The Dutch East India Company imported goods that reflected artistic interactions fostered by the company’s global networks. And they filled Dutch homes with fascinating Asian designs and materials that had not been seen before. Clever potters of Jingdezhen and Arita, the silversmiths of Batavia and the textile dyers of Surat and the Coromandel Coast altered the designs and shapes of their wares, specifically to cater to European markets.
The Asia in Amsterdam exhibition features loans from more than 60 collections worldwide, including treasures from the British, Swedish and Dutch royal households, as well as from museums throughout Europe and the USA. It also presents the history behind this first global market and the impact they had on Dutch art and culture in the C17th. All of the Netherlands got involved, but Amsterdam played the central role as a marketplace.
Kakiemon porcelain jug and bowl
In The Golden Age of Dutch Art, Dutch artists were inspired by these new sensory delights and were quick to imitate, innovate and incorporate. Artists like Jan Steen, Rembrandt, Willem Kalf and Pieter Claesz incorporated Asian luxury goods and designs into their still life paintings, including Chinese porcelain, shells from the Indian and Pacific oceans and pepper from the East Indies. The timing was perfect. Dutch art peaked at the same time as Dutch maritime trade drove the Republic’s economic prosperity.
Two still life paintings will show how these artists referenced the profound C17th connections between the Netherlands and Asia. Jan van der Heyden’s Room Corner with Rarities 1712 vividly registered the arrival of these Asian art forms. The celestial globes and the atlas signalled worldly interests piqued by the burgeoning Dutch trade, while Asia was represented in the imported objects eg an embroidered Chinese silk tablecloth, a Turkish carpet or a Japanese porcelain bowl. As did Willem Kalf’s Still life with Jug, Fruit and Nautilus Cup, 1660.
One of the most popular luxury goods to be imported into the Netherlands was blue and white porcelain from the kilns of Jingdezhen in China. Visitors will see Chinese export porcelain made for Johannes Campuijs, a VOC Governor General in Batavia in the 1680s. Polychrome Japanese porcelain was imported by VOC officials returning to their homelands in the C17th, particularly from Arita in Japan. Japanese Kakiemon porcelain was loved the Dutch elite and several fine examples are on display eg a pouring jug with a golden lid, bearing the owner’s coat of arms.
Made of precious materials unavailable in Europe and decorated with intriguing and unfamiliar designs, these Asian treasures were at first sensational. The imports brought new colour, pattern and texture to Dutch interiors that were otherwise monochromatic and spare. Delft Blue became the Netherland’s quick responses. An earthenware imitation of Chinese porcelain, Delft Blue was coated with white enamel and painted with cobalt blue decorations. It was thinner, smoother and lighter than earthenware previously produced in the Netherlands.
Willem Kalf’s 1660.
Still life with Jug, Fruit and Nautilus cup,
Thyssen Museum, Madrid.
Jan van der Heyden 1712
Room Corner with Rarities, 75 x 64 cm.
Budapest Museum .
Dutch household interiors and furnishings were also influenced by Asian designs and fashions of the time, as were personal clothing and accessories, such as the Japanese-style dressing gown/rok. This garment came to the Netherlands through VOC officials, who had been presented with them by the shogun on their annual court visit, illustrated in Michiel van Musscher’s 1686 portrait of VOC director and burgomaster of Amsterdam, Johannes Hudde. Hudde was also a very scholarly mathematician and wanted to look scholarly in his portrait.
Tea was imported in small quantities in the late C17th from both China and Japan, but then it become one of the most profitable trade commodities for the VOC in the C18th. Drinking tea in many Dutch households initially had a medicinal purpose, but that soon changed. Dutch women introduced the ritual of Chinese tea drinking into their social calendars, so wealthy households needed new objects for serving it, often combining Chinese and European pieces.
Imported Asian spices changed Netherlandish life as well. Pepper, the VOC’s main Asian import to the Netherlands, was used in most Dutch households and the VOC imported four million pounds of pepper each year during the C17th. Costly spices were stored and served in newly designed and elegant vessels, so appropriate for exotic foreign spice
One of the largest cities in Europe at that time, Amsterdam became a vibrant centre for goods and information. The city’s celebrated canal ring was built in direct response to dramatic population increases and the new prosperity fostered by global trade. The city became a centre for new ideas and information. And bhe VOC imported large quantities of diamonds to the Netherlands, Amsterdam became Europe’s centre for diamond cutting and resale.
Many homes throughout Amsterdam were filled with diverse Asian imports, especially the elegant mansions built on the Herengracht. Amalia van Solms, the wife of the Stadtholder, was the ultimate Dutch tastemaker. She collected the finest Asian luxuries, slept in a bed made of lacquer, wore priceless Asian pearls and owned 1,400 pieces of porcelain, arranged onto carved and painted shelves.
Michiel van Musscher, 1686
Portrait of VOC director and burgomaster of Amsterdam, Johannes Hudde
wearing a Japanese robe made from silk
wearing a Japanese robe made from silk
I wondered why, when the exhibition left Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, it moved to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Surely there were larger and more famous galleries in the USA. PEM itself gave the answers. Firstly Salem was an important international trading hub. Secondly PEM is the country’s oldest continuously operating museum, founded in 1799 (only one year after the Rijksmuseum was founded). Thirdly Salem holds one of the most comprehensive collection of Asian export art in the world, including works traded from China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia, dating from the C15th on.
If you didn't make it to Amsterdam on time or will not be able to visit Salem, read Alain Truong, Jasleen Kandhari or PEM. Best of all is the large and well illustration exhibition catalogue.