The Amsterdam Rijksmuseum presents a large collection of 17th Century art: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals. It also hold a collection of Asian art, brought home by Dutch sailors during the Amsterdam Golden Age, the 17th century. The Dutch bourgeoisie, having some money to spend, adored the ivory, silver, silk, ebony and jewellery and had themselves painted along with their new treasure. Yes, it’s the 17th century version of the selfie.
From Asia to Amsterdam
From the 1600 Dutch entrepreneurs who sent off ships to East Asia, joined together to form the first multinational organisation: the Dutch East India Company, known in Holland as the VOC.
The goal of the Dutch VOC was to create a monopoly on the spice trade in the entire area east of India. And so did. By waging wars, negotiating treaties, striking their own coins and establishing entire colonies and governing them, the company was most powerful trading entity for the next 200 years.
Textiles, pottery, spices and stuffed animals
The exotic goods the sailors found in countries such as China, Japan, Formosa and Indonesia were shipped back home to Amsterdam. We’re talking lots and lots of porcelain but also precious Japanese lacquer and silk, strange spices, exotic animals, furniture made with black ebony and clothes of Indian cotton.
The history of Delftware
All these precious items decorated the interior of the canal mansions of the Amsterdam elite merchants and soon enough, also of the Dutch middle-class. Especially the blue-white porcelain from China was popular. It was much thinner, smoother and lighter than the Dutch pottery.
In Delft, they got inspired and soon enough they were producing their own version of the porcelain. We now know this as Delftware (‘Delfts Blauw’). Later the colored Japanese pottery entered the Dutch market.
The 17th century Selfie
The luxury eventually ended up in the portraits that the well-off ordered from the Dutch painters. Clara Peeters, Floris van Dyck, Pieter Claesz, Willem Claesz. Heda and Willem Kalf were masters at depicting the texture of shiny porcelain.
On theses portraits, the rich merchants wear Japanese skirts, a long loose-fitting silk coat and the ladies were pictures with their Chinese teapot and matching cups, served on a Japanese lacquered table.