64 The bizarre birth of a genre

A memorial installment. The following column, mailed to subscribers in October 1998, appeared in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad in the issue dated 31 October & 2 November 1998. I am putting it online now in tribute to two exceptional colleagues who both died this week. Hessel Miedema was a fellow art historian and Joop van Coevorden a fellow publisher, for both of whom I have measureless respect. Together, they raised to a new level the study of the greatest single book on early Dutch art, Karel van Mander’s Lives. When I wrote “Indeed, one can no longer read van Mander at all without Miedema, whose exhaustive commentary is one of the great achievements of present-day art history,” I should have said in so many words that the appearance of that commentary was due to the entrepreneurship, the good taste and dedication above and beyond the call of normal duty of Joop van Coevorden, in his DAVACO press. Their publication was financed in part by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and Stichting Charema.


The appearance last week of vol. 5 of Hessel Miedema’s monumental edition of the most important source in the history of Dutch art, Karel van Mander’s Lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters, was a special treat for me. Since the appearance of vol. 4 I have acquired a copy of the first edition of 1604. I can now read Miedema’s commentary alongside the original itself. (Vol. 1 includes decent reproductions of its pages, but it’s not the same thing.) Indeed, one can no longer read van Mander at all without Miedema, whose exhaustive commentary is one of the great achievements of present-day art history.

John Pine, from his series of 1739 The tapestry hangings of the House of Lords representing the several engagements between the English and Spanish fleets. (This impression in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) The monumental tapestries (4.4 x 8.7 meters) commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 were woven in 1592-94 by François Spierincx in Delft, after designs by Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom, for the English nobleman Lord Howard of Effingham. In 1616 he sold them to King James I. They were moved to the House of Lords in 1644, and in 1834 were destroyed by a fire that devastated the Palace of Westminster. It is only thanks to Pine’s engravings that a record of the appearance of the ten tapestries has come down to us. In publishing them, Pine wrote that he made them “because time, or accident, or moths may deface these valuable shadows.” His prophetic words, which I type over three days after the fire in Notre-Dame de Paris, remind us that the survival of precious art, relics, buildings and other treasures is the exception in history rather than the rule. See if you will my essay on the mortality of art. (This illustration and caption were not in the 1998 column.)

The new volume includes the life of Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom, one of my favorites. As Miedema remarks, the text shows all the signs of being based on first-hand information from the painter himself, who was a contemporary of van Mander’s in Haarlem.  Who was Vroom? “Today,” Miedema writes, “he is seen first and foremost as the father of the marine painting.” Indeed, there are few specialties that begin as abruptly in the history of art as the painting of ships at sea, in naval engagements and in harbors, genres which were pioneered and developed by Vroom from 1592, when he designed a series of tapestries of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, through to his death in 1639 or 1640.

Most amazingly, Vroom (through van Mander) actually tells exactly how it came to pass that he began specializing in these subjects. On a voyage to Spain around 1590 to sell some small devotional paintings there, Vroom was shipwrecked on the Portuguese coast. He and his party were rescued rather than murdered because of those paintings. To the monks who found them, they were proof that the passengers were “Christians and not Englishmen.”

Two years later, on another voyage, Vroom found himself in the Portuguese town of St. Huves (Setubal). “Vroom stayed in St Huves in a monastery with a priest, painting and being well entertained. There was a painter in St Huves for whom Vroom painted his own adventure and shipwreck, the painter sold it in Lisbon to a great lord for much money so that he was very grateful to Vroom and wanted yet more seapieces and ships from him. After Vroom had earned a reasonable amount of money here he returned home…. [where] he continued, on the advice of the painters there, making pieces with ships, and gradually he got better and better at making them. And since there is much seafaring in Holland, the public also started to take great pleasure in these little ships.”

