HAA 155M - Expansion and Reflection: Visual and Material Culture in the Dutch Republic





Hanneke Grootenboer

How do objects affect people in everyday life? What do things tell us about the people who own them?  How do possessions impact social lives, shape public identities and private notions of the self?  How do they help people think about the world and reflect on their position in that world?

This seminar examines these questions by looking at visual and material culture of the Dutch Republic, Europe’s first modern economy.  Seventeenth-century Holland witnessed an explosive growth in the consumption of (exotic) luxuries.  Amsterdam embodied a cornucopia of global objects—“where else on earth” René Descartes writes, “could you find, as easily as you do here, all the commodities of life and all the curiosities you could hope to see?”  The exposure to new things resulted in an obsession extending as well to ordinary household objects.  How did objects speak—from the domestic cabinets in which they were kept—of the cultures and lands from which they were taken? What kind of knowledge about the local and global worlds did they produce? How do representations of these things, from paintings to poems, inform us about the often conflicting meaning they embodied?

This course attempts to answer these questions by focusing on how ordinary and extraordinary things were experienced through the senses as well as through the inquisitive mind. In particular, we will focus on the intimate relations between objects and the spaces they occupy; the cabinets in which they were stored; the interiors in which they were handled; and the way in which their owners saw themselves reflected in them.  Topics include:  the status of the home; the role of women in organising space; the presence and absence) of slavery; the depiction of labour (and leisure); the politics of portraiture and the significance of still life.

This course offers insights in the history of to the visual and material culture of The Netherlands, from classic as well as recent perspectives and is largely structured around the holdings of the Harvard Art Museums and other Boston institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts' Center for Netherlandish Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.