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A Brief Overview of the Dutch Art Market in the Seventeenth Century

The Abundance of Paintings

It has been estimated that between five and ten million works of art had been produced during the century of the Golden Age of Dutch art. Very few of these, perhaps less than 1%, have survived. "Works of art, ranging from simple prints and copies to originals hung in almost all Dutch homes. For example, pictures of some kind or another were found in about two thirds of Delft households.1

paintings for sale in 17th century netherlands
Detail of a Dutch painting showing
paintings for sale on the street

After the end of the 80-year war with Spain in 1648, the Netherlands had emerged as a vital new political, economic and cultural force. One of the consequences of the Republic's independence was the change in the balance of power, power which had for the first time in modern history, passed into the hands of bourgeois. This change was to have enormous repercussions on the art market.

Although the birth of a capitalistic society is often cited in relation to the sudden explosion of artistic production in the Netherlands, the abundance of money may explain why pictures could be bought, but it does not explain why they were so strongly desired. Curiously, just to the south, France, a much large country, had far fewer painters even though the arts had been actively encouraged by Louis XIV.

One explanation for the Dutch desire for paintings is related to the population's quintessential affection for their land and home. "A considerable proportion of inhabitants of Dutch towns had more than sufficient income to provide for their fundamental needs. Many chose to spend their surplus on furnishing for their homes, including pictures. This lead to a great demand for paintings at low prices. Since these paintings were to be hung in rooms of ordinary Dutch houses, most of them were small."2 In 1968, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga explained the Hollanders' love for pictures in a different way calling upon their "intense enjoyment of shapes and objects, the(ir) unshakable faith in the reality and importance of all earthly things, a faith that... was the direct consequence of a deep love of life and interest in one's environment."

"Seventeenth-century Dutch art has long been recognized as a distinctly urban form of visual expression. In the Netherlands rapidly expanding cities and towns were the main location for artists, patrons and the market, while much of the subject matter of Dutch art reflects the experiences and aspirations of middle-class urban elites. It has become commonplace to use urban origins as one of the key criteria in classifying Dutch art. Artists working in close proximity in a common style and with shared iconographic interests are grouped together under such designations as "the Leiden fijnschilders" and "the Utrecht Caravaggists." Others have gone further to assign labels to entire communities and coin terms such as "the Haarlem School" or "the Delft style."3 In their travel diaries, many foreigners, among them, Englishmen John Evelyn (fig. 1) and Peter Mundy and the Frenchman Samuel Sorbière, commented on the amazing abundance of paintings in the Netherlands. Mundy, visiting Amsterdam in 1640, wrote:

As for the Art off Painting and affection off the people to Pictures, I thincke none other goe beeyond them, ... All in generall striving to adorne their houses ... with costly peeces, Butchers and bakers ... yea many tymes Blacksmiths, Coblers, etts. [etc], will have some picture or other by their Forge and in their stalle. Such is the generall Notion, enclination and delight that these Countrie Native[s] have to Paintings.

Portrait of John Evelyn, Robert John Walkerfig. 1 Portrait of John Evelyn
Robert John Walker
Oil on canvas, 87.9 x 64.1 cm.
National Portrait Gallery, London

Evelyn wrote, "pictures are very common here [in the Netherlands], there being scarce an ordinary tradesman whose house is not decorated with them." The figures given to us by historical documents confirm the travelers' amazement. In the middle of the seventeenth century some Dutch homes had thirty to fifty paintings per room, rooms which, it should be noted, were not all that spacious.

The idea that the Netherlands abounded with good painting "must have become commonplace at the time. Quite likely, a proud awareness of this phenomenon was already imbedded in the self-image of the prosperous Dutch burgher."4 One of the most influential men of culture in the Netherlands and connoisseur par excellence, Constantijn Huygens, noted that landscape painters "in the present Netherlands are so tremendously plentifully represented and of such high quality that it would take an entire book to discuss them all individually."

However, opinions vary as to whether or not the lower socio-economic classes also had significant access to the art market.

