Citizens living in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century enjoyed, perhaps, what was at the time the highest living standard in the world. The Eighty Years’ War had ended with the Treaty of Westphalia cementing Dutch independence over Habsburg rule. Booming trade, bulwarked by the all-powerful Dutch East India Company, brought to the low countries new wealth and a bevy of foreign luxury objects — including blue and white porcelain from Ming dynasty China.
It is during this era that Chinese porcelain became a quasi-subject of its own in Dutch art, appearing regularly in still life paintings draped with fruits, blanketed by flowers, and paired with fine silver and glassware. That porcelain imported from distant shores would form so prominent a feature in Dutch material culture is remarkable, demonstrating the rapid extent the East Indies trade was able to influence and mold popular taste.
But even the emergence of still life painting as an independent genre is extraordinary for the transformational socio-cultural forces that facilitated its development. Prior to the Dutch Golden Age, there was no precedence for the widespread production of large-scale oil paintings featuring inanimate objects. Although its roots can be traced to Greco-Roman mosaics and Medieval illuminated manuscripts, still-life art had heretofore been relegated to the realm of decoration and niche novelty. But in the decades before and after 1600, Dutch and Flemish (Flanders being part of the Dutch Republic until the Belgian Revolution of 1830) artists began painting material things with unabashed focus and fervor.
A century prior, the Protestant Reformation had led to a banning of religious iconography in denominations under the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church; this effectively ended the church and clergy’s age-old role as art patrons. This benefaction vacuum was gradually re-filled by the rising Dutch middle classes, who found the rich material world portrayed in still life art particularly appealing. The subject matter, at the discretion of the artist (but informed by popular taste), usually combined flora and fauna—such as botanical specimens, food, and hunted game—with lavish or exotic objects, all presented in a state of frenzied artifice, as if to proclaim, “there’s no end to the food, wine, and song.”
The Netherlands, with its low-lying fenlands and marshes, perpetual threat of floods, and weather bordering on gray, has traditionally bred a frugal pragmatism that still informs the Dutch national character today. But the 17th century was the age of the Tulip Mania— one during which exotic fineries were traded and acquired by the growingly prosperous upper and middle-classes as an exercise of newfound purchasing power, as a rebellion against austerity, and as a diversion from the everyday ordinary.
Looking at these paintings, one is overwhelmed by a sense of gleeful exuberance. These are images of a society self-assured in its affluent materialism. Thriving commerce had led to rapid urbanization of Dutch cities such as Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Haarlem, and with it, a degree of social modernization towards consumerism and personal avarice. Well-to-do patrons no longer cared if art was the dominion of angels and revelations; still-life compositions found popular success by parading material wealth with reckless abandon, as exemplified by the carelessly broken roemer goblet in Hulsdonck’s painting (above).
The genre also came at a moment when philosophies and intellectual ideas fomented during the Southern European Renaissance and Age of Exploration came to occupy the Northern European consciousness. The shift towards humanism and secularism had encouraged the rise of an educated middle class with an insatiable curiosity for the natural world, the sciences, and the globe beyond. There was real interest amongst “gentleman scientists” to collect and study fossils, natural artifacts, and geological specimens. A still life by Frans Francken the Younger (below) shows a Renaissance-style ‘cabinet of curiosities’, where a Wanli blue and white wine cup is juxtaposed with exotic seashells, excavated Roman coins, and preserved oceanic creatures.
Subgenres emerged. A style called Pronkstilleven (Dutch for ‘ostentatious’ or ‘sumptuous’ still life) became a specialty of Antwerp painters. Bedriegertje (“little deception”) utilized trompe-l’œil techniques and optical illusions to depict objects in a three-dimensional conceit. Vanitas paintings presented sumptuous arrangements of jewelry, finery, musical and scientific instruments, and flowers (ostensibly to remind viewers to eschew worldly pleasures, but were really admired for their visual virtuosity.)
Another still life, by Antwerp’s Peter Boel (below), displays the worldly cosmopolitanism of a society fully cognizant of the world and its vastness. There’s a kind of captivating possibility in these paintings: Boel’s composition seems to stage the known world for all to see— the Ottoman carpet, Australian cockatiel, Ming bowls, Iberian gilt-silver tray, and South American Tarantula are each representative of their corner of the globe, which is fully realized in the center-right, with the American, African, European, and Asian continents fully visible.
The Dutch Golden Age, with its sweeping urbanity and global awareness, was in large part underwritten by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC), which was the largest company of its kind in history, and at the height of its powers was considered a formidable ‘state within a state’.
