A Merry Company at Table by Hendrick Pot

A Merry Company at Table by Hendrick Pot (c.1630)

Two paintings today; one by the artist and one of the artist himself.  One of the pleasures I get from my blog is that besides discovering new artists and their paintings, I acquire an insight with regards the history and traditions of various countries , most of which I had little previous knowledge.  Maybe I should have concentrated more during my history lessons at school.   Recently I have featured Flemish artists and I looked briefly at Dutch and Flemish history during the time of Spanish occupation and rule.  Today, I am looking at a painting by the Dutch painter Hendrick Pot and exploring the world of the schutterij.  Don’t you know what the shutterij is or are?   Neither did I until I researched a painting by Pot but before I reveal the answer let me give you a brief biography of the artist himself.

Hendrick Gerritsz Pot was born in Haarlem around 1585.  His early artistic training was with Karl van Mander.  We probably know Karl van Mander not so much as an artist but for his writings.  He has often been termed the Dutch Vasari for his book entitled Schilderboek, published in 1604, which to this day, remains the main source for information on Northern European painters of the 1400s and 1500s and contains valuable original material about his Italian contemporaries.  He had arrived in Haarlem in 1583 and set up an informal academy with the Dutch engraver and painter, Hendrick Goltzius.  At this Academy, van Mander taught and developed the Haarlem Mannerist style.   Other artists who were trained by van Mander at his studio included Frans Hals.
In 1620 he was commissioned to do two paintings relating to William I of Orange, often referred to as William the Silent, who was one of the key leaders of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule.  He was assassinated in 1584.  One of the paintings, entitled the Glorification of Willem I, was acquired by the city of Haarlem whilst the other entitled the Deathbed of Willem I was housed in the town hall of Delft.   In1630 Pot became Dean of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.   He travelled to the court of Charles I in London in 1632 where he was employed as the court portraitist and during his one year sojourn at the court completed portraits of Charles I and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria.

In 1633 he returned he returned to Holland.  Many of Pot’s lucrative commissions were to paint group portraits of the local militias, known as schutterij.  So now you know – schutterij is the Dutch term for militia.  They were a voluntary city guard whose prime objective was to protect their town or city from attack and also to act in case of a fire breaking out within the town.   They were simply a defensive military support system for the local civic authority. The officers of the schutterij came from wealthy backgrounds and were appointed by the city magistrates. The captain of each group was normally a very wealthy inhabitant of the district, and the group’s ensign was a wealthy young bachelor and he could be recognised in the group portraits as the man wearing exceptionally fine clothes.   There was a special kudos to being a member of the schutterij as it often led to one being appointed to an important position within the town council.

At the time when the leaders of an individual schutterij stepped down or passed away and their replacements were sworn in, a local artist was commissioned to paint a new group portrait of the members. These group portraits were known as schuttersstukken and they often had the setting of a banquet which was held to welcome in the new leaders.     The artist commissioned to carry out the painting had a complex job on his hands.  This is not as it would be now when a photographer would get the group to stand as one and after a few minor adjustments shoot the film.  In the case of schuttersstukken the artist would paint each member separately so that each individual portrait within the group was as accurate as possible.  As a member of this militia, if one wanted to be included in the group portrait, one had to pay for the privilege and how much you paid the artist and your rank within the militia, would depend on where he positioned you within the group!  As I said before it was a very lucrative commission and there was a lot of competition for the right to carry out the group portrait.  Probably one of the most famous of the schuttersstukken was Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.   One thing that would help an aspiring artist to gain the painting commission was if he was a member of a schutterij.   Hendrick Pot was a lieutenant in a schutterij and that was the advantage he had over many of the other applicants.

The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company by Frans Hals

This leads me to my second painting of the day which is entitled The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company which Frans Hals painted around 1639 and included in the work is none other than Hendrick Pot with his militia sash who is seated at a table on the far right of the gathering, reading a book.

In 1648 Pot moved from Haarlem and went to live in Amsterdam.  In his later years he concentrated on small single figure portraiture.  He died in Amsterdam in 1657, aged 72.

My main featured painting is one Hendrick Pot completed around1630 and is entitled A Merry Company at a Table.   It is now housed in the Wallace Collection in London.   It is a genre piece.  The definition of a genre piece is a work of art  which affords a pictorial representation, painted  in any of the various media and one that represent scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes. Some of the genre pieces are realistic, some imagined, whilst others are romanticized by the artist. This type of painting was particularly popular in seventeenth century Netherlands, but the term “genre” was not applied at the time;  instead, paintings were divided into more specific categories, such as ‘merry company’ scenes (conversatie), ‘little fire’ scenes (brandje) or ‘bordello scenes’ (bordeeltje).   My featured painting today falls into the latter category, a bordeeltje.  So why do we believe what we are looking at is a bordello?  Although the painting is not littered by scantily dressed females and lusting men the artist has given us some subtle hints as to what we are looking at.  On the floor there is a discarded rapier, lute and in the foreground, a dog.  These symbolise the disarming power of love and carnal desire.  Look to the left of the painting and in the doorway one sees an old woman carefully watching her girls as they enchant and flirt with the soldiers.  The men and women seated around the table make music together which is a common euphemism for making love and they play cards and smoke which were looked upon as the two great vices of the time.

Look to the extreme right of the painting.  Look at the cavalier with his back to the chimney breast, who stares out at us.  He gives us a knowing look as if to say “you know what is going on here, don’t you?”  The background solely consist of a drab muted coloured wall broken up only by the presence of a mirror.  Why do you think Pot added a mirror to this scene?  Could he be asking us to look into it, see our own reflection and examine our own behaviour, before we audaciously condemn the women and the men we see before us in the brothel?

I have always liked these Dutch and Flemish genre pieces.  There is often a moralistic tale being told.  The scene is often up for interpretation and we look carefully for any signs of symbolism.  I enjoy looking closely at the individuals and try to guess what is going on in their minds.  Fortunately there are so many of them in our art galleries and museums and I am never disappointed by what I see.

Enjoy !