Of course many of these elements existed beforehand as well: Vroom himself had painted little ships on tiles and the occasional battle at sea. Great lords had taken pleasure in the commemoration of their military exploits; there was much seafaring in Holland for hundreds of years. But it took a specific, unpredictable combination of circumstances to turn sea painting into a true specialty:  (1) a traumatic experience at sea (2) by a gifted painter (3) with the experience to paint it; (4) the presence of an art broker (5) able to sell the work (6) to a wealthy patron (7) so that the broker asked for more; (8) a climate in Haarlem, (9) where the painter happened to live, that was conducive to extreme specialization in painting; (10) an art-buying public that (11) out of its own affinity with the subject created a large and enduring market for it. In the usual accounts of the rise of new genres, only the impersonal factors 8-11 are taken into account. Thanks to Vroom’s narrative, we have authoritative information on the preceding, idiosyncratic circumstances.

Since Dutch marine painting quickly became a great success, with an impact that lasted for centuries and influenced all other schools of European painting, one has the inclination to think of it as an inevitable development. In this view, the specific incident that triggered it is insignificant. Had Vroom not launched the specialty in 1592, someone else would have done so before long, for equally fortuitous reasons of his own.

I do not agree. There are many other genres for which factors 8-11 apply which never turned into full-blown specialties in painting: foreign exploration, gardening, dike-building, public ceremonies, the portraiture of burgomasters in office, to name a few. Holland had a monopoly on authentic images of Japan which it did not exercise for 150 years. Had a Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom been stranded on the Japanese rather the Portuguese coast in 1600, the view of Japan in the west might have taken a very different turn.

A bit to my disappointment, Miedema does not go into this. He passes by the birth of marine painting without comment. Instead, he dwells on another question: how could van Mander write with appreciation about a genre – ship-painting – which he considered inferior to more noble subjects. This business of the hierarchy of the genres is a hobby-horse of Miedema’s which I think he rides too often. Surely one can worship the heroes of art without disdaining its workaday practitioners. But few have earned the right to ride their hobby-horses as often as they like. Heigh-ho, Hessel!

Karel van Mander, The lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters, vols. 1-5 (to be completed with vol. 6 [came out in 1999]), is published by DAVACO in Doornspijk.

© Gary Schwartz 1998/2019. Published in Dutch in Het Financieele Dagblad, 31 October&2 November 1998. Published on the Schwartzlist on 18 April 2019.


Two corrections, which I am afraid pull the rug out from under some of what I wrote, must be made to the above: the section on Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom in the Miedema edition of van Mander’s Lives was written not by Hessel Miedema himself but by Rob Ruurs (1949-2011). And I feel that I accepted too readily his claim that Vroom’s battles at sea were the first of their kind. Pieter Bruegel’s Sea battle in the Bay of Naples from the Galleria Doria Pamphili (included in the great Bruegel exhibition in Vienna, rightly honored as the Exhibition of the Year 2018) should have been credited as the real beginning of the genre, as Bruegel was the initiator of so much else.


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8 thoughts on “64 The bizarre birth of a genre”

  1. End of an era, surely. But then we both are now of an age where such losses are becoming all too familiar (Irving Lavin’s memorial is fast approaching on the calendar). But this combination of a visionary and dedicated publisher and a truly devoted, rigorous, if sometimes brittle scholar was landmark and defined Dutch art for most of us, lastingly. You as a publisher as well as a scholar can perhaps best appreciate what it means to produce a book that will truly last well beyond one’s mortal coil. After Friedländer in my field, Miedema remains the enduring resource, and you are right to acknowledge Joop’s great contribution to that project and to his many handsomely produced monographs on Dutch painters, minor as well as major.

    By the way, I am glad that you stuck up for Bruegel’s sea images, which are often overlooked as pioneering works.

    1. Thanks, Larry. We are indeed starting to lose our generation of colleagues – well, Irving and Hessel half a generation older. I had the pleasure of publishing Hessel’s book Kunst historisch in 1989. After my imprint at the SDU publishing house was discontinued, the book was picked up by Evelyn de Regt for her Primavera Press. Thirty years on, it is still in ptint. These are the all too rare successes a scholarly publisher hopes for.

      I didn’t buy the Bruegel catalogue, so I don’t know what they say about the painting from Rome, which I liked a lot. But the prints after his designs are enough to qualify him as the originator of ship paintings.

