Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 5, 2019
Henk van Nierop The Life of Romeyn de Hooghe 1645–1708: Prints, Pamphlets, and Politics in the Dutch Golden Age Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. 452 pp.; 123 b/w ills. Cloth €99.00 (9789462981386)

Two themes dominate this premier biography of the Dutch Golden Age celebrity Romeyn de Hooghe: art and ambition. De Hooghe was a prolific and successful graphic artist who produced a wide and diverse array of etchings, engravings, prints, paintings, sculptures, and emblem books and medals, many of whose images are virtually synonymous with the culture of the late Golden Age and can be found in nearly every textbook on the subject. Such were De Hooghe’s skills that the stadtholder-king William III employed them repeatedly in his long-running propaganda wars against his archenemy King Louis XIV of France. Indeed, the imagery of William’s reign is perhaps most closely identified with De Hooghe’s output, which glorified the prince of Orange and later king of England at nearly every stage of his career, from his elevation to stadtholder during the “disaster year” of 1672 through his invasion of England in 1688 to his relentless wars with the Sun King. De Hooghe also targeted the king of France with vicious and burlesque satirical images, lampooning him as an evil harlequin intent on ravishing Protestant Europe. Much of the popular imagery of these two monarchs, at least outside of France, was crafted by De Hooghe.

The artist’s role as propagandist for the House of Orange underscores the other major theme of his career: ambition. In this meticulously researched biography, historian Henk van Nierop reveals just how socially and professionally ambitious De Hooghe really was. He believed (erroneously, as it turned out) that he was descended from patricians in Ghent. In addition, a more prosperous branch of the De Hooghe family flourished in Amsterdam high society during Romeyn’s lifetime, and he may well have felt some envy and perhaps resentment toward his better-off cousins. Whatever its causes, his deep desire to overcome his lower-middle-class origins and advance himself socially preoccupied and drove him most of his life. He desperately wanted to fashion himself into a gentleman and not merely an artisan. His family origins did not allow him to pursue higher education beyond Amsterdam’s Latin School, but later in life he effectively bought himself a law degree from the University of Harderwijk. When he moved his family to Haarlem from Amsterdam around 1680, partly under a cloud of scandal, he immediately set out to insinuate himself in that city’s ruling elite, serving in a variety of minor civic and regional offices and eventually on one of its judicial colleges. He cultivated important patrons, of whom the most powerful was of course William III. After William granted him a minor sinecure De Hooghe took to signing his works with the title “Commissioner of His Royal Majesty of Great Britain” after his name. When the Dutch Republic entered a second “stadtholderless” period after William’s death in 1702, De Hooghe in turn cultivated the favor of the republican party, William’s opponents, who now controlled the country. Where once he limned William as the savior of the republic, he now produced images exalting civic republicanism and the grave and stately regents who embodied it. In his expediency De Hooghe differed little from many of his fellow graphic artists, who of course all had to work to survive.

Until recently De Hooghe’s historical reputation has been largely negative, due primarily to the large number of rumors and libels he was subject to during his lifetime. De Hooghe seems to have rubbed a considerably large number of his contemporaries the wrong way. At various points he and his family were the targets of scandalmongering pamphlets and even a libelous novel. He was accused of various kinds of immorality, from pornography to libertinism to thievery to blasphemy. His honor—and that of his family—was impugned more than once, to such a degree that both ecclesiastical and political authorities investigated him at various points, though he was never tried for any charge, at least in part thanks to the protection of William III and his circle. Van Nierop attributes these lifelong calumnies and accusations against De Hooghe in part to his personality, which the author describes in a rather anodyne manner as “roguish.” In fact De Hooghe seems to have been a singularly obnoxious character. His relentless social climbing may have also played a role, prompting him to take social and political risks that could have provoked some of his contemporaries. There also may have been an ideological component to his misfortunes. He was clearly a follower of the newest philosophical and scientific ideas and was likely an enthusiast for what historians now refer to as the Radical Enlightenment. His final, posthumous work was the Hieroglyphica (1735), an iconographic compendium of emblems associated with the world’s religions, ancient and modern. In essence the work was an argument for a universal, spiritualist faith that dismissed as human-made the trappings of theology and clergy, placing De Hooghe squarely in the company of such contemporary radical thinkers as Baruch Spinoza and Balthasar Bekker, who controversially questioned many of the basic tenets of traditional religion. As Van Nierop observes, by the religious standards of his own era, De Hooghe was indeed the libertine that his detractors claimed he was. It is this rediscovery of De Hooghe’s “modernity” that has rehabilitated his reputation among more recent historians, a camp in which Van Nierop squarely places himself.

Although this biography is no catalogue raisonné of De Hooghe’s entire oeuvre, it is a very fine introduction to the artist’s astonishing graphic output. Van Nierop adeptly describes and interprets De Hooghe’s many prints, illuminatingly placing them within the context of late seventeenth-century Dutch and European politics and society. De Hooghe served as one of William III’s ablest propagandists, creating with his complicated, baroque graphic works an indelible image of the stadtholder-king as the great champion of Protestant Europe and of Louis XIV as the personification of the villainy of Catholic monarchy. Likewise, the artist effectively navigated the shifting and often fraught party-faction politics of the Dutch Republic in the late Golden Age, using his talents to portray the relatively young state as a bastion of Protestant and republican liberty amid a world of scheming popish tyrants. De Hooghe may have been vilified in his lifetime, but he was surely the most important graphic artist of the Dutch Golden Age and perhaps even of early modern Europe more broadly. In many respects Romeyn de Hooghe embodied many of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic’s most prominent qualities—its ambition, its industriousness, and its intellectual dynamism. It is astonishing that no one has ever made him the subject of a biography before. Henk van Nierop has therefore done the fields of early modern European history and art history a singular service in producing such a thorough and compelling portrait of one of the era’s most notable cultural figures.

Christine Kooi
Lewis C. and Katheryn J. Price Professor, Department of History, Louisiana State University