Jan Peeters and Hermann Wundrum: On Familiar Things

Recently, I had the pleasure to break bread with Prof. Jan Peeters and Hermann Wundrum, the two minds behind the excellent On Familiar Things. Over the course of an afternoon, we discussed the current ramifications of painting from the Dutch Gouden Eeuw. The following is a transcription of that conversation.

The Interview

Prof. Jan Peeters is on research leave from the art history department at the University of Utrecht. His new book, The Sacred Kitchen, about domesticity and religious reformation in 17th century Dutch painting, is available from Cambridge University Press. Prof. Peeters is an occasional advisor to Haarlem’s Frans Hals Museum.Hermann Wundrum is an acclaimed art historian of Golden Age painting.  His books include Familiar Feasts, Humble Foodstuffs, and most recently the Golden Table.  He is formerly an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Wundrum has previously been professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam and the College of William and Mary.

Can we begin with an introduction? How did you arrive at this point, both as gentlemen and scholars? How did you meet?

HW:  I was born in 1954 in Holset, a village near the Vaalserberg in the Netherlands.  Nearing my twenties and floundering I took up an apprenticeship with my uncle Willem, a furniture maker.

In the spring of 1979 I made my first visit to the Rijksmuseum, traveling with a few friends.  This was when I first laid eyes on Jan van de Velde the second’s Still Life with Tall Beer Glass.  It awakened something within me, and it’s an experience I’m still trying to piece together.  Only a few weeks passed between my visit to the Rijksmuseum and my acceptance to study art history at Oxford University.  I stayed on at Oxford for quite a long time — I’ve always been known for my loyalties — where I earned my masters and then doctorate.  There were a few interceding years, where I took a job editing for a university press before accepting a job at the University of Amsterdam, where I stayed for more than a decade.

Beginning in the mid-nineties I worked for a time at the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt, as a consultant in acquiring paintings by Old Masters.  Traveling for the Stadel had me running all over Europe, tracking paintings and bidding at auctions of  behalf of the museum.  By the end of the nineties I decided enough was enough.  When the College of William and Mary asked if I’d be interested in joining the faculty to teach two courses on the Old Masters I could not refuse.  It was an easy offer to accept, with Jan already on board with their art history department.

My days in Williamsburg were some of my finest, professionally.  Jan and I greatly enjoyed our time as professors adjunct, often talking late into the night at the Green Leafe over glasses of Chimay and soft pretzels loaded with spicy mustards.

JP: Yes, indeed! Many of my scholarly peers see me as a kind of devotee of Old Europe, and intellectually I suppose I am, but one cannot forget that I completed my doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, eating cheese fries with my American colleagues and playing Boggle by the lake with my then advisor, now dear friend Jane Hutchison.

As a boy I always imagined that I would one day spend time in the United States. But I never lived my dream until I went to Wisconsin, still one of my favorite places (so like the Netherlands in some ways), after finishing up at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where I studied the History of Art. I developed a real fascination — maybe an obsession — growing up in Leiden, where my parents were Lecturers in Economics and Politics. I had so many opportunities then to lurk about Leiden’s many comic and baseball card shops, as so many artists have done, growing from there into my love of the figurative and domestic. And then —

HW: Jan, did I mistake you, or did your phrasing suggest that you too were an artist, once?

JP: A-ha! My dark secret, as we’ve always said. [HW & JP chuckle over their bagels.] When I was a teen I imagined myself in the company of Claesz and van Hoogstraten, as I whiled away the hours in my bedroom, copying Asterix strips. But in the end it was my fascination with art history that both humbled me and revealed my true path: I knew that I simply did not have the gift for producing art myself, but at Cambridge and Wisconsin I realized that I had a natural talent for conveying my excitement about art to others, which is why I was drawn to teach. Glad I’m not a celebrity.

HW: Jan and I met at the University of Leiden, where both Rembrandt and Jan Steen were once students, in 1988, is that right?

JP: I think it was ‘89.  Francesca had just retired. Hunter — could you pass the butter?

HW: Oh, was it really?  Ah, yes. I remember now.  At the time I was teaching at the University of Amsterdam.  I had been invited to Leiden to lecture on the festival scenes of Jan Steen.  There was a faculty dinner following the lecture where I met Jan, who had read my book.  We were fast friends!