While Mundy's and Evelyn's comments were likely based on fact, it is important to note that the pictures they mentioned varied greatly in quality and price. A cheap engraving, for example, could be had for about a third of the price of a small fish or flower still life painting—and for about a seventh of the price of a more elaborate, high-finish banketje still life. On the other hand, a cutting-edge fijnschilder (fine painting) work of Gerrit Dou might be sold for 1,000 guilders or more, the cost of a comfortable Dutch house. While acknowledging the abundance of paintings in the Netherlands, the art historian Mariët Westermann believes that the foreigners' accounts should not be taken literally because laborers and small peasants surely could not afford more than a few mediocre prints, if that.5

However rather than embracing the art of painting wholeheartedly, a minority of Dutchmen condemned it on moral and religious grounds as a dangerous form of "deception."6 As early as 1624, the ire of Dirck Raphaelsz. Camphuyzen…was roused because the art of painting was so well-liked that one could say nothing against it: "Painting! ha, who can denounce it without [inciting] general rebellion?" One can turn nowhere without seeing pictures: "The whole world depends on engraving, drawing, painting," he cries out in despair. "Painting is the common bait for the uneasy heart overwhelmed by choice, / That despite having to meet essential needs charms the money out of one's purse, / Painting seems to be the sauce for all that sprouts from the human mind."7

Paintings for Sale, Leonaert Bramer Paintings for Sale
Leonaert Bramer
Brush and black ink, 200 x 160 mm.
Prentenkabinet der Rijksuniversiteit Leiden, Leiden

In any case, despite the extremist religious opposition in some quarters, "for the Dutch...art functioned as a social cement, reinforcing the shared beliefs and aspirations that helped unite communal concerns. In the works of most artists both style and content reflected taste not of the wealthy and sophisticated, but of people in moderate circumstances. For this, international fashion could be largely ignored. This allowed the full development of native artistic species."8 Perhaps no pictures more than Hendrick Avercamp's winter scenes represent the extraordinary social and artistic cohesion exclusive to the Netherlands among European nations.

What, if any, effect did the unprecedented availability of artworks to a broad range of the population have on the perception of art itself? "Once a luxury item reserved for the leading elite and the House of God, paintings were typically unattainable and somewhat incomprehensible for most citizens…" and with the transformation of "the nature of art ownership and appreciation," the work of art "was transformed into something that was frequent and familiar. Though art had not degenerated into an overlooked object of utility, the differentiation between paintings and other objects was somehow weakened."9 It may not be an exaggeration to say that in seventeenth-century Netherlands "paintings were treated in a similar way to furniture or plate—they embellished the home, and could be expected to keep their value or perhaps even increase it."10 Certainly, only a handful of artists attained an aura comparable to that which surrounds the figure of the artist today. Unlike their colleagues from the south where history painting had originated, Dutch painters no longer encumbered by theoretical obligations of morally uplifting contents or divine spirituality. And perhaps, this unassuming character of Dutch art,...is precisely what causes it to be so appealing in modernity—making it more special to us, in some ways, than the self-important art commissioned by the pretentious patrons of princely courts and powerful priests.11

It is curious to note that neither Rembrandt, Hals, Van Ruisdael nor Vermeer had ever traveled to Italy but were content to develop their own particular style of painting in the comfort of their homeland studios even though Italy had been considered throughout Europe the cradle of art, the knowledge of whom was indispensable to create true art.

from the abstract of:


Ingrid A. Cartwright, Ph.D., 2007

In the seventeenth century, Dutch and Flemish artists presented a strange new face to the public in their self-portraits. Rather than assuming the traditional guise of the learned gentleman artist that was fostered by Renaissance topoi, many painters presented themselves in a more unseemly light. Dropping the noble robes of the pictor doctus, they smoked, drank and chased women. Dutch and Flemish artists explored a new mode of self-expression in dissolute self-portraits, embracing the many behaviors that art theorists and the culture at large disparaged.

Dissolute self-portraits stand apart from what was expected of a conventional
self-portrait, yet they were nonetheless appreciated and valued in Dutch culture and in the art market.

Dissolute self-portraits also reflect and respond to a larger trend regarding
artistic identity in the seventeenth century, notably, the stereotype "hoe schilder hoe wilder" [the more of a painter, the wilder he is] that posited Dutch and Flemish artists as intrinsically unruly characters prone to prodigality and dissolution. Artists embraced this special identity, which in turn granted them certain freedoms from social norms and a license to misbehave.


