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Worlds of Goods: Seeing the Globalized Past in Dutch Art of "The Golden Age"1

Michael A. Marcus
Berlin High School, Connecticut USA


     Every day, when driving across a town line, I pass a sign that reads: "Hartford 1633. Dutch Fort." It reminds passers-by of a Dutch moment in Connecticut history, before New England was New England, and of the fact that Dutch-Americans were among the original "Yankees."2 By that year, the Columbian Exchange of crops and animals between the Old and New Worlds had been underway for a century or more, and within decades the Dutch presence in the Americas would be eclipsed by the aggressive colonization efforts of more powerful European nations. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Netherlands' claim to territory lying between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers is as obscure today as it was two hundred years ago, when "Diedrich Knickerbocker" sought, albeit satirically, to restore to prominence the memory of New York's Dutch forebears.3 But "the figure of 'America'…alluringly beckoning with an outstretched pot of gold," and like themselves the subject of Spanish/Habsburg tyranny, was well-established in Dutch minds by the beginning of what would be their long, 17th century "Golden Age." Their activities in the Americas, and the expansion of the Dutch East and West India Companies during that period, were major factors in the development of a modern European world system.4 Some revisionist American historians of the late 19th century even claimed, despite the fact that New Netherlands was a short-lived and flawed endeavor compared to Dutch pursuits in Asia, that Holland, and not England, was the source of the free, tolerant, and enterprising spirit of the American republic.5 In any event, for over twenty years before the arrival of more settlers from Massachusetts Bay, the only places in Connecticut from which Europeans had charted access to the Atlantic from Long Island Sound were the Huys de Hoop ("House of Hope," now Hartford) located on the Versche Rivier ("Fresh River," now Connecticut River) and my own hometown of Roodenburg ("Red Mountain," now New Haven). An earlier essay of mine was inspired by the realization that while growing up there, I was never taught about the great local or even national significance of the events surrounding the slave-ship Amistad. 6 I do remember hearing, in grade school, that Henry Hudson sailed for the Dutch and that Manhattan Island was later "purchased" in exchange for a jar of glass beads, but these tales left a stronger impression of Dutch cunning and Indian credulity than of history per se.7 I must now confess that if I was ever taught that the Pilgrims spent several years in Leiden and Amsterdam before sailing the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock, or that the Connecticut River was first navigated by Adriaen Block of Amsterdam for the sole purpose of finding Indians with whom to trade for furs, I had forgotten about it completely. Until recently.

     Times change, as do—or should—methods and curricula in the teaching of history. The past worth remembering is no longer the exclusive tale of blue blood families, their distinctive homes, and self-proclaimed importance. A statue commemorating Cinque, leader of the Amistad revolt, now stands in front of New Haven's City Hall. The Pequot and Mohegan tribes have regained their sovereignty and economic importance. A new, multimillion-dollar urban development project at Hartford's "Dutch Point" has been dubbed "Adriaen's Landing" in honor of the merchant-navigator. But that sign on the Hartford town line remains of more than just passing interest. For at roughly the same time that Dutch traders in Connecticut were bartering cloth and metal goods for beaver skins and discovering the Indians' use of wampum, they were also busy establishing forts and factories in India, Taiwan, and Japan. These encounters, along with the better-known Dutch activities in eastern Brazil, the Caribbean, Africa, and Java, were a remarkable leap for a people whose fortunes at seafaring had previously come mainly from the Baltic herring and grain trade. In this essay, my aims are twofold. The first is simply to remind readers of the Dutch role in a globalization of the past whose hallmarks, in addition to innovations in banking and credit institutions, eventually included profound transformations in the daily diets and other consumption habits of people all over the world. My second, larger purpose is to show how teachers and students may use Dutch art from the Golden Age to trace points of connection between worlds of people and goods that, prior to the circumnavigation of the globe, were neither entirely disparate nor as interconnected as they would become in the following centuries.

