Enlightened Spaces: The eighteenth-century interior and the study of decorative arts at Leiden University Fig. 1 The merchant Jan Gildemeester Jansz. in his cabinet of paintings in his townhouse at Herengracht 475, Amsterdam. Painting by Adriaan de Lelie, 1794-1795. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.

Enlightened Spaces: The eighteenth-century interior and the study of decorative arts at Leiden University

The University has long fostered the study of the decorative arts and domestic culture and has produced several notable specialists in this field. A new series of public lectures on the eighteenth-century interior organised by Alexander Dencher continues this tradition.

A series of lectures focusing on historic interiors launches on 18 February 2021, thanks to a grant from the Leiden University Centre for Arts and Society (LUCAS). These lectures unite a diverse group of scholars working on a topic that is somewhat neglected in art history, which is traditionally focused on painting and sculpture. However, the study of the decorative arts and historic interiors knows a long and reputable history at Leiden University since the establishment of the first chair in 1964 for Theodoor Herman Lunsingh Scheurleer (1911-2002). Until 2005, the possibility to study various aspects of the applied arts at Leiden was unique in the Netherlands. Interiors for display heralds this academic legacy and hopes to unite scholars, curators and amateurs around the theme of the eighteenth-century interior in Europe.

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Fig. 2 A decorative painting by Jacob de Wit in 1727 for the country house of the Amsterdam merchant Jan Baptist de Surmont van Vlooswijk in Loenen aan de Vecht, which has since been demolished. The painting depicts Jupiter, disguised as Diana, seducing the nymph Callisto. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.

The eighteenth century saw the advent of modern notions of sociability, comfort, and taste, all of which found expression in the domestic interior, but the art of this period has not benefitted from sustained scholarly engagement, unlike seventeenth- or nineteenth-century art. This period in the Dutch Republic is sometimes considered one of cultural decline and this attitude partly stems from questionable ideas about artistic quality as well as the persistent but problematic view that the art of this period is not characteristically Dutch (in other words, just a little too foreign). The research of Willemijn Fock (Professor Emeritus since 2007) on the Dutch interior offered a compelling start point for future enquiries but was primarily concentrated on Leiden and, as Fock herself urged, further research must be done to get a completer picture. In the last few decades several major exhibitions such as Edele Eenvoud (Frans Hals Museum/Teylers Museum, 1989), Rococo (Rijksmuseum, 2001-2002) and Een Koninklijk Paradijs (Dordrecht Museum, 2017) have examined various aspects of eighteenth-century interiors but a major interdisciplinary study or cultural history of these spaces is still lacking.

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Fig. 3 Chimneypiece with relief depicting Paris and Oenone carved in 1739 by the sculptor Jan Baptist Xavery for the house of Diederik van Leyden (1695-1764) on the Rapenburg 48 in Leiden. It was bought by the American news magnate William Randolph Hearst in the early twentieth century before being acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1995 with the aid of the Vereniging Rembrandt. White Carrara marble and red-grey Belgian marble, H.461 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.
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Fig. 4 This marble relief was carved by Jan Baptist Xavery for the house of Diederik van Leyden (1695-1764) on the Rapenburg 48 in Leiden and was intended and as an overdoor decoration in the same salon as the grand chimneypiece. Leiden, Lakenhal

The impulse behind these lectures is my own fascination with fashionable interiors in the eighteenth-century Dutch Republic, which reflected the cosmopolitan ambitions of its patrons, who spent considerable sums constructing, decorating, and furnishing these spaces (figs.1, 6, 8-9). I am particularly interested in the ‘salon’ as a physical rather than notional space and in the ways that the arrangement and decoration of such rooms facilitated the social practices of their owners. In the Netherlands this space often consisted of a suite of two rooms on the ground floor, connected by sliding doors, situated on the ground floor (fig.1). The most prestigious reception rooms in the urban mansions of the regents, colloquially referred to as pronk interieurs (‘interiors for display’), were remarked on by foreign visitors and were considered by contemporary observers as the Dutch equivalent of the French chambre de parade or English state rooms. Although it seems that these spaces were multi-functional we actually know quite little about their actual social usage and far more research is required in order to establish basic facts about their patrons as well as the artists and craftsmen they employed (fig.5).