Patronage, Competition and Diversification

The church and monarchy, which had been traditionally the most powerful patrons of the arts, were substituted in the Netherlands by a newly formed and wide based middle class. After the iconoclasm of the Calvinists in the 1560s, the church had all but ceased to provide commissions for painters. The Reformed Church allowed money to be spent only for the decoration of church organs. "Compared with the rulers of other European countries, the House of Orange was relatively modest patrons of the arts, especially in regard to Dutch painters who rarely received commissions from them."12

With scarce aristocratic patronage, history painting, which once dominated the pictorial arts, gradually became a minority art. The vacuum was barely noticed: new categories of painting quickly evolved in this dramatically new economic environment. Portraits, landscapes, seascapes, still-lives, flower painting and genre themes, which had once existed primarily as descriptive elements within history painting, became independent motifs in the early sixteenth century. In the need to keep step with the rapidly evolving market, some painters developed more efficient techniques to increase their output and maintain affordable prices for a broader consumer base. The invention of tonal painting made the new landscapes [e.g. Jan van Goyen, Jan Porcellis], which were painted in this style, much cheaper to produce, making secularized demand for non-religious subjects possible on a grand scale.13 On the other hand, the Leiden fijnschilders took the opposite route and produced works of such technical perfection and intellectual distinction that their makers could demand extraordinary prices not only from occasional elite buyers but self-styled Mecenas who entertained the hope of linking the fame of a great painter to their own posterity. Yet, "there is no evidence that these patrons commissioned specific themes. They merely bought the right to buy any picture the master chose to make.14 In the case of Vermeer's patron, Pieter van Ruijven, who had collected perhaps one-half or more of the artist's entire output, it has been impossible to ascertain if he had exercised his will as to the choice of subject matter or style even though the first pictures Van Ruijven bought were Vermeer's very first interiors. In any case, producing such expensive, time-consuming paintings had the advantage that the upper economic crust who could afford them remained largely isolated from the effects of by economic downturns, in fact, their wealth often increased.

Each category of painting was subdivided into even more specific categories. Seventeenth-century Netherlanders had developed a particular a passion for depictions of city and countryside, either real or imaginary unfound in other parts of Europe. Landscape painters, for example, produced naturalistic views of the Dutch countryside, cityscapes, winterscapes, imaginary landscape, seascapes, Italianate, nocturnal landscapes and even birds-eye view of the sprawling Amsterdam metropolis. "Local scenery asserted Holland's national pride, while vistas of foreign sites recalled the extent of its overseas commerce. Holland's ocean ports teemed with fishing and trading ships, and the tiny country's merchant fleet was almost as large as all the rest of maritime Europe's combined. The Dutch prized seascapes and insisted on accurate renderings of each hull and rigging line."15

How did Vermeer fit into the dynamic Dutch art scene? When the Delft artist became active in the late 1650s, subject matter had largely been staked out. Dutch painters—the great part of whom would not have objected to be called craftsmen—were infatigable workers, exceptional inventors and they had an enviable knack for pictorial juggling. In comparison to the rest of Europe, the variety of independent subject categories and painting styles at the fingertips of Dutch art shoppers was bewildering. Subjects ranged from Biblical scenes to life-size pictures of bare-breasted prostitutes. One could choose from low-priced landscapes, seascapes, snowscapes, Italianate countrysides with an ancient ruin or two or a breath-taking bird's-eye view of Amsterdam. For those who preferred depictions of fellow Dutchman over pictures of Dutch land, sea sky and bricks, paintings of folk people skating, aristocrats surveying the countryside on horseback, people arguing, people making business, soldiers making war and dignitaries making peace were available in any size and style. These paintings were so popular and so conveniently priced that they could be made on order and exported to European capitols by art dealers.

One of the most original types of painting to be developed was interior genre works which displayed well-to-do going about daily life, from ritualized courtship to letter reading, letter writing and housekeeping (today grouped under the term "genre"). "Vermeer, who begun to produce his genre paintings in the late 1650s, could not have embarked upon a career in this specialty at a more auspicious moment. The Dutch economy virtually exploded with the cessation of hostilities with Spain in 1648; indeed, the nation's economy would reach its apogee within a few short years after that event.16


The multiplicity of categories in Dutch seventeenth-century paintings was fostered by the fact that instead of painting to the order the few wealthy and powerful, painters were (for the first time in the history of Western art) producing wares for individual buyers each with a different economic and cultural backgrounds receptive to pictures with all kinds of subject matter and a wide range of styles. Since it took a very long time to become proficient in any one area, painters usually specialized and concentrated their efforts to one area. Vermeer and Rembrandt were among the few painters who were able to create masterpieces in different categories.

