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Jan van Gool als geschiedschrijver

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

Jan van Gool's Nieuwe Schouburg, published in two volumes in 1750 and 1751 (Note 1), was meant as a sequel to Arnold Houbraken's Groote Schouburgh and it does, indeed, dovetail with that unfinished work. It brought its author much more renown than his work as an animal painter. Alongside the mainly factual information it contains there are also opinions, sometimes personal ones, which reveal him as a spokesman of his time. To extract the latter type of information it is necessary to read between the lines and be well aware of the purpose behind the book. The book and its objectives Volume 1, dedicated to Johan van der Marck, opens with a title-print by P. Tanjé after L. F. Dubourg and an explanation in verse by A. Kuipers, eulogies of the book by two of Van Grool's friends, J. Wandelaar and F. Greenwood, and a portrait of the author engraved by J. Houbraken after a drawing by Aert Schouman. Then follows an introduction setting out the intentions of the book and its relationship to Houbraken and Weyerman. Volume 11, dedicated to Gerrit Braamcamp with a eulogy of him by D. Smits, opens with a discussion of the choice of style and subject-matter to be made by artists on the basis of examples from the recent past. The main bulk of both volumes is taken up by biographies of artists, arranged, as in Houbraken, in chronological order of their date of birth, although, also like Houbraken, Van Gool puts members of the same family together and pupils sometimes come immediately after their masters. In these biographies the facts are presented as accurately as possible and much attention is paid to the success or failure of artists and their corresponding standing in society. Van Gool includes fewer anecdotes than Houbraken, using them only to bring out the artists' personalities better (Note 6) . He characterizes the oeuvre of each of them and often mentions or describes individual works, but he says little about iconography and what he does say is often inaccurate. Conversely, he has a great interest in prices, collections, buying and selling and he endeavours to survey the holdings of art in the Netherlands as far as possible. He makes the link with Houbraken very clear by giving additional information about four important painters who were still alive when Houbraken's book was published and by including artists he felt had been wrongly omitted by Houbraken, whom he often criticizes for his less systematic approach. Again on the model of Houbraken's book, the biographies are interspersed with discussions of a general nature and a number of poems, mostly by Van Gool himself, in which he draws conclusions about the life of the artist in question and moralizes on virtues, vices and the vicissitudes of fortune. There are also more than twenty eulogies and epitaphs (Note 4), while poems by other authors and quotations are often used to honour painters and their work (Note 5). There is a clear difference from Houbraken, however, in that only one of the poems, Ansloo's epithalemium for A. van den Tempel, is quoted for its factual information. Vol. 11 ends with an appendix containing biographies of twenty more artists and all the known facts about a number of others, based on information received too late for earlier inclusion, and short pieces about the engravers J. Houbraken and P. Tanjé as a mark of gratitude. Then come a refutation of the criticism levelled at Vol. 1 by an unnamed person, who must be Gerard Hoet II (Note 3), amplifications and corrections to Vol. 1, a historical account of the Hague confraternity of artists and academy and, finally, a catalogue of the Elector's collection at Dusseldorf. The portraits illustrating the Nieuwe Schouburg constitute part of the factual information and it is clear from Van Gool's comments that they are no unimportant part of it. He expresses great annoyance about the refusal to lend or the late arrival of portraits and gratitude to those who helped him to find them, notably Johan van der Marck. The prints were also sold separately for the benefit of collectors of portraits of artists. More important than the collecting of factual information in Van Gool's eyes was the honouring of artists worthy of it and the perpetuation of their renown, which would otherwise be lost. Thus the book is a monument, but it is also more than a mark of honour from a middling painter to his great colleagues, since the second objective was to provide stimulating examples for coming generations. To do this it had to furnish models that any potential artist could follow and the survey of the art of the recent past that opens Vol. 11 is meant to show that such a great variety really did exist. The 17th century must be taken as a model and equalled and to show that this was possible the first biography in Vol. 11 is that of Jan van Huysum, to whom, along with Rachel Ruysch, Van Gool gives fulsome praise. Since Van Gool saw the course of an artist's life, his artistic success and his social success as inextricably bound up together, the biographies seem to be meant mainly as exempla in the moral sense. Failure is invariably interpreted as the result of irresponsible behaviour and success as the fruit of virtue and the opening sentences of successive biographies often contrast two artists' lives in a moralizing manner. If the artists of Van Gool's own day follow the models given in the right way, this will be as good for them personally as for Dutch art in general. Art will flourish again and the present decline become a thing of the past. The significance of Van Gool's work in combatting that decline is actually better put by Wandelaar in his eulogy in Vol. 1, while Van Gool's thoughts on the role of patrons in the struggle against decline are also better expressed in D. Smils' poem in which Braamcamp is extolled as the rescuer of painting. The dedications to the two notable patrons, Van der Marck and Braamcamp, thus prove to be more than a token of friendship or esteem: they indicate a programme. Patrons too can be divided into moral categories, while the abuses in the Hague Academy are an expression as well as a cause of artistic decline. Thus Van Gool's conception of his task as an educator and fighter against artistic decline unites apparently disparate parts of his book. The catalogue of the Dusseldorf collection too must have been meant as a shining example to potential Dutch patrons.

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1985-01-01
2016-12-08

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