     It has been estimated that in Holland during the 17th century, thousands of painters produced five million paintings for a population of less than one million.8 Many works of the types in which Dutch artists specialized portray goods and artifacts that either came into their owners' possession through long-distance trade or were inspired by foreign models. Silk clothing, rare dyestuffs, furs from Russia and North America, "new draperies" of exotic camel-hair, "Oriental" carpets from the Middle East, Chinese porcelain and Delftware or tin-glazed imitations of it, spices and other condiments from the tropical lands of South Asia, "Oriental" types of turbans and the high-crowned, stiff "Pilgrim" hats of beaver felt worn by Dutch burghers and English Puritans, and even pigments for the paint itself—including those derived from Mexican cochineal, Indian cows, or rare Asian lapis lazuli—are just some of the worldly goods put on display in these paintings for the merchants and citizens belonging to a largely Protestant bourgeoisie.9 Portraits of individuals and groups, genre paintings depicting scenes of everyday life, the first portrayals of Native Americans as less monstrous and more realistically human than earlier European representations of them, and even Edenic New World landscapes that, in the words of one patron, "begged to be painted," can all be used in the classroom to illustrate cross-cultural contacts and the first truly global exchanges of goods.10 Even the "history" paintings of Rembrandt and others, depicting Hebrew Bible scenes, can be used to make connections between the mental universe of strict Calvinists, Jews, and Amerindians at a time when millennial expectations gripped many throughout Europe, and New World natives were widely believed to be descended from ancient Israel's supposedly "lost tribes."

     Many students have a notoriously difficult time relating to history, yet I have found that clothing, food, and other artifacts of material culture are among the things that interest them the most. Still, our core narratives and teaching methods privilege timeline, event, and the development of students' verbal-linguistic skills, with an occasional nod to graphic or other material. Yet art in the world history classroom should be more than the optional sidebar or enrichment activity that it so often seems to be. Paying more attention to it, however, requires overturning conventional assumptions about disciplinary boundaries as well as how students learn. Dutch paintings of the Golden Age are rich primary sources that invite students to look closely, offering opportunities to research the goods and ornaments depicted in them. Even more importantly, the very visuality of art opens a royal road into the virtual worlds of communications and interaction that our students are already skilled at navigating. Instead of banning them altogether from classrooms and hallways, earbuds and portable mp3 players can be turned into powerful instructional tools for "anytime learning," using image-enhanced audio / video podcasting to tap into the "digital native" ways of knowing, learning, and creating that are by now second nature to so many students. 11

     My own interest in Dutch art began in connection with efforts to trace the spread of woven carpets and tapestries from Asia, which, being among the first luxury objects to reach Europe from the East in the centuries following the Crusades, appeared frequently in Renaissance paintings such as those by the German Holbeins (Elder and Younger) as well as portraits of families gathered around Mary and the infant Jesus.12 Casual viewers of Rembrandt's classic group portrait, the Sampling Officials [Syndics] of the Draper's Guild, probably pay little attention to the fact that the table at which the men sit is covered with a carpet too fine to have been placed on the floor. However, it would be difficult to survey the works of Johannes Vermeer without noticing that such carpets, richly detailed and thus able to be traced by specialists back to their places of origin, appear in many of his paintings. When goods such as these found new markets and were put to use or consumed far from their places of origin, they were incorporated into new cultural systems that transformed them into luxuries and altered their meaning or purpose. During his mid-14th century visit to Cathay, Ibn Battuta was shocked to discover that clothing made of cotton was expensive and rare, while even the poor wore garments of silk. As Robert Finlay observed with reference to the worldwide diffusion of porcelain especially coveted by Europeans, trade brought "the world…closer together through mutual misunderstanding."13

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     Three paintings to which I will now refer in detail are all hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I became familiar with them and the technology for producing image-enhanced podcasts during the Gallery's six-day Teacher Institute on "Dutch Art in the Golden Age," which I attended in the summer of 2007. High-quality images of these paintings, including enlargements of details and other excellent resources for educators, are available on the museum's website ( The first work is The Suitor's Visit by Gerard ter Borch (c. 1658). It includes not only a fine carpet on the table, but three other items that connect the habits and culture of the 17th century Dutch to people and places far from the new Republic's shores. While I cannot be certain of the exact source of the materials from which they are made, two of the items relate to the fabrics worn by the central figures of the painting. The satin sheen of the female's dress tells us that it is made of silk, most likely from Italy (where its production had started as early as the 9th century) but possibly also from Aleppo, in Syria. The importance of silk-weaving to future developments is evident in northern Europe's Industrial Revolution, which was largely inspired by the desire to mass produce textiles similar to those that came from the East. The man's hat, only partly visible, might have been made of felt from North American beavers: whether it was or not is less important than the fact that it can be used to initiate discussions about the effects of European desire upon the peoples and cultures of the New World.15 For as ever more furs were demanded, and as English settlers pressed more aggressively into Connecticut territories claimed not only by Native Americans but also by the Dutch, the former became more nomadic and dependent on goods that they could get only by trading with the Europeans. The beaver, formerly totemic and of great symbolic and even spiritual importance, was transformed by trade into a commodity that could be exchanged for wampum, which was itself gradually transformed into "money." Thus, the iconic hat that virtually any American child can identify as "Pilgrim" becomes somewhat ironic when one considers that the material from which it was made might have left North America on a Dutch ship only to return, some years later, atop the head of an Englishman who had taken refuge from religious persecution first in Holland, and then America. The female seated at the table plays a lute, an instrument that made its way from North Africa and southern Mediterranean lands into Spain and Italy. While it is probably too late, by the time of Ter Borch's painting, and too far north, for her to be playing melodies with any unequivocally Arab influence, it is likely that the very word "lute" derives from the Arabic al-'ud. This is a minor point, and I do not wish to read too much into any of these objects apart from them being commonly represented in both Dutch paintings and household inventories at this time. In any case, when art historians who specialize in these paintings discuss what they might portray other than visible, surface reality, they tend to be more concerned with what an entire assemblage of goods and people may signify, rather than with the details of each item per se.