It has been hypothesized that the "surprising development of specialties around 1600 stemmed partly from the division of labor practiced in the big Antwerp workshops earlier in the sixteenth century. The leading Antwerp painters were accustomed to leaving the execution of considerable parts of their pictures to other artists. As heads of workshops they decreed the choice of subjects and he style of execution; they also supplied the design and maintained contact with the customers."17 However, specialized assistants were recruited for landscapes, drapery, animals and landscape architecture.18 By concentrating solely on drapery, a painter could dedicate full time to excogitate new techniques to depict different textures with the utmost fidelity. The ability to render textures and fine fabrics soon became one of the tests of Dutch genre painters. Philip Angels, a minor painter who wrote an eulogy on the art of painting (In praise of the Art of Painting, Leiden, 1642), maintained that the viewer should be able to distinguish the difference between satin and silk from "Tours."

By the time Vermeer had begun to depict his interiors, painters had devised formulae to depict almost every natural or man-made textures that one might encounter. In effect, when Vermeer included satin garments in his painting, he was well aware that they would be compared to those of one of the most highly appraised and sought after painters of the moment Gerrit ter Borch.

Gerrit ter Borchfig. 3 Woman Drinking Wine with a Drunken Soldier
Gerrit ter Borch
Oil on canvas, c. 1658–1659
Private Collection

Gerrit ter Borchfig. 2 Young Woman with a Glass of Wine, Holding a Letter in her Hand
Gerrit ter Borch
Oil on canvas, 38 x 34 cm.
Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

Perhaps, the inclusion of many finely rendered wall maps in Vermeer's compositions was an attempt to compete with the best specialist of the high end of interior genre painting. In fact, compared to Vermeer's more elaborately depicted maps by Vermeer, in almost every case, those of his contemporaries are executed with what can only be termed nonchalance. Many non-painters may fail (understandably) to grasp the extraordinary pictorial intelligence and visual sensitivity necessary to render with the utmost naturalness the gradual loss of intensity daylight as it rakes across the maps' irregular surface while contemporarily describing their intricate topographical features with only three or four pigments. For contemporary art lovers with a the trained eye, Vermeer's maps may have appeared to constitute a veritable tour de force of painting technique, a pictorial accomplishment on par with, or even a trump of Ter Borch's showy satin gowns or Dou's renditions of stone, brass, pewter and glass. For it is one matter to astound the eye by representing precious and oddly textured materials, it is another to stir equal interest with flat expanse of humble paper. It cannot be ruled out that Vermeer's wall maps were dictated by aesthetic and compositional exigencies although the opportunity to showcase in a highly original way the artist's hard-won technical command of the medium must have been in the back of his mind as he planned his expensive pictures.

The principal sub-themes of interior genre—letter-reading and writing, music making, courtship, child rearing and domestic labor—formed a collective stock house from which anyone could draw as he pleased without the slightest preoccupation of being accused of plagiarism. Painters continually cloned their own works. Eye-catching details were "copied and pasted" countless times. For example, Ter Borch, a painter blessed with both supreme talent and business savvy, made a mirrored version (fig. 2) his Woman Drinking with a Drunken Soldier (fig. 3) a few years later to picture he swapped the lazy folds of a carpet and wine jug for the drowsing young cavalier contemporarily substituting the pristine porcelain wine jug held tightly by the maid with an unfolded letter: a new composition, a new meaning.

Painters of lesser talent hoped their remanaged works would appeal to the tastes of clients who desired the cutting edge works of the most renowned painters at an attractive price, while more talented painters factored in their specific artistic inclination as well. Any salable looking motif could be made to look a bit newer by adding a colorful Turkish carpet, a cute lad dog or a doorkijkje (see-through view leading the viewer's to another environment).

Painters like Dou, Frans van Mieris and Gabriel Metsu had reached such a point of technical virtuosity that there was little room to move forward. Many of their paintings must be, and certainly were studied with the aid of a magnifying glass in order to appreciate their astounding microscopic level of detail, unseen even the works of the early Flemish painters.

Artistic Rivalry

Eric Jan Sluijter, "On Brabant Rubbish, Economic Competition, Artistic Rivalry, and the Growth of the Market for Paintings in the First Decades of the Seventeenth Century." http://www.jhna.org/index.php/past-issues/volume-1-issue-2/109-on-brabant-rubbish

Writing in 1678, Samuel van Hoogstraten noted that "In the beginning of this century, Holland's walls were not as densely hung with paintings as they are now." He continued, "However, this custom crept in more and more every day, seriously spurring some artists to learn to paint quickly, indeed to make a work, whether large or small, every day." He ends this passage by saying that "seeking both profit and fame," a wager was ultimately made as to who could fashion the best painting between sunrise and sunset, following which Van Hoogstraten recounted the famous anecdote about the competition between Porcellis, Van Goyen, and Knibbergen.

