- The Business of Art in Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam: Painting as a Contribution to the Wealth of the Nation
The Dutch painters of the seventeenth century had the ambition to make their profession a “free art” in the humanistic sense. In contrast to their poetry-writing contemporaries however, they had not the proper contempt for financial gain. Painters and their admirers saw in the financial rewards a reason to rank the art of painting higher than the art of poetry. 1 The painter-theoretician Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678) made even more of the benefits, when in his Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst (1678) he stated that painting could also be profitable for the nation and its inhabitants. Pointing at France where since Henry IV the art of his country was nurtured in order to deprive the Italians of this source of income, he informed the rulers of the Republic that for generating an income from indigenous painting nearly no investments needed to be made. Painting stood on its summit already, and therefore the rulers should be aware that the art of painting: “as befits our fatherland, like an invaluable quarry, a pearl fishery, or a mine of precious stones, can daily produce many rich jewels of cabinet paintings, which without squandering too much costs could be turned to objects of great value through the ingenuity of only a few eaters.” 2 Van Hoogstraten therefore advised the authorities to find means with which to increase the foreign demand for Dutch paintings. As examples he mentioned the preferential treatment of art dealers or presenting exemplary new paintings to foreign heads of state. 3 By new paintings van Hoogstraten probably alluded to examples of the at that time highly praised and very expensive fijnschilderkunst in which amongst others his fellow-townsman and pupil Godfried Schalken (1643–1706) was a master. 4
It is remarkable that Van Hoogstraten brought forward this modern economic argument for the art of painting at a time when the provincial and municipal authorities of the Republic were seeking new strategies to promote trade and industry. Since about 1660 there had been a local economic setback which was caused (in a present-day analysis) by a combination [End Page 115] of factors: the mercantilist trade policy of the neighboring countries and the stagnation of population growth and purchasing power. In addition the national debt had greatly increased because of the military operations against the territorial expansionism of Louis XIV. 5 Undoubtedly in his proposal to stimulate exports Van Hoogstraten had his eye on the welfare of both the nation and his colleague painters. Their position on the local market was far from rose-colored. The great demand for paintings in the first half of the seventeenth century resulted in overproduction. As paintings usually have a long life, there was an ample supply of good and relatively cheap specimens available on the market. This phenomenon together with the general decline in purchasing power caused a strong decline in the demand for contemporary paintings. 6 Demand was limited to the most financially secure citizens: in fact, during the last decade of the seventeenth century, apart from a small group of fijnschilders, only portraitists and painters of wall hangings for reception rooms in stately homes managed to make a living. In the work of these three categories of painters the elegant, internationally oriented taste of the contemporary elite is clearly reflected.
Opening the foreign market for Dutch paintings seems to have cost the Dutch themselves little effort. For instance the purchases which some of the commanders of the occupation army of Louis XIV made locally, seemed to be the start of a lively interest in Dutch art in France during the eighteenth century. 7 And of course the fact that in the eighteenth century Amsterdam was the European center for auctions provided attraction. Advertisements informed potential buyers well in advance of the dates of the auctions, and catalogs were sent to different locations in and outside the Netherlands. 8 In the first instance the foreign admiration applied to the fijnschilderkunst, as can be deduced from the words of a Paris art dealer who wrote in 1756: “Presque...