Home Sweet Home
Tracing Connections Between Seventeenth Century Dutch Domestic Interiors and Saskatchewan Postcards
Author: Jesse Campbell
“Home is where the heart is.” For many, this popular phrase connotes the warmth, comfort, and familiarity associated with our dwellings. In the western world, we also share common rituals that occur in our living spaces. The home is the place where people fulfill their basic needs: eating, sleeping, and bathing. Domestic activity would seem to be an obvious choice of subject matter for a visual artist interested in depicting everyday life. One example is a postcard published in Britain between 1900 and 1910 that illustrates a daily ritual that occurs in the home. However, we may not realize that the image on this particular postcard that somehow ended up in a small city in Saskatchewan at the turn of the twentieth century had its roots in a prosperous foreign nation hundreds of years earlier. Examining the link between the postcard titled “Illustrated Songs. ‘The Old Folks at Home’” found in the Mary Taylor Postcard Collection at the University of Saskatchewan archives and seventeenth century Dutch genre paintings will explain in part how this postcard came to exist.
Illustrated Songs. “The Old Folks at Home” (1900-1910)
In visual representations of domestic interiors, like “The Old Folks at Home,” the occupants of the home are central to the image. In most cases, these occupants are clearly family members. H. Perry Chapman describes in his essay “Home and the Display of Privacy” that the idea of the modern family was formed in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.1 The early Dutch family unit was different from that of Western Europe. With approximately 3.5-4.0 persons per home, the Dutch household had fewer members than typical European families. The husband and wife had a more companionable relationship because live-in servants were rare and the Dutch encouragement of patriarchy defined the roles of each member.2 As reflected in numerous genre scenes created in the seventeenth century Netherlands, the wife typically stayed at home to care for the children and to maintain the house.3 The husband was both the financial supporter and head of the household.4 A clean home and healthy occupants meant that the family was successful in fulfilling their prescribed roles. A messy home and unruly children indicated a lack of organization on behalf of the parents, perhaps hinting at a troubled relationship. The living spaces the family occupied and their maintenance, or lack thereof, became visual evidence of the degree of their success.
During the seventeenth century there was an enormous output of visual art in the Netherlands. Over five million paintings were created, and the domestic interior was represented significantly within this number.5 An example that shows the family and their
pride in their home is the c. 1658-60 piece, Family Group at Dinner Table, by Quiringh Gerritsz van Brekelenkam. The actions of the family who have just finished a meal and the appearance of the room signal a prosperous household and showcase the early modern family unit. The father asserts his leadership by holding a long carving knife, as the head of the household always carved food for the family and guests. He is fulfilling the role of the patriarch that the Dutch society so emphasized. The younger son gives his mother a Bible (or other devotional text) bound with silver clasps, referencing both the strength of the relationship between parent and child and the value of religion. The Bible was notably important because Protestantism, which resulted from the religious reformation of the sixteenth century and consequently had a strong presence in the Dutch Republic, stressed scripture as the infallible source of faith.6 Finally, the elder son carefully wipes his mouth with a large damask napkin. (Traditionally, people would wipe their faces and mouths with their bare hands.7) The damask fabric that also covers the table indicates the sophistication and wealth of the pictured family. The dog, who eats off of a shiny plate, and the servant seen through the doorway are further indicators of an upper-class household. However, wealth was not the sole desirable status in Dutch society. Morality is also indicated by the cleanliness of the room, the subscription to religious faith, and the prescribed role to which each family member adheres.
Family Group at Dinner Table
Still, approximately 230 years later, the same elements are present in a tiny image on a postcard. Pets, a servant, and a husband and wife engage in more or less the same rituals and activities as those seen in Family Group at Dinner Table and other Dutch genre paintings. The pets sit and eat their food, the maid works for her employers, and the married couple is about to eat a meal in their home. However, the image on the postcard shows a more materially abundant space. Like the piece by van Brekelenkam, pictures still cover the walls and even the salon style in which the paintings are hung has been passed down through the centuries. The articles present in the room such as the glass mirror, sturdy dinnerware, and colourful rug recall the richness of the damask linens in Family Group at Dinner Table. Despite the relatively small size of the postcard, the number of material objects shown in the postcard image has increased compared to the painting from the seventeenth century. The collection of consumables signifies not only the financial status of the homeowners, but also points to a growing trend of consumerism in middle class families.
It appears that the newly materialistic nature of Dutch seventeenth century society acted as a model for the later English and North American cultures of commodity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Just as the seventeenth century Netherlands was a period of great wealth due to its international trading market8, the Industrial Revolution that began in the next century paved the way for mass production and, therefore, mass consumption. First in England and then migrating to North America, the creation of the factory system meant that goods were produced quickly and in large quantities.9 Additionally, the creation of the railroad in the nineteenth century meant that materials could be transported quickly and to a greater number of possible destinations.10 Forms and content of mass media grew because of these favourable circumstances. There were increasing numbers of publications on home décor and management in the later 1800s that inspired the interior style choices of the readers.11 For example, the influence from the frontispiece of the c. 1869-71 British publication Cassell’s Household Guide (Volume IV) is evident in the window treatment on the left side of “The Old Folks at Home” postcard. The sheer drapery and floral arrangement may not be as luxurious or fanciful as the window décor in the published illustration that was intended for the Victorian middle class, but it hints at household trends and an aspiration to be in style. Although the technology that produces these images has changed, our esteem for material things, which these images reveal, has remained the same throughout time and across geographic locations. The fact that the “Old Folks at Home” postcard was discovered in Saskatchewan is evidence of one of the ways in which British Victorian ideals of materialism and consumerism were transmitted and have endured.