The above suggests that Van Hoogstraten was aware of the fact that people had been filling their houses with increasing numbers of paintings as of the beginning of the century, a development he links with the emergence of a rapid production technique. He also posits that financial profit was not the sole motive for painting more quickly, but that the desire to attain fame was a factor as well. Finally, in pursuit of fame, artistic rivalry, too, proves to have played an important role. Van Hoogstraten's remarks encompass ...the fashion of decorating houses with a great many paintings, the spectacular growth in their production and the attendant technical innovations, economic competition, and artistic rivalry.

* English translation of E. J. Sluijter, "Over Brabantse vodden, economische concurrentie, artistieke wedijver en de groei van de markt voor schilderijen in de eerste decennia van de zeventiende eeuw," in Kunst voor de markt, ed. R. Falkenburg, J. de Jong, and B. Ramakers, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 50 (1999): pp. 112–143.

Artistic rivalry was also lauded in contemporary art literature as it was regarded not only as an attempt at surpassing the great masters from the past, but also as an endeavor of outdoing their own contemporaries. "These writings and the actual practice indicate an artistic climate in which specific interaction amongst artists and art lovers could be regarded as a 'symbiosis' that inevitably must have led to choices on the basis of social-economic and artistic motivations… and thereby it distances itself from the term 'influence' which traditionally has been used in art history to describe the interaction between artists."19

Paintings for Sale

In the seventeenth-century Netherlands, paintings were sold in a wide variety of styles, prices and places. Paintings could be bought directly from artists in their studios or from art dealers who had become the most important buyers of art. Each dealer bought and sold works of different origins and at different prices. Some commissioned works of important painters for their best clients and bolstered their stock by employing copyists or "gallery slaves" who produced any kind of painting that was asked of them. Some dealers sent printed illustrated catalogues to potential clients. Some painters were called upon to illustrate books or to invent decorative motifs for ceramic wares.

In the Netherlands, decorating "the house with a variety of rather inexpensive paintings, something the immigrants were already familiar with, caught on with the native population. Second generation immigrants took advantage of this profitable gap in the market and competed with the imported works by producing paintings with similar techniques and subjects, but of a higher quality.",20

When previous purchasers deceased, paintings which they had been bought and hung in their houses found their way again into the open market through estate auctions which were attended by dealers. Innkeepers, such as Vermeer's own father, frequently dealt in paintings. Paintings were also sold fairs and at lotteries which were organized for the benefit of charitable organizations. The Guild of Saint Luke of Delft organized such an auction each year its members.

Prices were generally low for undistinguished works because competition was fierce. On the lower range paintings could be bought for a few guilders. On the upper range for 500 guilders, approximately half of the price of an average house. Painters who had been trained in the Guild of Saint Luke had better chances of earning a respectable living.

Artists' Income and Economic Background

To meet demand for works of art, an extraordinary number of artists provided an equally extraordinary number of paintings. According to the scholarly research, in the 1650s, painters in the Netherlands belonging to the Guild of Saint Luke numbered about 650–700, or about one painter for every 2,000–3,000 inhabitants, a ratio which far exceeded that of Italy, one of the most artistically productive areas of Europe.

The average income of those artist's who were registered with the guild exceeded that of other craftsman. A number of noted artist were able to earn great sums of money (especially through portraiture) and elevate themselves to higher cultural levels within Dutch society.

Guild restrictions were intended to ease the excess of competition by limiting the sales of works of art by painters who were not registered in the Guild of Saint Luke of that municipality in which the artist wished to sell his works, but abuses of these restrictions were widely reported. By guild definition, both house-painters and artists were considered painters since they both used brushes, whatever their size. In the middle of the seventeenth century, painters broke off and formed their own trade organizations called brotherhoods in a few cities. Brotherhoods were founded in Dordrecht in 1642, in Hoorn in 1651 and in the Hague in 1656, which was called Pictura. In Delft, where Vermeer resided, fine artists controlled the guild so there was nothing to be gained by breaking off into a separate organization.