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     However, small details often reflect or express big things. Willem Kalf's Still Life (1660) features a Chinese Wan Li porcelain bowl whose blue-and-white design may be similar to the colors of dishes in students' own homes. Yet this typical design of "china" ceramics did not even originate with Han porcelain makers, who called it "Muslim blue" because the cobalt for the pigment came from Persia where, as in other markets along the Silk Roads, buyers demanded certain wares of this color.16 Blue and white would eventually become the colors most associated with delftware, portraying either Dutch or Oriental motifs, or even a combination of the two. By the 18th century, wealthy patrons would custom order Chinese export porcelain objects based on European models, or even send European-made goods to China for painting (chine de commande). In a twist that further illustrates the irregular weave of the "worldwide web" of circulating goods, Chinese porcelain-makers sometimes produced replicas of Delftware, which was itself originally produced to replicate the "authentic china"! While there is no pottery in Willem Claesz Heda's Banquet Piece with Mince Pie (1635) , a number of other exotic or luxury items on the table attract the viewer's attention. The work as whole may be a vanitas piece that was meant to remind its wealthy owner of the dangers of intemperance and gluttony, along with the inevitability of death and judgment. But it is the "hard surfaces" of a reality that can be seen, touched, and even smelled that interests me the most. Therefore, and much more mundanely, what I notice first are the olives and the half-peeled lemon, both imported and most likely from Spain, but also possibly from Sicily. Though expensive, their cost was probably trivial compared to what (far from obviously) is inside the cone-shaped funnel of paper that sits on the plate in the lower right corner of Heda's painting, next to an empty oyster shell. While the relatively cheap ale and wine are all contained in precious, ornamented, even imported containers, so too is the more costly salt that, by this time, had to be brought from either Sicily or the Caribbean. On the other hand, the even more valuable Indonesian black pepper that was used to season the oysters is wrapped in a simple (and disposable) paper cone / shaker after having been ground in a kitchen utensil that, being purely utilitarian, was not considered worthy of inclusion in the painting. It was over pepper, as well as other spices, that the Dutch entered into fierce competition with the Portuguese and British in the Moluccas ("Spice Islands"). That something which is today so common and utterly taken-for-granted was so valuable in earlier ages provides further evidence, for students, of how the value and meaning of things differs cross-culturally and over time. The pie was likely flavored with currants and raisins from Levantine climes, Brazilian sugar, and exotic spices from the Far East.17 The paper is also an artifact—brought to Europe from China across the Silk Roads. This particular piece which, unlike the handwritten correspondence or pages of the Bible or other books that also commonly appeared in paintings, has (machine-printed) writing on it and reminds us of the importance that Protestant Reformers placed on literacy. It is a page torn from an almanac, and its even larger significance in the painting may be to represent the passage of time, thus reminding its wealthy owner of strict Calvinist injunctions to pass that time not only well, but also wisely. The white linen tablecloth represents how the desire of Europeans to produce fine linens had been stimulated, since antiquity, by the arrival of exceptionally fine cloth and fabrics from China and India.

