Men at work in Dutch art, or keeping one's nose to the grindstone.

Author:Kettering, Alison M.

Among the chief delights of leisure is getting away from toil. This is not new. Why would a person at leisure want to look at a person who is working? More particularly, why would a well-to-do and well-educated viewer hang a painting of manual labor on his wall? Why would an artist paint such an image? In early modern Europe, these questions were easily answered: viewers did not seek such images and artists did not paint them.

Like most generalizations, however, this one had its exceptions. In the early modern period, one European society produced more images of labor than all the others combined. Dutch artists produced--and Dutch buyers purchased--paintings of men engaged in all sorts of skilled labor: straining over a grindstone (Fig. 1), slamming a mallet against hot metal (Fig. 3), bending mind and body to shape a shoe (Fig. 16). Urban artisans dominate these pictures, men whose trades helped form the economic core of the thriving Dutch cities.

This is not the Dutch art celebrated today in novels, films, documentaries, and exhibitions, nor in textbooks and other sorts of academic writing. We have come to associate seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting with scenes of refined domestic contentment, intimate social behavior, and quiet prosperity, usually as defined by women. In the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, and many others, sweeping done by a maid is often the most energetic physical work to be seen. When men are included in these urban domestic scenes, they typically engage in games of chance, rituals of courtship, or pursuits requiring mental rather than bodily exertion. Even in peasant pictures, another important thematic category for the Dutch, the men more frequently carouse than shoulder the heavy tasks that actually filled their days.

Paintings of urban artisans plying their trades are thus outliers in two significant senses: they focus on productive work rather than on leisure, and they are set in an urban environment that is decidedly masculine rather than feminine. (1) Scholars have written relatively little about these images, in part because their subject matter occurs outside the usual repertoire. In the past, when such works were discussed at all, they were typically viewed as straightforward depictions of ordinary folk of humble means. (2) Because of the often extraordinary mimetic persuasiveness of these paintings, they were assumed to have had a documentary function, recording the tools and methods of the age. Yet most recent studies argue, not surprisingly, that these images, like other early modern genre representations, followed their own visual and ideological imperatives, interpreting even as they described. (3) Understood as artistic formulations rather than factual documents, they reveal more about the concerns of artists and audiences than about the literal appearance of specific seventeenth-century streets and shops.

These depictions raise historical questions about the challenges that early modern socioeconomic forces, including protoindustrialization, presented to age-old ideas of labor. They also raise cultural questions about how notions of "home," "work," "masculine," and "feminine" intersected. While some of these imagined workplaces exclude women and any hint of domesticity, others oddly evoke the same quiet and comfort that contemporary pictures of a female-centered environment so effectively convey. (4)

The most complex of these representations of manual labor present not a single view of work and of workers but multiple views and explore a range of overlapping issues. Quiringh van Brekelenkam's paintings of workshop interiors (Figs. 16-18, among many others), produced from 1653 to 1661, constitute the most numerous subset of this genre. (5) Typically, they catalog the skills and materials of the well-kept workplace. The head of the shop, usually an experienced older craftsman, is positioned in the center of the space, often accompanied by apprentices. The master's wife sometimes appears as well, but off to the side. Brekelenkam's paintings show their largely middle-class viewers how artisan and shop ought to be seen. More open-ended are two ambitious paintings on relatively large canvases by his better-known contemporaries Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu.

Ter Borch's The Grinder's Family, about 1653-54 (Figs. 1, 2), depicts a man sharpening a scythe on a sizable grindstone. (6) He stretches his body along a cloth-covered plank in a position that gives him maximum control. His tense, muscular arms hold the blade against the turning stone, which rests in a trench, its axle level with the ground. Water used to cool the process can be seen splashing up against the backboard. The power source for the operation, an apparatus driven by a horse or mule, is barely visible in the darkness of the shed at the rear. Near the grinder stands another workman, outfitted with a cap and a smith's apron. Scythe blades rest on the bare ground in front of the grindstone. In the foreground, a woman sits attending a child. Run-down buildings surround the figures, while a well-maintained building constructed of costly materials can be seen in the background.