Success was guaranteed by the production of art which matched the buyers' expectations. But many painters depended on secondary sources of income to survive. Vermeer was known to have dealt in works of other painters but it is not known how much success he had. However, even though in his early years Vermeer had secured a patron, the well-to-do Delft burger Pieter van Ruijven who bought approximately half of his production, in the later part of his career, he was unable to support his numerous family with his own dealings owing to his unusually large family as the ruinous war with France which had all but leveled the then flourishing art market. Ironically, the advantage of having a fixed client/artist relationship with Van Ruijven hindered the spread of the artist's name outside his native Delft since almost all his works were in the hands of few clients. Vermeer depended largely on the generosity of his well-to-do mother-in-law in those difficult years.

Specialist research21 has demonstrated that although Dutch painters were generally believed to have come from lower social classes it has been shown that their background was solidly middle-class. "For example, twenty six of twenty seven Delft painters whose origins are known about and who were registered with the guild between 1613 and 1679, were sons or wards of painters, art dealers, engravers or glass makers who themselves were members of the Guild of Saint Luke or elsewhere."22 Vermeer's own father was registered on the Guild of Saint Luke of Delft as an art dealer. The level of literacy among painters seems to have been very high. Although Vermeer's mother was illiterate, his father signed and witnessed a number of legal documents.

The Guild of Saint Luke and Training

Barent Fabritiusm
Young Painter in his Studio

Barent Fabritius
Oil on panel, 72 x 54 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, along with faience-makers, printers, bookbinders, glassmakers, embroiderers, art-dealers, sculptors were bound together in local trade organizations called the Guild of Saint Luke. These organizations dated back to the middle ages. The guilds' principal function was to regulate commerce of artists and artisans and to control the education of young artists and painters. Local art markets were protected from external artistic production by imposing fines. However, in general guilds were unable to forbid foreigners and non-guild members from selling their art.23 Roughly a third of the guild's income was devoted to the needs of poor members and their families.

Training was expensive. The aspiring young painter who wished to become an accepted member of the Guild of Saint Luke had to undergo a period of apprenticeship that lasted from four to six years with a recognized master painter of the guild. On the average, the family of a young apprentice who lived with his parents paid between 20 and 50 guilders per year. Without board and lodging, up to 100 guilder were needed to study with more famous artists such as Rembrandt and Dou. If we consider that school education generally cost two to six guilders a year and that apprenticeship generally lasted between four and six years, the financial burden of educating a young artist was considerable. Moreover, during the apprenticeship, the parents had to do without their son's potential earnings since during this period the apprentice could not sign and sell his own paintings rather, all the works he produced became property of that master. Evidently, the lure of significant future earnings must have existed.

gild of St Luke, Delft A bird's-eye view of the Guild of Saint Luke the Map and Profile of Delft, 1703 or 1752 (original version 1678) by Johannes de Ram

Boys customarily became apprentices at the age of ten or twelve, through the signing of a detailed contract by the father of the apprentice, who paid specific fees, and the master to whom the boy would study. Artistic training started with the copying of drawings and prints. Next, the student would learn to draw from plaster casts, some of which were fragments of human figures, including classical sculpture. Successively, the student was permitted to draw from the live model. A number of interesting paintings portray groups of apprentices attentively drawing from a live model while the master patiently looks on. Only when the apprentice had acquired skill in drawing was he permitted to paint copies of other artist's work. These copies were frequently sold in order to increase the earnings of the apprentice's master. The student might also copy the works by his master and lastly he painted directly from the live model.

a drawing of the St Luke guildhall in the time of Vermeer
The Hall of the Delft Saint Luke on the Voldersgracht
Gerrit Lambert
Graphite, pen and brown ink, brush and gray ink, 24.9 x 19.3 cm.
Gemeenarchief, Delft

The facade on the left represents the inn/house owned by Vermeer's father.

The apprentices obligations were many. Menial chores were required of him such as cleaning the studio, grinding pigments, stretching canvases, placing paint on the masters palette each day. As he advanced in his ability, he was permitted to work on the areas of his master's canvases of lesser importance such as the foliage in the painting's background or some of the less evident draperies. Usually, after six years of training he could try and apply for membership in the guild by submitting a painting, called the masterpiece. If approved, he began to pay his dues and was allowed to paint, sign and sell his own work and take on apprentices of his own. The master-apprentice relationship contemporarily permitted the master to increase his output and earnings while training new painters.