Formed in 1594 as a humble trading company outfitted with two fleets, the organization quickly evolved into a state-chartered company with the reach of a multinational corporation. The VOC was a pioneer of corporate-driven globalization, and was the first company in history to be listed on an official stock exchange. Its colossal growth coincided with the acquisition of government-like powers, which included the ability to wage war, execute prisoners and enemies, strike coins, and establish overseas colonies.
Much of the VOC’s early success was dependent upon victory over rival power Portugal for naval and territorial dominance. Between 1600 – 1660, the company essentially waged war on Portuguese merchant interests via land and sea. In 1605, it drove the Portuguese off Ambon, Tidore, and the Moluccas (modern-day Indonesia); Jakarta was then forcibly converted into a VOC colony (and renamed ‘Batavia’) in 1619. Portugues power in the east diminished as the Dutch established a firm foothold in Coromandel, Bengal, Iran, Gujarat, and Formosa (Taiwan). VOC command of the high seas was then secured by the establishment of Cape Town (South Africa) as a naval base to safeguard entry into the Far East. The final two decades of the conflict, 1640 – 1660, saw Malacca, Ceylon, and Malabar switch hands from the Portuguese to the Dutch.
To boast, publicize, and monetize its growing victory over its rival, the VOC had turned to wholesale piracy. It became habit and practice for VOC ships to seize Portuguese merchant vessels, and then to sell stolen loot in highly publicized public auctions. In 1602 and 1604, the Dutch seized the Portuguese carracks Santa Catarina and San Yago. The 15000-ton Santa Catarina was a particularly lucrative capture: proceeds from auction increased VOC capital by more than 50%. Among the looted goods were Chinese Wanli period blue and white porcelain made for the European export market. To this day, this type of late Ming export blue and white is generally known by its Dutch moniker: kraakporselein; kraak being a Dutch transliteration of “Carrack”— a type of large ship the Portuegues utilized for maritime trade.
Kraak porcelain was something of a new development in Chinese ceramics: for the first time, Jingdezhen designed and fired vast numbers of porcelain exclusively for European taste and consumption. A significant portion of these export pieces would bear motifs and shapes with no precedence in China. Special forms such as the klapsmut bowl (which featured a broad everted rim to accommodate heavy European soup spoons), and “sparrows-beak” ewer (spout reduced for the pouring of hot chocolate rather than wine) were designed specifically with European gastronomical habits in mind. Other shapes such as roemer goblets, square wine jugs, and salt cellars were copied from existing European glass and metalwork. Painted decorations would include uniquely European motifs such as tulip scrolls, armorial shields, and Greco-Roman style mythological masks.
Prior to the late 16th century, Chinese porcelain was already known to Europeans, but entered Europe indirectly—and in limited numbers—through older Silk Road trade routes engaging Central Asian and Mediterranean middlemen. No large production specifically dedicated to a European market existed at Jingdezhen or elsewhere, and export supplies dwindled after the Xuande reign, when the 15th century ushered an era of political instability and isolationism in Ming China. What little porcelain making its way to Europe were considered so scarce that even pieces of average minyao quality were mounted in silver or gold, and tucked away in the collections of kings and queens.
When a direct-line importation of Jingdezhen porcelain was first opened by the Portuguese and then sustained by the Dutch, Europeans consumers responded with thirst bordering on febrility. Attentive buyers of kraak porcelain at the VOC-organized Santa Catarina and San Yago auctions included Henri IV of France and James I of England. In subsequent decades, Ming blue and white porcelain entered Europe in astonishing numbers: by 1625, when Dutch foothold in China was strengthened by the establishment of a trading post at Fermosa (Taiwan), inventories regularly listed between 100,000 to 250,000 pieces of porcelain per ship. A VOC vessel might be stocked with a smorgasbord of goods, from spices (nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, cloves etc) to tea and silk. But among these, only porcelain was entirely water-proof and thus formed a major bulk of the goods by serving as ship ballast.
Commenting some years earlier about the Portuguese trade, Bartholomew of Braga wrote in 1592:
“In portugal we have vessels with many advantages over gold and silver. I would counsel all princes to buy this material and forego the use of silver. We call it porcelain. It comes from the Indies, but it is made in China, a material so fine and translucent that its beauty is as great as glass or alabaster. Sometimes it has blue decoration, which appears to be a mixture of alabaster and sapphire. Of course it is fragile, but it is also cheap. Such vessels are esteemed for their beauty as well as their rarity, and that is why we use them in Portugal.”
When the Dutch seized control of the East Indies trade, ownership of Chinese porcelain became even more attainable and prevalent in Europe. No longer were fine china gifts of diplomacy between kings and statesmen; direct importation brought kraak wares into the realm of the fetishized everyday-ordinary. Along with silverware, roemer glass, Islamic textiles, pewter and brass vessels, Chinese porcelain belonged to a class of objects that were theoretically affordable even by the middle-classes, but still attained allure as luxury objects loaded with social capital and prestige.
