of manifesto for his rough style of painting where the brush strikes are clearly visible against the smoother style of his former student Gerard Dou which was gathering momentum and pushing Rembrandt out of fashion. This piece (as indeed most of Rembrandt’s self-portrait) was not referenced as a picture he owned at his death, thus it can safely be assumed that it was sold and designed to be seen outside his house. Suddenly this self-portrait takes a new signification: it is a piece of advertisement for an aging artist struggling on a competitive market.