Earnings of Painters Belonging to the Guild of Saint Luke

A detailed study of the Dutch art market has shown24 that artists who had received formal training and belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke earned on the average between 1,150 and 1,400 guilders a year. This sum was between two and three times as much as a master carpenter earned in the same period. However, if an artist was able to fulfill the expectations of the most affluent members of the public he could rise to be a member of the leading artistic group and in a few cases, such as Ter Borch, to city's upper-class. A few painters like Rembrandt, Honthorst and Dou were so popular that their studios operated like large firms rather than the humble studios which were represented in many Dutch genre paintings of the time.

A single portrait by Rembrandt could bring as much as 500 guilders while a small genre piece by Dou could be sold between 500–1,000 guilders. It is interesting to note that most elevated prices were paid for works by celebrated Renaissance Italian ranged from 2,000 and 3,000 guilders in the later part of the sixteenth century. An incredible number of artists were successful and prosperous in their careers but became impoverished later on.25 Among painters of the fijnschilder mode, it was, was customary to charge for the time he worked on a painting, using and hourly rate.

Generally speaking, 20 guilders was a good price for a painting when wages for a Delft cloth-worker were less than one guilder a day. "Some artists like Jan Steen and Gerard Houckgeest had income from breweries. Jan van de Capelle owned a cloth-dying works. Philips Koninck bought a canal shipping business. Many painters were happy to take up other better-paying jobs or to marry well. Meyndert Hobbema seems to have become a part-time painter in 1668 when he married the maid of an Amsterdam burgomaster and was given a well-rewarded post as a wine gauger, a sort of weights-and-measure inspector. Ferdinand Bol and Aelbert Cuyp both married wealthy women and could afford to paint less. Yet many artists, even the greatest, found it hard to sell their work for enough money and went through the ordeal of insolvency: among them were Jan van Goyen, who died in 16565; Frans Hals, who died in 1666; and Rembrandt, who died in 1669. Some, like Brouwer, Hals and de Witte turned to drink. Hals was usual 'filled up to his neck with drink every night,' Houbraken tells us. De Witte, dreadfully poor at the last, was found drowned in an Amsterdam canal, and presumed a suicide."26 Vermeer died presumably from a stroke brought on by his inability to provide for his numerous family brought on by the ruinous war with France which had virtually destroyed the art market. A side from these particular cases, an average artist's income exceeded that of most other craftsman.

Categories of Painting 27

In the seventeenth century, painting was divided into roughly five categories: histories, including subjects from the Bible, history, mythology and allegories; landscapes, including seascapes and a variety of marine paintings; still-lives; genre painting; portraits. Although histories had been traditionally held as the most praiseworthy of all painting categories, the other four had gained considerable popularity from the early years of the century. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, histories had comprised about half of the half of those paintings listed while landscapes about one-fifth.

By the end of the century, landscape had increased to slightly less that half while histories had decreased to about only ten meager ten percent. Paintings with historical, mythological or allegorical content were significantly found only in the more valuable inventories, that is, in wealthy and, presumably, educated families. However, the persistent increase in the number of landscapes was accompanied by the lowering of price. Landscapes had become so popular and the competition so fierce that artist were always at odds as how to keep up with market's demand. Industrious Dutch painters experimented innovative techniques and considerably shortened the time necessary to finish a landscape. Consequentially they became cheaper. Descriptive detail gave way to a more "painterly" style in which artists had learned to suggest an infinite variety of lighting conditions with only few carefully chosen tones. The landscapes of Van Goyen, who had been one of the most prolific painters of his time (he painted more than 1,000 picture), were widely copied.

The third most popular category was portraits, followed by still life and genre. By the end of the century, the lure of having oneself portrayed seems to have waned, perhaps in consequence of a society who had grown less confident in its means.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the painting market had considerable declined although the older and more expensive masters were still sought after.

One of the last developments in painting styles was the increase of genre painting, or representations of everyday life. The term "genre," which reassumed paintings of bordellos, tavern brawls, peasant life and quiet upper-class interiors such as those of Vermeer, each had its own denomination.


While the production of paintings in the first half of the seventeenth century rose, it leveled off for a few years and then plummeted after the war with England of 1665–1667 and trickled to nothing after the so-called rampjaar (year of disaster) in 1672. Some cities in the Netherlands were more vulnerable than others to the decline in the art market.