Metsu's Interior of a Smithy, of about 1657 (Fig. 3), incorporates this contrast of wealth and status into its narrative. (7) Here a self-assured, elderly master workman, accompanied by an apprentice boy, operates inside his shop. His client is no fellow artisan but a supercilious member of the leisured class, who has brought his horse in for shoeing. The contest of competing wills is played out in a dark, dramatically lit shop, which, unlike the shabby, ramshackle work yard of Ter Borch's grinder, is fully outfitted and furnished with a bank of colorful stained-glass windows.

Such nuanced representations of manual labor must have prompted close, extended looking and engaged their audience in conversation about a variety of ideas, some of them problematic, about class and gender in relation to occupation. Whether innovative or derivative, conservative or progressive (or a combination thereof), these paintings show artists grappling with how best to visualize men at work--what to imagine, what to record or to leave out, what, in fact, to consider picture-worthy. More often than not, we find that "picture-worthiness" corresponded to the urban audience's notion of its own society as ordered, civilized, and prosperous.


Let me acknowledge that the historical and cultural contexts that I discuss here are necessarily less discovered than constructed. They reflect our modern-day understanding of work as a sociocultural rather than merely economic activity, and they assume class and gender to be central categories of analysis. "Class"--a concept developed in the nineteenth century--will be understood here in its early modern sense as rank or, in Dutch, stand, with a focus on those rungs of society that included artisans and craftsmen, men who identified with their individual occupation or calling rather than exhibiting a "working-class consciousness."


As for gender, nothing separates the objects of this study more obviously from the majority of Dutch genre paintings than their focus on male figures in a largely masculine working environment. In recent decades, with the rise of feminism, a number of scholars have written about working women and the ways they were pictured in the early modern Netherlands. (8) "Masculinity," by contrast, has just begun to surface as a topic for study. (9) The images here of working men--pictured as husbands as well as producers--allow us entry into some of the ways that Dutch culture implicitly understood "maleness."


Poems and Prints about Work

For some today, nineteenth-century images of labor are better known than their seventeenth-century predecessors. Ford Madox Brown's mural-sized Work of 1852-65 (Fig. 4) comes immediately to mind. This and related paintings have recently occasioned a good deal of discussion about art that pictures labor in nineteenth-century Europe. (10) A plethora of texts, among them narratives by the artists, including Madox Brown himself and later Vincent van Gogh, and writings by such social critics as Thomas Carlyle, the foremost articulator of the Victorian "Gospel of Work," allow historians to reconstruct the interpretative field for this kind of art with some confidence. Although no Carlyle exists for earlier periods, it is still possible for us to discern the outlines of the early modern European discourse of work, a discourse rife with competing positions.

The traditional early modern view, a legacy of ancient and medieval Christian thinking, understood manual occupation as inferior to intellectual activity." (11) In this conservative view, any work involving the physical body was considered degrading, a punishment for humans' original disobedience in Eden, and thus a mark of their fallen nature. Nevertheless, the Bible commanded people to work. Moreover, work protected the industrious against the vice of sloth, considered one of the deadliest of sins. Work also served an important moral purpose. One would work in order to live a virtuous life, to serve God, even to gain salvation. But gradually during the early modern period, a more worldly, secular, and civic appreciation of work began to develop. Attitudes drew closer to our present-day thinking, which connects work with productivity, social advancement, esteem, and wealth. This new set of attitudes emphasized the link between diligence and personal prosperity as a desirable end both for the individual and for society. (12) Physical work that paid well came to be seen as inherently valuable. For a good long time the traditional religious view, stressing work's essential virtue and moral purpose, coexisted, sometimes uneasily, with this more modern view, highlighting the contribution of work to individual and socioeconomic...

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