Dutch Renaissance furniture
The actual meaning of "Renaissance" is "Revival".
Here we refer to the classic art form inspired by the Greeks and Romans, a form that was already in Italy after the Gothic period in the Middle ages.
The Italian renaissance developed differently to that in the Northern countries of Europe.
This was mainly due to the fact that they had the classic examples near by and that their temperament and character is different to ours.
The Renaissance art in the Netherlands should be seen as an influence over our national art form.
In the Netherlands, in approximately 1520, the renaissance began to influence the style of painting, followed by buildings and sculpture. Later, around 1550, furniture followed. It should be noticed that the renaissance arrived a lot earlier in the South of the Netherlands, due to the influence of the Spanish governor who had his residence here.
It is in this period that we see many transitional styles, chiefly in design and construction late gothic, but in decoration we see the beginning of the renaissance style. Artist were the first to bring the renaissance art over from Italy, where they first came in contact with the antique art form. After the sombre middle ages when the arts were dictated by the Church and were only of a religious nature, it was a considerable relief to the artists to be able to develop their own character. They now could make artistic objects that they, themselves, found beautiful and in their own name.
The "Perspective" was discovered and every self respectable artist tried this new technique in his art, but not all succeeded. Within ten years the familiarity with this art form was so extensive that with perfection, often excessive, it was used in all paintings and sculptures. Also the anatomy was discovered, which led in the beginning to very curious paintings. The peak was reached during the Mannerism when distortion and exaggeration of human proportion and perspective reached un-natural levels.
The reason for the rapid development of this new art-form was the interest shown by the rich citizens of the time who, in spite of the turbulent time they lived in, were prepared to give commissions. The aristocracy also commissioned paintings mainly to show their power and wealth through the gathering together of enormous collections of art preferably from renowned painters. Some of whom were actually employed by them.
In 1539 Pieter Coecke van Aelst, living and working in Antwerp, translated a book written by Sebastiano Serlio in which he gave a very detailed description, including drawings of decorations, profiles and measurements associated with the renaissance style. His book referred back to the writings of first century Roman writer Vitruvius and was a superb breakthrough to the knowledge of this modern art form. It was not only the painters returning to their studies in Italy who brought this knowledge, it was now possible for all those interested in this art form to develop on their own.
As earlier noted the art form began in buildings and much later in furniture. Pieter Coecke van Aelst's book is the ideal guide for the architect. For furniture makers Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527-1604) book is the most important source of information. Very detailed and comprehensive examples of furniture design in writing and in drawings are to be found in this book. These designs are the first with a genuine Flemish character. The designs are too extravagant to actually produce. There is no furniture of this design remaining, but there is furniture inspired by this design still to be found. In the first furniture from this period, ca.1550, there is clearly a gothic form to be found with clearly renaissance carvings in the panels. Clearly meaning copied out of the work manuals from their Italian predecessors. They could just as easily have been made in Italy. The better the copy the more respect for the craftsman.
The first renaissance furniture in the Netherlands were the gothic credence with renaissance carvings. The carvings were mostly in the form of symmetrical leaves with entwined flowers and in between a portrait medallion or mythical figures. The carvings were deep and did not cover the whole area. The carvings were of an exceptionally high quality, not carved out by the joiners but by expert sculptures specialising in this work. Mainly in the North the sculptures were glad to have this work, because the commissions from the Church had ceased.
Later we see that the joiners carved out the decorations themselves and, of course, the quality deteriorated. The use of sculptures then simply ceased and they were then only used when the type of carving or the amount of carving fell outside Guild of Master Cabinet Makers. An example of this was the manufacture of a Statue cupboard, which was considerably more expensive due to the fact that two separate guilds were used.
Not only are the carvings altered in the new artistic expression but also in the emphasis and the construction. Gothic was known by the use of strong vertical lines (directed towards God) now came more horizontal lines (the life on Earth) that characterised this design.
The first examples from the renaissance in the Northern part of the Netherlands are to be found in the choir stalls from the Westerkerk in Enkhuizen (ca.1540) and is the work of Jan Terwen Aertsz , who in the years 1538-1542 produced the choir seating in the Grote Kerk in Dordrecht. After these first Church commissions we notice a careful beginning of the new art form in private homes.
