Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2006
Elmer Kolfin The Young Gentry at Play: Northern Netherlandish Scenes of Merry Companies Trans Michael Hoyle Leiden: Primavera Press, 2005. 312 pp.; 14 color ills.; 192 b/w ills. Paper $28.00 (9059970136)

The early Dutch Republic witnessed an explosive growth in the popularity of paintings and prints representing groups of handsome young men and women absorbed in social pleasantries. These “merry company” scenes, as they are often termed, characteristically show their ostentatiously attired figures occupying richly appointed interiors or elegant open-air gardens. Gathered around tables covered by freshly ironed linens and set with expensive goblets and platters, they engage in good-natured conversation, make music on various instruments, smoke pipes, drink wine from stemmed glasses, and play board games. What was the reason for the burgeoning popularity of these arresting pictures? Moreover, what significance did these works hold for their likely buyers and for seventeenth-century Dutch society at large? Elmer Kolfin attempts to provide answers to these and many other questions in his substantial study. The most extensive examination of the merry company genre to date, The Young Gentry at Play carefully traces the development of the theme from gestation in the early 1500s to early maturity at mid-seventeenth century. It presents numerous original hypotheses and, through the application of diverse methodologies, supplies useful new material for consideration. The book also has some troubling weaknesses, however, and may fail to convince readers of its main conclusions.

Kolfin’s central point, the subject of frequent restatement throughout the book, concerns the implied content of painted merry company scenes produced in the Dutch Republic between 1610 and 1645. Inspired by F. Würtenberger’s 1937 seminal study, Das holländische Gesellschaftsbild (Schramberg im Schwarzwald), which traced the origins of merry company iconography primarily to preachy depictions of the biblical Prodigal Son in the Tavern, modern scholarship generally has held the main message of these pictures to be essentially moralizing and critical, censuring the carefree and extravagant behaviors enacted by the represented figures. Kolfin, however, adopts an opposing view. “The painted merry company [in the Northern Netherlands] was very probably regarded by its devotees as an entertaining image of a light-hearted game,” he vigorously maintains. “The aim of the painters of merry companies was certainly not to teach society a moral lesson” (248). Kolfin bases his assertions mainly on evidence provided by his own extensive iconographic analyses. He points out that “motifs which traditionally refer to the sinfulness of amusements, such as the various consequences—poverty, illness, criminality and suffering in hell—were not depicted in any shape or form in the seventeenth-century companies” (59). Although gambling, passionate embraces, and sumptuous clothing—“stock images of idleness, lust and ostentation”—were often included in these scenes,

. . . such images of indecency without the context of censorious motifs generally gave rise more to comical amusement than to a lesson in morals. Ostentation, mainly displayed in the clothing, would also have been designed to evoke laughter, and it did. . . . Gambling, in the context of the merry company . . . became more an image of youthful diversion than of idleness. (59–60)

The author tries to buttress his argument with new information about the reception of these pictures. He informs us, for example, that when merry company paintings were hung in tandem with other works, as companion pieces, they were rarely paired with pictures showing more sober manners of living, but often with other depictions of men and women socializing and with peasant scenes. “That suggests that people did not necessarily attach a moral dimension to the painted merry company but viewed it more light-heartedly, associating it with comical or respectable amusements, or both” (183).

Surely Kolfin is correct to clear the seventeenth-century merry company of charges of Savanarola-esque sermonizing. But what of his contention that the genre came to be stripped of all moral preoccupation during this period, becoming nothing more than light-hearted entertainment? Here the author’s line of reasoning fails to persuade. First of all, it neglects the probable response of a large, vocal segment of Dutch society. Voluminous evidence provided by prints, poems, treatises, songs, and sermons attests that many residents of the early Dutch Republic were archly censorious of extravagant dressing and loose living, which they regarded primarily as foibles of Dutch youth. People holding such views likely found ample confirmation of their beliefs in paintings of merry companies, the provocative imagery a spur to their moral contemplation. Whereas libertine thinkers may have responded in an opposing fashion, closer to what Kolfin proposes, it seems fruitless to evaluate the content of these paintings without including in the calculation the likely responses of all potential audiences.