Utrecht's art community stopped growing about 1650 while the number of painters in Delft increased for another decade. Marten Jan Bok has argued that "the market for paintings was vulnerable to cyclical trends in the economy, since art is not one of life's primary necessities. Moreover the durability of paintings was such that living masters were increasingly forced to compete with their deceased colleagues, whose work reappeared on the market every tine an estate was put up for sale. At some point in the 1650s oversupply began negatively to affect prices, and many artists were forced to declare bankruptcy or to seek other employment."28

Vermeer's own financial situation had been gravely effected by the collapse of the art market. After the artists' sudden death in 1675, his wife declared to her creditors that following the French invasion, her husband had no longer been able to sell his own paintings or those of other painters he dealt in. And "as a result and owing to the great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead.

A contemporary observer named Van der Saan compared the late seventeenth-century trade in paintings with that in tulips. As a result of the economic decline, he said, "many no longer desired to buy paintings or to plant flowers. Then many scarcely earned in one year what in former times they had recklessly spent in one hour."


  1. John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  2. Madlyn Mille Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco and London, 1978, 10.
  3. John Loughman, Call for Papers: "City Limits: Urban identity, Specialization and Autonomy in 17th-Century Dutch Art," 2008–11-01, http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=163025
  4. Eric Sluijter, "On Brabant Rubbish, Economic Competition, Artistic Rivalry, and the Growth of the Market for Paintings in the First Decades of the Seventeenth Century"' JHNA I:2 (2009). http://www.jhna.org/index.php/past-issues/volume-1-issue-2/109-on-brabant-rubbish
  5. Mariët Westermann, A Worldly Art: the Dutch Republic, 1585–1718, New Haven and New York: Yale University Press, 1966, 33.
  6. Plato believed mimesis should always be subordinated to Logos: reasoned argument. Book 10 of The Republic deals specifically with art and artists and Plato makes it quite clear that the mimetic artist would be excluded from the ideal state, since "he wakens and encourages and strengthens the lower elements in the mind to the detriment of reason."
  7. Eric Jan Sluijter, "On Brabant Rubbish, Economic Competition, Artistic Rivalry, and the Growth of the Market for Paintings in the First Decades of the Seventeenth Century," http://www.jhna.org/index.php/past-issues/volume-1-issue-2/109-on-brabant-rubbish
  8. Madlyn Mille Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco and London, 1978, IX
  9. Emily Heersink, "Expensive Wallpaper: The Belittlement of Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art," http://www.uwo.ca/visarts/research/2008–2009/bon_a_tirer/Emily%20Heersink.html
  10. J. L. Price, Culture and Society in the Dutch Republic during the 17th Century, London and Batsford: Scribner, 1974, 134
  11. Emily Heersink. http://www.uwo.ca/visarts/research/2008–2009/bon_a_tirer/Emily%20Heersink.html
  12. Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, 82.
  13. Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, 133
  14. Mariët Westermann, A Worldly Art: the Dutch Republic, 1585–1718, New Haven and New York: Yale University Press, 1966, 38.
  15. "Tour: Dutch Landscapes and Seascapes of the 1600s Overview," National Gallery of Art (website), http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg50/gg50-over1.html#jump
  16. Wayne Franits, The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art), ed. Wayne Franits, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 2.
  17. Wouter Kloek, "Dutch Seventeenth-century Painting—The Art of Talented Specialists," in exh. cat. Dutch Art of the Age of Vermeer, Tokyo, 2000.
  18. Many of the Southern specialist painters emigrated to the North in search of religious freedom and bought with them their skills challenging and stimulating local Dutch production.
  19. Erna Kok, "Innovation through Rivalry. History Painting in Amsterdam 1635–1645," ECARTICO Economic and Artistic Competition in the Amsterdam Art Market, c. 1630–1690;
    History Painting in Rembrandt's Time
    . http://burckhardt.ic.uva.nl/ecartico/projects.html#subproject3
  20. Eric Sluijter, 2009. http://www.jhna.org/index.php/past-issues/volume-1-issue-2/109-on-brabant-rubbish
  21. Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997.
  22. Wayne Franits, 2001, 2.
  23. Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, 74.
  24. Most of the data in this section is drawn from: North, 1997
  25. Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, 71.
  26. Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001, 40.
  27. Marten Jan Bok, "Society, "Culture and Collecting in Seventeenth-Century Delft," in exh. cat. Vermeer and the Delft School, ed. Walter Liedtke, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, 210.

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