  2. Thank you for one more of your interesting columns. This time I was especially interested to read about and see John Pine’s engravings of the for me unknown magnificent tapestries of the engagements between the English and Spanish fleets, which were woven by Francois Spierincx in Delft in 1592-94, and which were lost in the fire of the Palace of Westminster in 1834. I have seen the beautiful tapestries by Spierincx in the Prinsenhof/Delft and the Rijksmuseum/Amsterdam. Except for their artistic value, they also have a family interest for me, as Francois Spierincx (1550-1630) was the greatgrandfather of my ancestor Machteld Spiering Guldecroon (1673-1739) who in her second marriage was married to Willem Gerritzn van Assendelft (1666-1724).
    Furthermore it was shocking to read your essay from 1998 about the Mortality of art. It has a special actuality for me, because I am trying to save the internet Museum of Destroyed Art in Finland, which during 2008-14 collected over 1000 destroyed paintings and other art items, mainly from Finland but also other parts of the world. It was a popular internet site until the server crashed in 2014. Now I try to get it working again and placed somewhere where it can be taken care of and further developed. I got involved with the ADAM (Association for Destroyed Art Museum), which hasn’t been active since 2014, because of a fire in our home in 2002. We lost 47 valuable paintings of the best Finnish artists in it, which we mainly had got from my father Hellmuth van Assendelft, who was a distinguished art dealer. He travelled with a roll of paintings through whole Finland during over 50 years and left behind beautiful collections in many homes, where the families over a period of many years bought paintings, which together became small home museums. Contrary to the other art dealers of the time he didn’t have any art gallery in the city. He died in 1977.

    1. This is very touching. When I show in that essay how astronomical the rates are of loss in art, I do not mean to discourage anyone from preserving what is precious to them, as you are doing. THank you for telling about this initiative and about the family ties that contribute to your own private canon of artistic significance.

  3. Thank you Gary for commemorating these two remarkable persons. I had not yet heard about their passing away. As a scholar of Netherlandish art – like Larry – Miedema’s editions of the Grondt and the Lives are perhaps the most used volumes in my library, in which there are also quite a number of other books published by Van Coevorden. Will there be an In Memoriam – CODART news item? – for either or both? A lesser known aspect of Miedema is the fact that he was also a poet, writing in Frisian. And, yes Gary, the role of Bruegel in the genre of naval battles and ‘portraits’ of ships is of fundamental importance. Glad you liked the Doria Pamfilj painting which we (re)introduced as an authentic work of the master in our Vienna exhibition. I will give a lecture on the painting in Rome as the start of a conference on Bruegel and Italy the Belgian Academy in Rome organizes this fall.

    1. I am forwarding to CODART your good suggestion about a notice concerning these losses. I’m sure that Historians of Netherlandish Art (HNA) will commemorate them.

      Your comment about Hessel’s attachment to his native Friesland reminds me that he encouraged me to pursue an (abandoned) ambition to write a monograph on Simon Frisius. Somewhere in my closet is a rolled-up montage that Hessel gave me for this purpose, of a Frisius suite of prints. You also call to mind my summer in Rome in 1964 where as an editor of the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Art I worked under the eaves of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. I’m delighted to hear about the Bruegel and Italy conference in Rome, where they are certain to applaud your re-inclusion of the Bay of Naples battle into the corpus. Another of those Italian worlds, alongside the Alps, that van Mander said Bruegel swallowed whole and spit up again in paint.

      1. Thanks Gary for all your thoughtful comments. Time flies – as the cliché goes. But 1964 in Rome…. I am certainly not one of the youngest generations of art historians, but at that point I was only two years old! The Belgian Academy aims to organize my kick-off lecture in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj itself – I hope this works out. This painting warrants more attention and to do this in the Palazzo would be quite wortwhile.

  4. Dear Gary,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. As the cliché goes – time flies… 1964 as a scholar in Rome!! I am certainly not one of the young(er) generations of art-historians, but at that moment I was only two years old and Bruegel was not at the top of my mind…
    The Belgian Academy – my dear friend and colleague Sabine Van Sprang is the new director – hopes to have my kick-off lecture in the galleries of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj itself. The painting certainly warrants much more attention and to be able to do so in the presence of the painting would be a unique opportunity!

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