2.1.5: 1585 - 1725 - Illustrations and decoration

Book illustrations also contributed to the glory of the Golden Age although its own flourishing period was very short. The period 1600-1635 is considered to be the 'Golden Age' of the illustrated book in the Northern Netherlands. Only in the last decades of the seventeenth century did a revival take place due, in particular, to the work of a number of inventive printmakers. Opposite these artistic high points much that was ordinary and mediocre could be found such as reprints of old plates and second-rate imitations of successful illustrations. From a cultural-historical point of view, however, such visual material is certainly not less interesting. Its scope must, after all, have been greater in many respects than the works of the well-known book illustrators.

It is difficult to say exactly how large the production was in the Northern Netherlands. For the period 1575-1700 a figure of 12,500 illustrated books has been suggested. Research of about 250 such books provided almost 2600 illustrations. There was a rapid increase during the first decades of the seventeenth century in the number of illustrated publications: pamphlets and news sheets, historical and topographical works, atlases and travelogues, scientific and military treatises. Aesthetically speaking, emblem books and songbooks take a leading position. The most beautiful have a characteristic oblong format and are provided with illustrations by the best print artists of the Netherlands. Examples are Roemer Visscher's Sinnepoppen (1614), with engravings by Claes Jansz. Visscher, and Starter's Friesche lust-hof (1621), illustrated by Jan van de Velde. Other major book illustrators were Jacques de Gheyn, Crispijn de Passe, David Vinckboons and Adriaen van de Venne.

This flourishing period can undoubtedly be partially explained by the decline of Antwerp as a major production centre after 1585 (with the exception of the work of the Moretuses and Rubens). Flemish immigranten contributed notably to the cultural growth of the North, not only in painting and engraving but also in the illustration of books. Just as important was the initiative and inventiveness of Dutch publishers. They were prepared to take risks by investing in expensive new series of illustrations (among others Willem Jansz. Blaeu and Paulus Aertsz. van Ravesteyn at Amsterdam, Jan Jansz. in Arnhem). Etching was usually the technique chosen whereby sections were elaborated using the burin. The well-to-do sometimes had their illustrations enhanced by colourists.

After 1635, publishers were often satisfied with reissues or copies of older series of illustrations. The leading printmakers were hardly ever employed. The most important publication of those days, the Statenbijbel or Dutch Authorised Version, was not provided with standard text illustrations. Print publishers such as Claes Jansz. Visscher in Amsterdam, however, quickly took advantage of the demand for biblical images. They offered separate series of prints for sale which could be bound into the bibles later. It is typical that not even they had new series designed, but used copperplates from Antwerp which were often decades old. The Catholic Bible edition by Pieter Jacobsz. Paets (1657) did not contain original illustrations either. The woodcuts it contained by the Van Sichem family were mostly based on sixteenth-century models. Only after the appearance of Romeyn de Hooghe and Jan Luyken did bible illustrations again get a creative impulse.

These two artists were also responsible for the revival of book illustrations in the last decades of the seventeenth century. De Hooghe designed about 2800 illustrations. Jan Luyken, who was just as productive, produced, together with his son Casper, almost 4500 prints of which many were book illustrations. The new flourish lasted into the first quarter of the eighteenth century with the classical academic illustrative art of, among others, Jan Goeree and the work of Bernard Picart which was also rooted in the French tradition.

The flourishing of book illustration in the Golden Age, both in qualitative and quantitative terms, was only possible because of an avid market. Illustrations must have been enormously attractive to large sections of the public. To begin with, illustrations made a book visually more attractive, starting with the title page decoration, which acquired its typical monumental, allegorical form in this period and often served as bait while the prints in the text ensured welcome variety. Secondly, the content of the illustrations was seen as an important supplement to the text. Those unable to travel could gain an impression of faraway places and strange people, of exotic plants and animals. Political and military events at home and abroad were graphically illustrated and, thanks to portraits, one could, as it were, become acquainted with great men of history, with contemporary celebrities and also with the authors of books read.

author: Peter van der Coelen

Illustrations and decoration