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     Two other potent symbols for the transience of life that commonly appear in Dutch paintings of the period are the snuffed-out candle (also seen in Banquet Piece) and pipe smoke. Tobacco was first brought from the New World to the Old by the Spanish, and when Virginian or Brazilian varieties of it were introduced to the Dutch in the late 16th century for smoking (rather than as snuff) they "took to it immediately."18 Unlike Native Americans, for whom tobacco had great symbolic significance, Europeans considered its routine consumption and potential effects upon the body and mind as analogous to eating and drinking. For this reason, clay pipes sometimes appear in the banquet or more humble "breakfast piece" still lifes that painters like Heda specialized in. Gouda, in Holland, was a center for the manufacture of clay pipes that were sold all over Europe, the American colonies, and even bartered "back" to the Indians! In the third painting, A Dutch Courtyard (1658-60) by Pieter de Hooch, there is nothing in anyone's hand or on the table outdoors other than (possibly Venezuelan) tobacco, pipes, and wine. If the subjects of the painting were consuming milk that came from the many fat cows seen in Dutch paintings rather than wine, perhaps it would be more "Dutch" and less "Globally Dutch" in nature. Nevertheless, the wine is being sipped by the female figure from a "share glass" that was etched with lines showing just how much of the wine each person should take. The scene may convey a moral message of some kind, but the mere presence of the tobacco suffices to reinforce the main point of this essay. Like the cultivation of coffee, tea, kola nuts, cacao, and sugarcane—products to which people of all social classes, worldwide, eventually became addicted—the emergence of a global market for tobacco is far from a trivial matter. Power, wealth, technological innovations, slave plantations and racism are all associated with the history of the production and habitual consumption of all these products.

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     Teachers do not need to be art connoisseurs or even very well-read in the history of art in order to see, and get students to look for, things that will make global connections for them, often right in front of their eyes. Sometimes, like the pepper contained in the cone of paper, the relevance of an item both to the course of world history and our own habits today may be "hidden in plain sight." Students may be assigned the task of conducting image searches on the web using a teacher-prepared list, and then listening to and/or viewing a brief, teacher-made audio image-enhanced podcast of five minutes or less in which they are introduced to a painting and asked to answer certain questions about what they see in it. Alternatively, they may be asked to conduct a research project about something that is explicitly pointed out to them. The number of items or goods in a painting, or the number of painters, genres, and even parts of the world where specific goods originated and were traded from and to can be used to assign an equal number of small group activities. Students who own mp3 players will be able to download and listen to the podcast at any time, but all that is really required is computer availability, the necessary software, internet access, and the ability to upload the material onto a school website.19 It may be necessary to check beforehand and obtain permissions, but the use of such images for educational purposes tends to fall under "fair use" guidelines. At the very least, students might be asked to prepare, as the Dutch did, a household inventory of goods, making note of where certain items such as articles of clothing, portable electronic devices, computers, and commonly available foodstuffs were made and came from. Show them Heda's Banquet Piece, with its goods all laid out on a table top, and ask them to create, at home, such a "Still Life" and to digitally photograph it as if they were themselves creating a work of art that documented global trade networks and conveyed a message about the world and its peoples to the viewer. Their own visual product may then serve as a stimulus to writing, and hence to some enduring understanding about how the world is not just "out there," somewhere far away or long ago, but "right here" at home.

     Sometimes all it takes to awaken a young person's mind and self-awareness as the inheritor of a shared, world cultural heritage is to ask them to look more closely at things that are right in front of their eyes. We should teach more for the sake of inspiring wonderment at this legacy, and less "to the test." All too often such substantially defective concepts of space ("country," "nation-state,") and time (periodization) are used and abused to frame what we know, or think we know, and teach about the world. What is learning history and social studies about, after all, if it is not also an opportunity for students to reflect on how the local is also global? Turn the globe upside-down, and instead of seeing landforms first, have students investigate the goods that people have exchanged across what have been, more often than not, rather fluid divides—the artifacts of material culture that constitute the world that is or once was. From this new perspective, those who produce, transport, trade, and consume the goods—along with port cities and trading diasporas—emerge as subjects that are equally worthy of our students' attention and time as the more conspicuous and conventional issues related to power, empire, and revolution. The past, after all, is more than just "a foreign country." It is also, if not an entirely different world of goods, at least a world of goods put to different purposes. It comes as no surprise that the conventions of Dutch group portrait painting, including the placement of luxury and other worldly goods, made their way into English and eventually American colonial styles.

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     See also, in our National Gallery, The Washington Family, by Edward Savage (1789-1796). This time, however, it is not a rich carpet that appears on the table, but instead a map of a rich land yet to be set foot upon and won, for yet another new nation.

