12 March 2016

Golden age of Dutch art and trade - the impact of Asia

The Dutch East India Company/VOC was the most powerful multi­national trade and shipping company in the world during the 1600s. At its peak, the VOC employed more than 40,000 Dutch, other European and Asian workers; owned a fleet of more than 100 ships; and maintained more than 600 stations in Asia, spanning from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. First created to import spices from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, the VOC soon established a lucrative trading network throughout Asia for costly textiles, lacquer, porcelain and spices.

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.

Inspired by these exotic imports, Dutch potters, textile designers and jewellers soon created works of art we now perceive as distinctly Dutch. Asia in Amsterdam: Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age was an exhibit­ion shown at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum until Jan 2016. Now it is at the Peabody Essex Museum/PEM in Salem Mass until Jun 2016. This exhibition of 170 fine Asian and Dutch works of art explores the impact that Asian luxuries had on Dutch art and life in the C17th, bringing new pers­p­ectives on the Dutch Golden Age and its relationship with Asia.

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 Rarities75 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

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.


Lord Cowell said...

I had wondered about the connection between Delft and oriental porcelain, and now it all makes sense. Thank you for another informative post!

Andrew said...

I too wondered why Salem, as I began to read. Amsterdam must have been quite a place at its peak and who can doubt the trading skills of the Dutch East India Company.

Train Man said...

I like the idea that tea became one of the most profitable trade commodities for the VOC in the eighteenth century. Tea is not normally thought of as Dutch.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

Europeans didn't know about the secret of kaolin. So China was the site where fine, translucent porcelain was made; plenty of it but _fearfully_ expensive for European princes to import. The Europeans had to make do with the products closest to porcelain that they could make in their own pottery centres.

Dutch potters began to coat their pots in tin glazes in the hope of creating a likeness to real porcelain. Delft ware from 1640 on was heavier and cheaper than Chinese porcelain, but the cobalt blue decoration looked very smart.

Hels said...


Of all the smallish cities in the USA, I really did spend a couple of days in Salem to inspect the history of witch-related architecture etc. But even during that visit, I had no understanding that Salem had been a very important international trading hub.

So now I will have to go back to Salem to visit the Peabody Essex Museum and its amazing collection of Asian export art.

Hels said...

Train Man

agreed. I would not have thought of the Dutch as great tea drinkers. But the Dutch East India Company in 1602 established bases in Indonesia and Japan and trade directly with the Orient. And within a couple of decades the Company's directors were already importing tons of Chinese and Japanese tea via each Dutch ship.

So when did tea come to be thought of as an English drink? Not before Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, after Cromwell and his Puritan Commonwealth was over. It was particularly Charles' wife, Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, who made tea popular as a British (and not Dutch) drink.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Yes, Salem was a very important port city, the profits from which resulted not only in the Chinese import products you mention, but also an amazing collection of Colonial and Federal era houses, many of which are by the incredible architect and wood-carver Samuel McIntire.

The Dutch also traded with and left their mark on Taiwan, especially in the Southern cities. I have seen several exhibits here of 17th century Dutch artifacts, but I think it likely that they were collected and brought here later. It would be interesting to know how much of was originally brought to Asia to trade with has survived.

Hels said...


re the early trading history of the area, I suppose the charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company from King Charles I tells it all. Even pre-settlement, this company already planned to trade and invest in the Boston-Salem area. No wonder Salem did so well in commerce, shipbuilding, fishing and warehousing. And no wonder lovely public and domestic architecture appeared in the town.

Now the question might be: why did Boston boom yet Salem remained small?

Hels said...


Thank you for mentioning Taiwan. It was inevitable that the Netherlands was going to have a big impact on Taiwan, since the Dutch were colonial rulers of that island for half of the 17th century. The Asia in Amsterdam: Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age exhibition lists all the Asian influences, including Taiwan. But I am assuming that most of the objects on display will be from/or influenced by China, Japan etc.

Yale University Press said...

Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (Karina Corrigan, Femke Diercks, Martine Gosselink, Yale University Press, 2015) is a lavishly illustrated catalogue. It discusses the Asian luxury goods that were imported into the Netherlands during the 17th century and demonstrates the overwhelming impact these works of art had on Dutch life and art during the Golden Age. Written by a team of 30 international scholars, this volume presents seven essays and catalogue entries on 150 works of art, including Dutch and Asian paintings, textiles, ceramics, lacquer, furniture, silver, diamonds, and jewelry.

Hyperallergic said...

One of the most striking images of the exhibition is an elegantly posed group portrait of a burgher family at a country home. This is hardly a novel subject, but closer inspection reveals that the mistress and children of the house are part Asian, and the servants in the wings are Indonesian slaves. In fact, while the family’s wealth was real, the stone porticoed house is fictional, as is the mountainous landscape that it overlooks. The woman is Cornelia van Nijenroode, the daughter of a VOC governor and a Japanese courtesan. When her father died, she was taken from her mother at the age of four to be raised Christian, in an orphanage.

See Jacob Jansz. Coeman, a Dutch artist who left for Batavia in 1663. His painting “Peter Cnoll and Cornelia van Nijenrode with Their Daughters and Malay Slaves” 1665 was painted in Batavia where he lived out his life.

Hels said...


Brilliant! Here was a painting done by a Dutch painter, in Batavia, set in a realistic (ish) Batavian landscape. It was not painted in the Netherlands by a Dutch artist who had never been to Asia.