The first commission was a fire place, now to be seen in the Rijksmuseum, it comes from the house of Maarten van Rossum, ca.1550.
Then followed fixed interior elements such as woodwork, doors and doorsurrounds, window frames etc. etc. Not before the third quarter of the sixteenth century do we find furniture of the renaissance style. Very few pieces of renaissance furniture from the sixteenth century have survived. There are relatively many examples of seventeenth century late renaissance furniture because than the new style was overall excepted.
It is striking that such a small country as the Netherlands could produce so many different styles of furniture! At the end of the seventeenth century these different styles started to disappear.
Renaissance in the Netherlands was initially a copy of the Italian style but in the end of the sixteenth century, nationalism began to establish itself. The renaissance motifs were now following their own Dutch designs in both national and regional style furniture. Each Province had their own type of furniture such as cupboards, chairs, tables etc. etc.
It is striking that such a small country as the Netherlands could produce so many different styles of furniture! At the end of the seventeenth century these different styles started to disappear. In the North of the Netherlands the different styles were confined to the Provinces where as in the South of the Netherlands (Flanders) to various towns. This resulted in Brugse, Machelse and Antwerpse cupboards. In the North Brabantse, Zeeuwse, Utrechtse, Gelderse, Drentse, Friese and Hollandse cupboards. These cupboards, at first sight, are completely different but with closer examination one sees that the same renaissance motifs are repeated in many of the pieces.
The difference between the North and the South Dutch furniture is due mainly to the wishes of the makers and the purchasers. Flanders, predominantly Catholic, had a Bourgondisch tendency whereby the furniture had many carvings, mostly crude and unconventional. Angels were mixed with lion masks, garlands, leaves and branch motifs, also mystical figures, but religion was still present. There were also geometrical and very complicated figures from moulded surrounds cut and formed in many different shapes. That came mainly to the for in Antwerp furniture. With furniture from Bruges one sees twisted columns. Typically Monastery furniture such as a nuns-cupboard (Begijnenkast) and church pews were in the form of cupboards with angled lid and kneeling plank in the front. One had the feeling that almost anything was permissible.
People of the North Netherlands were, on the other hand, Calvinists and that could be seen in the furniture styles. Not one piece was the same even though they worked within strict rules and patterns. They chose a beautiful solid piece of furniture that could be expensive but didn't look showy.
In the poorer provinces such as Brabant and Drenthe the furniture was quite rough and less complicated.
The best craftsmen lived in the richer areas such as Zealand, Holland and West and East Friesland. In these areas were beautiful pieces of furniture produced of great value. The commissioners of these pieces were mostly rich business men, but their problem was that they did not want to seem to be extravagant. They solved this problem by having decorative carvings that conveyed a message.
As a result we find decorative carvings in the furniture that was in the form of a warning to live in accordance with the bible and not to sin. There are also mythological representations that come combined with Bible teachings.
The most repeated representations are: The tale of the lost son,
the Baptism in the river Jordan, Abraham's sacrifice and Soloman's ordeal. The story of Sussana, spied on by old men, with plentiful use of naked scenes was also very popular. Posts were often decorated with the three Godly virtues, namely Faith, Hope and Charity and the panels decorated with the Cardinal virtues Prudence, Justice, Strength and Moderation.
There are fewer genuine renaissance cupboards from the South of the Netherlands than from the North of the Netherlands. The reason for this is that the gothic style remained longer in the South and the change from renaissance to baroque was over a quite short period. In the Calvinistic North the baroque was considered to be frivolous and too pompous, typically Catholic art!
After the middle of the seventeenth century, the North fell into line but the result was much less elaborate. Even today the baroque style is still not the favourite of the Dutch. It probably stems from their national character. On the typical regional renaissance furniture after 1650, we find the baroque style appearing in cushions, undecorated columns, leaves and the like. After 1680 the Renaissance furniture was replaced by the baroque design such as the table cabinet which developed into the cabinet in the eighteenth century.