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Fig. 5 Bernard Picart, Celebration of Passover in a Portuguese Jewish family, possibly that of Alvaro Nunes da Costa (1666-1737), also known as Nathan Curiel, c.1725. It is interesting that the African servant (whose identity remains undiscovered) sits at the table with the family, albeit on a tabouret. Amsterdam Museum, legaat C.J. Fodor.

A major challenge posed by the study of eighteenth-century interiors is the shift from the display of singular artworks to integrally designed ensembles uniting architecture, painting, and sculpture. Sculptors in wood (beeldsnijders) carved architectural the framework for paintings or textiles (fig.8), as well as decorative elements like console tables, mirror and picture frames, while marble chimneypieces were usually imported from abroad (fig.7). The most important commissions for painters in this period were no longer easel paintings but massive canvases that covered entire walls and perhaps it is the perceived loss of painting’s autonomous status (ostensibly reduced to mere decoration) that has led to its under-appreciation in scholarship, notable exceptions notwithstanding. Once moved to the museum it is only the label that accompanies the display of such paintings that recalls their original context (fig.2), and in some cases sculptures (fig.4).

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Fig. 6 Reception room designed by the architect Abraham van der Hart for the Haarlem merchant and collector Willem Philip Kops, c.1793-1795. This room, which came to the Rijksmuseum in 1945 with all of its original furnishings, is one of the best preserved eighteenth-century interiors in the Netherlands.
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Fig. 7 This exceptional chimneypiece was made by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi for the Amsterdam banker John Hope, c.1761 - 1769. The artist illustrated Hope’s chimney in his engravings. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. Gift of the Provincie Noord-Holland.

Later modifications of interiors and the removal of their original furnishings, much of which were subsequently dispersed on the art market, have complicated the study of eighteenth-century interiors even if many have ended up in museums. The interdisciplinary project led by Margriet van Eikema Hommes, From Isolation to Coherence, has yielded impressive results that offer multi-layered insights into the history of painted ensembles (fig.9). However, there are a number of important eighteenth-century Dutch interiors that have been preserved in situ while in a few very rare cases there are rooms that have retained their original furnishings (fig.6). Archival research has made it possible to connect disparate elements from demolished interiors (figs.3-4) but more work needs to be done, particularly in regards to the furnishing of these rooms. A grant awarded by the Research Program Museums, Collections and Society has made it possible to locate archives and collections that shed more light on the domestic interiors of the eighteenth-century urban elite, and this research will hopefully provide me with sufficient material to undertake a more substantial research project in the future.

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Fig. 8 A mahogany interior commissioned in 1745 by the Amsterdam merchant Mathijs Beuning to his house at Keizersgracht 187, Amsterdam. Beuning and his wife were leading members of the Dutch community of Moravian Brethren. The use of mahogany at this time, and certainly on this scale, was exceptional. The presence of the original stucco ceiling is very rare in any period room as this is usually the most complicated element to remove from its original setting.

A lack of general awareness in the Netherlands of the cultural importance of the eighteenth century also threatens the preservation of historic interiors and collections. This gives a sense of urgency to this series of lectures and highlights the necessity of continuing research and education. Students must be equipped with the knowledge and tools to enable them to approach the decorative arts on their own terms and with the appropriate methods so they may understand how interactions with carefully designed objects and spaces shape their daily lives. The study of the history of the decorative arts (as well as industrial design) is therefore crucial because it helps us connect with our everyday environments in ways that the fine arts do not. As Professor Reinier Baarsen pointed out in his inaugural lecture on the eighteenth-century collector Karl graf von Cobenzl (1712-1770), it also challenges anachronistic understandings of the values attributed to art and architecture in the past. It is to be hoped that these lectures will contribute a little to the continuation of the legacy of Theodoor Lunsingh Scheurleer and Willemijn Fock by demonstrating the cultural significance of the eighteenth-century interior as a work of art and inspiring present and future scholars in this field.

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Fig. 9 A digital reconstruction by the interdisciplinary project From Isolation to Coherence of the interior of Beuning’s mahogany room with the paintings and design drawings of Jurriaan Andriessen, who was commissioned in 1781 by the room’s second owner, Jan de Groot, who was a successful publisher, book dealer and lottery organiser in Amsterdam.

In the Spring of 2021, Leiden University lecturer and Rijksmuseum curator Alexander Dencher will bring together academics, curators and heritage professionals for a series of lectures that will cover various aspects of the eighteenth-century interior in the Netherlands and Europe. More information about these lectures can be found here.

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