JP: Your book was something like a revelation, a work of real honesty and integrity among what I still see as a lot of high-minded nonsense. Indeed, it was Hermann’s friendship that rekindled my love for teaching and studying after several years of what you could call dead-end academic fellowships around Europe. During those years, despite my growing scholarly output, I had trouble finding my way, professionally. The trouble was, as I learned through hours of discussion with Hermann and our small cohort, was that I had ignored the simplest path of all: to use my academic work as a way to invite others to rediscover classical painting, to pay attention to the ways artists capture and amplify the everyday.

Frans Hals. Willem van Heythuyzen, c. 1625.

Speaking of the everyday, how do you feel focusing on art history in a world that seems all too contemporary?

JP: Perhaps your eyes deceive you, living as you do in gleaming, glossy, modern Miami! History is all around us. One need only take a moment, perhaps relaxing in a favorite chair with a pot of tea and a snack, to think of all the familiar things that surround us always. These things aren’t history — they’re always present, from the 17th Century until now, and that’s what the Old Masters teach!

HW: Just think, Hunter, earlier this morning at brunch the three of us were chatting over tea, clementines, bagels, fig jam and tubs of whipped Philadelphia!  Our world and the world of our Old Masters are entirely different, of course.  Just think of how we can walk a few blocks to Trader Joe’s for chocolate-covered coffee beans, and small jars of saffron, cumin and cardamom.  These are the things that turned the Netherlands into the financial capital of the world.  Today, they are groceries.

Jan and I have been very lucky to build our careers around the legacies of our favorite painters and to spend a bit of time among their paintings.

JP: A considerable amount of time!

HW: I might add, that in terms of sheer skill, technique and fidelity, many of these painters have never been bettered.  It’s important to me that we remember their craft, in a world today where Jenny Holzer can take a phrase, turn it into a neon sign, and be done with it.  It’s scandalous.

JP: Indeed. I admit that my own opinions on art sometimes border on the conservative — my apologies to the artists on your blog, Hunter — but I am often alienated by contemporary artists. I have always thought, throughout my career, that even though artists may not have a distinct role in every society, they nevertheless reflect the everyday in their work, whatever their message. But what is the everyday for these artists? Is modern life so terrifying? When I go to contemporary museums, most of what I see is enough to send me down to the café for a hot chocolate.

Hermann Wundrum. Familiar Feasts (University of Chicago Press, 1987).

The inclusion of consumer goods in these paintings, both in a central and peripheral manner, suggests an oscillation between resisting and embracing consumerism. Did these artists find themselves in opposition to the Mercantilism, or did they cooperate with it, even exploiting protocapitalist processes for their own gain?

JP:  It’s clear, on a material level, that Dutch artists of the time relied deeply on mercantilism. The brothers de Bray sketched on Japanese paper, straight from the Dutch outpost at Dejima! The very earliest coffeehouse of the time, where many artists whiled away the hours, sourced coffee beans, flour, marijuana, and sugar (critical for making stroopwaffel and drop) from warmer climates.

But as goods and money flowed into the 17th Century Netherlands, social strata began to shift. The upper classes became wealthier, and the economies of the lower classes began to stagnate. Naturally, as societies liberalize in this way, visionaries can become malcontent: the real Mercantilists read their Roger Coke, while many painters like Dirk van Baburen read Abbie Hoffman. So the Dutch painters were indeed in an odd kind of tension.

Their patrons obviously relied on mercantilism — international trade and credit paid the high costs of the painters’ portraits and church embellishments. The painters relied on mercantilism too, for materiel, processed snacks, and marijuana, but they, as van Baburen did, denied the qualitative values of mercantilism and capitalism more generally. What I find most interesting, as the painter Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde describes in his utterly charming 1672 painting “A Dealer in His ‘Office,’” are the unofficial economies that cropped up around artists and their hangers on. You could call it “homegrown Mercantilism!”

HW: And the painters were sometimes reliant on the merchants, themselves!  Frans Hals’s portrait of Willem van Heythuyzen is extraordinary.  Holbein’s Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve is among the best.

