Exploring My Dutch Heritage

Sometimes things in life come together in fascinating ways. That’s what has happened lately for me. I’ve previously mentioned by love of words and languages, and you probably know that I’m studying Dutch now. I’d learned a bit of Dutch many years ago, but I’d never mastered the grammar or reached any real degree of fluency.

My interest in Dutch came about as I looked back through my family tree and realized for the first time that my ancestors weren’t all from Prussia. My great-great-grandmother, Anna Schlijster, came from Zutphen in the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands. Along with her parents and her siblings, she boarded a ship in Amsterdam and came to America as a child.

I became curious about the Netherlands, started learning the language, and began exploring the culture — specifically art.

Around the same time, following lessons in Arnold Fletcher’s book on oil painting, I became interested in still life paintings — not so much because I wanted to to as because these were assignments in the course. Shortly thereafter, I picked up an art magazine and came across another interesting article about still life painting.

And then, it all came together as I browsed online for information about Dutch art. There I came upon the glorious wonders of The Dutch Golden Age with its celebrated achievements in science, economics, military strategy, and, above all, art. This period in the 17th century saw what has been called “a tremendous outpouring of still life painting.”

I browsed, I saw, I was awestruck. Truly this was a Golden Age of still life painting. As I continued reading and studying I learned to see these paintings not just as visual ideas but as narratives — paintings that reflect the Dutch people and their lives, paintings with fascinating stories to tell, paintings that make use of symbolism with many interesting meanings.

Dutch Golden Age
Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom
The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies, 1599

The Dutch Golden Age came about because of overseas trading and colonial ventures.

Exotic luxuries from all over the world poured into Dutch ports: fruits from across the Mediterranean; tobacco from the New World; spices and precious gems from India; tea, silk, and porcelain from China and Japan; sugar from colonies in Brazil and Guyana; and slaves from Africa. Private organizations like the Dutch East India Trading Company and the Dutch state aggressively pursued their economic agendas overseas, and the brutal legacy of colonialism is still felt today.

— Julia Fiore  “In Dutch Still Lifes, Dark Secrets Hide behind Exotic Delicacies”

Is it any wonder that these exotic luxuries became subjects for the great artists of the time?

Fiore continues:

As the prosperity of Dutch society increased, the general public became more engrossed with the amusements of everyday life, including education, commerce, and material goods. These changes had enormous repercussions on the art market, and it’s no coincidence that the still life arose as an independent genre in Europe parallel to the birth of early market capitalism and the world’s first consumer society.

— Julia Fiore  “In Dutch Still Lifes, Dark Secrets Hide behind Exotic Delicacies”

Still lifes (apparently that is the correct plural) were visual reminders of the nation’s prosperity, and artists created works showing off such costly items as Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, silver cups and trays.

Here is one such work, Still life with a Chinese Bowl, a Nautilus Cup and Fruit, painted in 1662 by Willem Kalf.


And all this time, when I saw paintings like this, I just thought they were randomly chosen items someone had decided to paint. Oh, how naïve I was!

These “sumptuous and ornate” still life paintings quickly developed into a new genre, known — in Dutch — as pronkstilleven — but there’s even more behind these paintings that we might see at first glance.

We might be inclined to think that these paintings were ways of showing off a bit, ways to flaunt one’s wealth. Not so. These were typically considered vanitas paintings, moral lessons about vanity, about the folly of loving wealth too much. Empty cups — no matter how expensive — represented the emptiness of life. Fruits — such as the orange in this painting — also suggest that life is brief. Hourglasses and flowers were also often depicted as symbols of the passing of time.

Here is another of Kalf’s magnificent works:


You’ll notice many of the same ideas, and, in fact, artists often used the same items over and over again in different paintings.

I truly never guessed that so many ideas were being expressed in these still life paintings. I saw them as beautiful works of art, but never looked deeper into the meanings — the narratives — behind them.

And these paintings are only a few — a very few — that were painted during this Golden Age. Although these numbers sound incredible — truly hard to believe — Christopher Lloyd, author of Enchanting the Eye: Dutch Paintings of the Golden Ageestimates that between 1580 and 1800 approximately 5,000 artists produced between nine and ten million paintings. Sadly, less than one percent have survived.

I’m now eager to continue my art education and my explorations of my Dutch heritage by learning more about the artists and artworks of The Dutch Golden Age. I’m looking forward, too, to learning to paint simple still lifes. My works won’t be glorious pronkstilleven paintings, but I’ll think often of that word as I paint. And now, you’ve learned a Dutch word, too!





    1. This is only the beginning LOL. I’d never imagined there was so much to learn about still life paintings. All the Dutch art I’ve been studying is absolutely mind-boggling. It is so awesome. I’m glad you appreciate it, too.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve enjoyed learning about the Netherlands. I’m still studying Dutch every day, and that’s made it even more interesting to do genealogy. I can navigate Dutch ancestry sites now and read what’s there. I found out, for instance, one relative who’d been a bailiff in the court — a job which probably involved serving warrants. Dutch is an interesting language. 🙂 What part of the Netherlands are your ancestors from?


      1. I bought a Dutch language course years ago, but I haven`t set aside time to learn, but I will….one day… Good on you, that you are doing it. My ancestors lived in Amsterdam early 1600s.

        Liked by 1 person

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