Still-life with peaches and a lemon, Juriaen van Streek (Amsterdam), 1632 – 1687. Source: Public domain/ wikiart
As foreign exotica, Chinese porcelain also came to be viewed as a spoil of colonialism. A still-life by Juriaen van Streek (above) pairs a kraak dish laden with fantastic fruits with a young black man. Although bejeweled and richly attired, he wears a rather theatrical ‘costume’ generally associated with page boys (the tunic with the puffy slashed sleeves would have been considered outdated and infantilizing for a grown man during the 17th century). Although frequently categorized as “servants” and “pages”, the black men and women portrayed in Dutch golden age paintings were de facto slaves gifted or purchased by those who can afford them as status symbols and fanciful “playthings”. In this sense, both the kraak porcelain and black man are portrayed — and indeed, regarded — as the fruits of empire, literal trophies from distant shores … the material manifestation of colonial ambitions, treacherous sea voyages, and battles fought and won. They become status symbols with layered significance: one, a triumph of personal wealth; two, a triumph of Dutch exceptionalism against the world.
As Kraak porcelain settled into Dutch interiors and the material home, it too came to take on meaning and symbolism in the private sphere. Among Dutch still-life compositions, there is a group of paintings that depict kraak porcelain in hushed and intimate settings:
The paintings of van der Ast and van de Velde (above) are reserved, pulling back from the riotous ostentation of pronkstilleven painters like Boel. Aside from a single kraak bowl, van Hilsdonck (below) eschews the trappings of wealth altogether. These works are less ambitious in compositional scope, if not for a reduction in the sheer number of objects depicted, then for a decreased optical distance between our gaze and the subject, as if the painter is inviting viewers in for a closer look.
This narrowing of distances produces an intimation of seduction: at once the fruits appear tantalizingly ripe, the insects buzzing with activity; we are called to touch, smell, and taste. The kraak porcelain in these paintings is not so much a status symbol but an object of beauty, celebrated for the way its vitreous surface catches light, for its striking blue-and-white aesthetic, and for whatever tactile or sensory pleasure it may bring.
It is through various subgenres of still-life that one can trace the levels in which kraak porcelain had penetrated Dutch life in the half century between 1600 – 1650, from ship to market to the private home. The earlier-discussed displays of materialism or colonial dominance are public expressions. But perhaps more fascinating are the private expressions— elusive instances of Chinese porcelain occupying the private imagination.
In Vermeer’s thematically intricate A Maid Asleep, a miniature still-life composition is staged to the lower left corner, featuring all the familiar cues: the fruits, the Ottoman carpet, the roemer goblet filled with wine, and a blue and white kraak dish. But beyond decoration and display, the objects evoke psychological intrigue. According to MET curator Walter Liedke:
On the table, a large Chinese bowl of fruits hints at temptation […]; the wine pitcher, a roemer on its side, and a knife and form support the impression that an intimate party was in progress […] the knife and white jug lying open-mouthed under gauzy material intimate that the tête-à-tête could have become another kind of intercourse.
Working in the 1650s, Vermeer and his audience would have been familiar with the image of the fruit-laden kraak dish; its immediate effectiveness as a symbol for seduction relied on its ubiquity and popularity, and of the inviting power of still-life paintings such as those by van de Velde and van Hilsdonck.
In the case of A Maid Asleep, the kraak dish works in concert with a cleverly woven web of visual clues to stage a psychologically complex image-beyond-the-image. Half-obscured in the shadows of the upper left corner is a painting, shown in fragment, of Cupid’s leg and a carnival mask. The latter is a reference to the Commedia dell’arte, a form of masked theatre from Italy that had spread to the rest of Europe in the 16th century. Together with Cupid, there is suggestion of love unmasked, or perhaps more sinisterly, of courtship and deception. A visible key, a literary and visual symbol of domestic fidelity, in the lock of an open door hints, in the words of Liedke, “that not only household but also feminine virtue has been left unprotected”.
It is owing to Vermeer’s power as a genre painter that so much tension crouches just beyond the canvas. Together, the choice, placement, and meaning of still objects create a kind of visual kinesis for ‘offstage’ action. The nearly-depleted goblet of wine, indolently rumpled Ottoman carpet, and half-turned chair hint at recently departed company. Indeed, an x-radiograph examination of the work by the MET revealed the ghost of a departing man, posing in profile by the far chamber, whom Vermeer had ultimately painted over to heighten the ambiguous drama already realized through the interplay of still-life objects.