JP: Yes, indeed. Holbein’s Double Portrait is one of my favorite depictions of friendship that crosses class lines (something dear to me, as I was once a scholarship student at Peterhouse). Holbein, de Dinteville, and De Selve were known to stay up late into the night after their transactions were finished, playing Xbox until the Ambassadors’ duties called them away.

Moments like that might lead one to conclude that these painters “cooperated” with Mercantilism or protocapitalism, Hunter, but I think the question itself is too normative. The answer is simply that these artists did what they could — they “Kept on Truckin’,” as a famous comic of the day put it — day to day. And that day to day is what Hermann and I are most concerned with in our work. I am not much of a dialectical scholar, despite a brief flirtation with (a young lady in!) the fashionable Cambridge Marxists of the 1970s.

HW: Oh, Rachel, was it? I remember she had quite a good nickname for you.

JP: Oh, my.

What was that, Professor Wundrum?

HW: One spring Jan declined an opportunity to join Rachel in a protest at the Chancellor’s office.

What were they protesting?

HW: Oh, they probably stopped buying vegetables for their cafeteria from a local farm.

JP: They were upset about the wages paid to custodial staff.

HW: At any rate, Jan stayed in his dorm to study and from then on Rachel called him “Yawn” Peeters!  Y-a-w-n for our transcriber.  Decades later, a few students took to calling him the same in Williamsburg.  But in kind jest.

JP: If those students didn’t return year after year with gifts of kroketten and instant coffee, I’d have taken it personally!

Jan Davidszoon de Heem. Student in His Study, 1628.

Can you describe the path to becoming an artist? Supposing that financially independent painters were few and far between, how did most pay the bills? Did they have day jobs?

JP: Then, as now, it was not uncommon for young artists to blossom from notebook doodlers into masters of common feeling. Van Hoogstraten immortalized this feeling in his self-portrait of himself as a young sketcher of rock musicians. It takes no art historian to see how far he came! Take the famous portrait by Jan Davidszoon de Heem’s, the young Student in His Study — one of my favorite paintings to visit at the Ashmolean at Oxford, there among so many young students.

HW: Mine, as well.

JP:  It’s a popular version of the same theme, so popular among these artists whose artistic educations generally began (as so many modern artists’ have) copying comic books but sometimes — what luck! — matured under the tutelage of those we now know as the Old Masters.

HW: And to speak a bit of the path.  Learning the trade of the painter was quite similar to learning another trade.  Like the cobbler, the cooper and the luthier, the painter learned by apprenticeships and communion with guilds of craftsmen.

It would seem that making a living as an artist has always been difficult.  Golden Age artists made a living in the same ways artists do today.  Many were reliant on benefactors and enthusiastic collectors.  Others were born of wealthy families – Nicolas Maes, Joachaim Stradart and Claesz’s rival in the ontbijt — Willem Claeszoon Heda.

JP: The mere mention of Heda always evokes his Banquet Piece with Mince Pie.

HW: Is it nearing lunch time, Hunter?

JP: I saved two clementines from brunch and brought along a bag of Nestle Flipz.  Would you like some?

HW: You know me all too well, Jan!  At any rate, it was seldom the case that painters, who in time have become our Old Masters, flourished by their talents.  We must remember that some of our finest painters, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals, lived along the raw lines of poverty.

While he enjoyed a lengthy period of success, late in life Hals was bankrupted.  After which he continued to paint, working on a few commissions, most famously the governors of the Haarlem almshouse.

There is bitter irony in the fact that an impoverished Hals was employed to paint his wealthiest neighbors.  Their costumes were likely more valuable than all of Hals’s possessions combined.  But of course he completed his portraits and painted them brilliantly, focused on the canvas rather than the contents of his pantry: half of a jar of Nutella.  We can be sure that, at times, Hals was nourished only by his love of sunlight!

I must say, Jan, this is becoming quite the lecture!

JP: I’m having the time of my life! Moments like this are really what I treasure most: to sit among snacks and friends, discussing art. I almost feel, Hunter, that these artists of whom we speak sit here with us now, scooping handfuls of Ruffles from the bowl on the counter and listening eagerly to the way we remember them, almost as if they are old friends visiting again, laughing over old stories, half-forgotten through the haze!

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