Interiors do not tell the audience only about the design inclinations of their inhabitants, they also reveal what people like to look at. Between 1880 and 1910 thousands of paintings were produced in the western world that showed people in contemporary interiors.12 This surge in domestic subject matter echoes the artistic climate of genre painting in the Netherlands. The fact that millions of Dutch pieces were produced in the seventeenth century and were available for the middle class citizens to purchase meant that there must have been some demand for these scenes reflecting daily life. The same can be said for postcards in the western world in the early twentieth century. The medium changed and allowed for images to be seen by many people in various locations. Therefore, people had a tangible piece of something that was previously unattainable, as only a small number of citizens were able to view and purchase paintings. The postcard was (and is) accessible and affordable. Yet throughout the changes of mediums the message has remained relatively consistent. We are interested enough in ourselves to produce and purchase images that reflect our lives. These images involving the home act as family portraits – showcasing portions of ritualized daily life at the most ideal moments. Images of domestic interiors act as vehicles to confirm that we are all essentially the same. And in the case of postcards, their agile and accessible nature means that this message moves quickly.
Despite all of the political and social turns in history, life at home remains constant.13 Throughout time, we have valued our homes, as is evident by the attention we pay to them by spending time and money on their upkeep and décor. The nature and location of the home may change, but the people who occupy the space find solace in their common gathering place. The home, whether it consists of a single room or an entire house, is a space that visually represents the personalities, beliefs, and backgrounds of its inhabitants. When viewing depictions of domestic interiors that were created either hundreds of years ago or in our own century, there is a humanity present within the materials, setting, and of course the figures in the images. There is comfort both in the objects shown in the interior and in the knowledge that we are not all that different from one another.
1 H. Perry Chapman, “Home and the Display of Privacy.” Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt. Ed. Mariët Westermann (Denver, Newark, and Zwolle: Denver Art Museum, The Newark Museum, and Waanders Publishers, 2001), 129.
2 John Loughman, “Between Reality and Artful Fiction: the representation of the domestic interior in seventeenth-century Dutch art.” Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior Since the Renaissance. Eds. Jeremy Aynsley and Charlotte Grant, with assistance from Harriet McKay (London: V & A Publications, 2006), 72-73.
3 Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips, Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003),14.
4 Ibid., 17.
5 Loughman, 72.
6 Richard A. Muller, "Scripture." The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. Ed. Hans J. Hillebrand, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation: Oxford University Press, http://www.oxford-reformation.com/entry?entry=t172.e1280 (accessed 21 March 2010).
7 Mariët Westermann, ed., Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt. (Denver, Newark, and Zwolle: Denver Art Museum, The Newark Museum, and Waanders Publishers, 2001), 194-5.
8 Loughman, 73.
9 Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 18.
11 Jane Hamlett, “Managing and Making the Home: domestic advice books.” Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior Since the Renaissance. Eds. Jeremy Aynsley and Charlotte Grant, with assistance from Harriet McKay (London: V & A Publications, 2006), 184.
12 Francis Borzello, At Home: The Domestic Interior in Art, (New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2006), 122.
13 Ibid., 10.
Borzello, Francis. At Home: The Domestic Interior in Art. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2006.
van Brekelenkam, Quiringh Gerritsz. Family Group at Dinner Table. c. 1658-60. Oil on Canvas. 22 5/8 x 28 3/8 in. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum
Chapman, Perry H. “Home and the Display of Privacy.” Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt. Ed. Mariët Westermann. Denver, Newark, and Zwolle: Denver Art Museum, The Newark Museum, and Waanders Publishers, 2001.
Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.
Hamlett, Jane. “Managing and Making the Home: domestic advice books.” Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior Since the Renaissance. Eds. Jeremy Aynsley and Charlotte Grant, with assistance from Harriet McKay. London: V & A Publications, 2006.
Illustrated Songs. “The Old Folks at Home.”(1900-1910).University of Saskatchewan Archives. Mary Taylor Postcard Collection. Raphael & Sons “Oilette” series. Chromolithography. Retrieval information: Postcard Album page 29. Database ID: 34360.
Loughman, John. “Between Reality and Artful Fiction: the representation of the domestic interior in seventeenth-century Dutch art.” Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior Since the Renaissance. Eds. Jeremy Aynsley and Charlotte Grant, with assistance from Harriet McKay. London: V & A Publications, 2006.
Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation: Oxford University Press. http://www.oxford-reformation.com/entry?entry=t172.e1280.
“Scheme for window decoration.” Frontispiece from Cassell’s Household Guide.
Volume IV, c.1869-71. National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum. Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior Since the Renaissance. Eds. Jeremy Aynsley and Charlotte Grant, with assistance from Harriet McKay. London: V & A Publications, 2006.
Westermann, Mariët (ed.). Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt. Denver, Newark, and Zwolle: Denver Art Museum, The Newark Museum, and Waanders Publishers, 2001.