Second, Kolfin’s reasoning is based upon the premise that merry company paintings must be either censorious or celebratory, never a combination of the two postures and nothing more. But who says that moralizing against extravagant behavior cannot also be a most delightful entertainment? The author’s dialectic seems more typical of modern than seventeenth-century thought, which often sought to illuminate complex moral issues by means of paradoxical conjoining of opposites. Considered from that contemporary perspective, the paintings do not seem to abandon the genre’s preoccupation with moral behavior, but to expand upon it, holding up for critical investigation the values of an evolving society without necessarily either defending or condemning them. Facets of this position are laid out in H. Rodney Nevitt Jr.’s Art and the Culture of Love in Seventeenth-Century Holland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), a book left unmentioned by Kolfin despite its relevant subject matter—it analyzes some paintings nearly identical to those he treats—and challenging thesis. (Although it appeared in print two years after Nevitt, Kolfin’s manuscript was completed two years earlier, in 2001, according to note four on page 251. This fact may explain Kolfin’s silence about the intricacies of Nevitt’s argument, but it hardly excuses his failure to mention the book’s existence.)

Another major theory developed in The Young Gentry at Play concerns the role of the market in determining the appearance and production levels of merry company scenes. Kolfin rigorously examines the scanty data regarding workshop practices and materials used in making such pictures. He deduces that painters and printmakers from all over the Dutch Republic produced and sold companies at varying levels of cost to fit every budget. Panel sizes were standardized to speed up production and hold down costs. Inventiveness was at times kept to a minimum to achieve similar ends. According to the author, the iconographic changes that overcame the genre beginning in about 1610 were also part of a strategy for appealing to a wider public.

The allegorical allusions . . . [and] biblical, moralistic motifs . . . would automatically have restricted the market with their ineluctable, rigid standpoint. Doing away with them left an iconography with more room for different approaches to the merry company as an image of youth, love, and amusements, thus increasing the potential public. The not very intellectual painting, without a coercive moral, had more chance of appealing to a broad group, and did indeed become a great success. That must have been precisely what the painters were aiming at in the expanding market. (174)

Whether or not we go along with the premise here, that simple-minded depictions naturally appealed to the developing Dutch public more than challenging ones, nothing in Kolfin’s assessment presents a satisfying explanation for the explosive success of the genre. What, other than their ubiquity and inoffensiveness, gave the company scenes their almost universal appeal? Kolfin might have done well to seek explanations for the success of the genre in particular political, intellectual, and religious changes occurring in Dutch society as the independent Republic developed. The book gives surprisingly short shrift to these matters, however.

In general, Kolfin’s approach to his task is surprisingly uncritical. Nowhere, for example, does the author test the legitimacy of the category that his book attempts to illuminate. Rather, he accepts axiomatically the notion of “merry company” as though its authenticity and usefulness were not important questions to ponder. Not until almost halfway through the book does Kolfin get around to listing some of the numerous terms used in seventeenth-century inventories to designate the pictures in question. Instead of exploring the implications of this nomenclatural muddle, he concludes contradictorily and misleadingly that “the contemporary name for this genre of paintings was ‘a company of young people’” (99). All of the relevant terminology here appears only in English translation, the original Dutch words used to classify these pictures evidently deemed superfluous information.

Distressing also is the book’s method of organization. The volume is divided into three parts, each with its own introduction, chapters, sub-chapters, sub-sub chapters, and sub-sub-sub chapters. This rampant systematization does not lead to organizational clarity, however, as key passages are presented under inappropriate headings. The author’s crucial summary of characteristics distinguishing merry companies produced from 1610 to 1645 appears at the end of a chapter entitled “Uniformity and Variation: The Merry Company as a Motif in Prints and Paintings, 1580–1610.” Assessment of the genre’s iconographic and stylistic development in those same years, arguably the book’s central focus, comes under the heading “From Workshop to Parlour: Production, Sale and Ownership of Merry Companies, 1620–1660.”

The Young Gentry at Play does some things remarkably well. The book’s early chapters lay out the iconographic streams that fed the development of the merry company theme in the sixteenth century. These thorough, well-documented sections make particularly welcome contributions to an understanding of the art-historical background of the genre, and will be useful to many students and scholars pursuing the origins of seventeenth-century imagery. Individual chapters on the production process, the market, and the domestic exhibition of merry company scenes provide substantial new information that will likely fascinate many readers interested in the economics of Dutch painting. Valuable as well are the book’s concluding sections on the treatment of youth, amusement, and love in illustrated literature in the first half of the seventeenth century. A chapter on Dutch amatory literature, a type of cultural expression rarely explored or exploited by art historians, will be of particular interest to non-Dutch-speaking audiences, as it offers a useful overview and substantial translations of some key texts. (This portion should, however, be read alongside the analysis of amatory literature provided in the book by Nevitt mentioned above.) These strengths make The Young Gentry at Play a useful addition to the scholarly literature on Dutch art, despite the book’s quirky execution and questionable conclusions.

David A. Levine
Professor of Art History, Art Department, Southern Connecticut State University