Biographical Note: Michael Marcus, Ph.D., teaches World History and Anthropology in Berlin, CT.  He has taught at both the secondary and college levels for over 20 years.  He spent four years in North Africa and the Middle East as a student, teacher, and researcher, participated in Fulbright teacher seminars in China and India, and was the recipient of the WHA 2004 Teaching Prize.



1 I am grateful to the Berlin School District and to the National Gallery of Art and the Director of its Teacher Education Programs, Julie Springer, for the opportunity to participate in its Teacher Institute on "Dutch Art in the Golden Age" held in Washington, D.C. July 30-August 4, 2007. I wish also to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Zev Slurzberg, particularly during the technology portion of the Institute. All images of paintings from the National Gallery are used with permission.

2 The word "Yankee" is possibly a corruption of Jan Kees, or "John Cheese" as the English settlers of what would become neighboring New York might have called them.

3 Washington Irving, Knickerbocker's History of New York, Complete, 1809. e-Book edition available at

4 Benjamin Schmidt, Innocence Abroad: The Dutch Imagination and the New World, 1570-1670. NY, Cambridge University Press, 2001, 138.

5 See Benjamin Moser, "Start Spreading the News," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 51, No. 17, November 4, 2004.

6 See Michael A. Marcus, "Big History in Little Places: Hometown Glimpses of the Human Web," in World History Connected, Vol. 3, No.3, July 2006

7 The value of the beads, sixty guilders was actually more than the amounts paid by the Spanish for Hispaniola or the English for Jamestown; Schmidt, 247.

8 Steven Nadler, Rembrandt's Jews, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003, 76. Citing the economic historical research of Jan de Vries, but focusing her attention mainly outside of The Netherlands, Jane Schneider notes that the consumption habits of even Dutch peasants were radically upgraded between the 16th and 18th centuries, with "the famous Dutch window curtains" being only the most obvious example ( "Trousseau as Treasure: Some Contradictions in Late Nineteenth-Century Change in Sicily," in Eric B. Ross, ed., Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism. New York, Academic Press, 1980, 345).

9 A newly-available, major source for information about the topics discussed in this essay is the work of Julie Berger Hochstrasser, Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007. An excellent summary of the Dutch economy during the 17th century is provided by Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997. A more detailed survey is available in Jonathan I. Israel, Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585-1740, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989. For a thorough account of what can be learned about food and eating from Dutch paintings of the period, see Donna R. Barnes and Peter G. Rose, Matters of Taste: Food and Drink in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Life, Albany, New York, Albany Institute of History & Art, 2002.

10 Schmidt, 258, citing Adriaen van der Donck of Yonkers, who wrote his Description of New Netherland in 1655.

11 The terms "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" were coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 in order to distinguish, for example, the discourse and interaction modes of my students and my own children, all born after the late 1980's, from those of us who have come to digital technologies and media as if they were a second, newly acquired language. See his "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants",%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf See also Wendy Eagan, "Visual Literacy: Letting Our Students See the Past for Themselves, Ideas for Using Images in the Classroom," in World History Connected, Vol. 1, No. 1, November 2003 For more on the instructional potential of podcasting and how it may relate to interdisciplinary instruction using art, see Julie Springer and Paula White, "Video iPods and Art Education," in Museums and the Web 2007,

12 See Michael A. Marcus, "Steppes to Civilization: Tracing the World History of Global Systems Through Textiles and an Interdisciplinary Approach, in Bulletin of the World History Association, Vol XX, No. 2, Fall 2004 A comprehensive survey of Netherlands art featuring carpets is Onno Ydema, Carpets and their Datings in Netherlandish Paintings, 1540-1700, Zutphens, Walburg Pers, 1991.

13 Robert Finlay, "The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History", in Journal of World History, 9(2), 1998, 141-187.

14 For a survey of the National Gallery's holdings related to the Dutch Golden Age, see Arthur K. Wheelock, Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1995. For a comprehensive survey of this art as a whole, see Bob Haak, The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1984.

15 One need not always be so equivocal. Rembrandt's portrait of Dutch fur trader Nicolaes Ruts, on view in New York's Frick Collection, shows him wearing lavish furs of unambiguously Russian origin. This is certain because of what can also be known about Ruts from written records. His A Polish Nobleman (1637), in the National Gallery, features a tall beaver hat, also most likely of European rather than North American origin, and an indisputably Asiatic pearl earring

16 Finlay, 155.

17 Wheelock, 99.

18 Haak, 125.

19 At the time of this writing, it appears that the only software capable of producing a podcast that can incorporate images visible on a computer or video mp3 player is Apple's "Garageband."



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