David Kunzle’s monumental book, fusing deep historical scholarship with polemical zeal and pictorial acumen, has appeared at an apt historical moment. Several weeks ago I looked up from studying some of its illustrations, and my eye fell on the front-page photograph in that day’s International Herald Tribune. The picture seemed to have slid straight out of Kunzle’s book, from somewhere between Soldiers Threatening a Peasant by Pieter Codde (1599-1678) and Soldiers and Hostages by Willem Duyster (1599-1635). There was a desperate-looking woman draped in black with a frightened child clinging to her arm, leaning forward to plead with an upright, massively clad and armed soldier, his anonymous back to us, the light on her face. The caption said the woman was begging the soldier to release the child, whom he had just arrested as a terrorist. It occurred to me that Kunzle is very good at suggesting that where the uneasy relations between powerless civilians and the armed military are concerned, some things haven’t changed since the 17th century – and perhaps not since the seventh, or the 17th BC – even when the civilians and the military are on the same side.
What hasn’t changed either is the need for pictures that document and comment on those relations; it’s only their form that alters. A picture expounding the dread effects of war can take the form of candid scenes of soldierly brutality; or it can be a simple whitewash, mild or thick; or an overbearing gloss of painterly heroism, such as Rubens provided to glorify imperial or royal might and Catholic supremacy. Sometimes Kunzle shows us protest disguised inside a violent biblical or classical subject, but at the same time staged to look applicable to contemporary experience. In the central third of his book we see scene after grim scene of soldiers plundering an entire village, or waylaying and robbing a convoy of wagons and killing off its armed guards, or attacking a group of unarmed, unguarded peasants in a field. We see soldiers stripping the corpses of men they have killed, raping village women and stealing the fine clothes off the living backs of well-dressed travellers.
Kunzle discusses the desire of Netherlandish artists to make and sell such images, and of patrons to see and pay for them, as well as the way the artists composed the pictures to convey changing views of military men, during a lengthy period when their increasing numbers affected the lives of everyone in Europe. It was the amazing economic success of the Dutch during the long wars (and the profits they made from the civil wars in France and England) that created the Dutch Army. What had begun as a small and untidy combination of local guerrilla fighters and foreign mercenaries became a professional army of 35,000 by the 1590s and numbered more than 70,000 (some say 128,000) between 1629 and 1643, though the region itself – the northern Netherlands – had a very small population. At the same time this disproportionately large army was well and promptly paid, out of high and promptly paid taxes.
Kunzle wants to keep his discussion of art firmly based on the more appalling conditions that prevailed in the northern and southern Netherlands in the years between 1550 and 1672, from the dreadful spoliations of Charles V and Philip II to the deadly invasion of Louis XIV, a period comprising the Great Dutch Revolt, under the Princes of Orange and Nassau, the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) that resulted in the independent Dutch Republic, and the infamous Thirty Years War (1618-48). Perpetually metastasising religious hatred between Catholics and Protestants, further complicated by strife among different kinds of True Believer in each camp, provided the context for these wars. There was a 12-year truce between 1609 and 1621, even though battle continued at sea; war on land resumed between 1621 and 1648, and fighting at sea continued after that – but the Dutch Navy and its painters and engravers are not Kunzle’s concern.
Concerned above all with the horrors of war and the abuse of human rights, Kunzle doesn’t dwell on the evolving painterly conventions of Flemish and Dutch art, the interplay of prevailing fashions in style and rendering, the influence of Italian art: he takes note of such absorbing art-historical considerations, but they aren’t central to his theme. He may believe that even the vivid stylistic components of the pictures he discusses are a product of the artists’ fundamental protest against oppression; that they reflect the artists’ own pain at the extortion, theft, brigandage, looting, burning, rape, murder, massacre and siege – to say nothing of the destruction of religious paintings and objects – that soldiers both foreign and domestic steadily inflicted on the Lowlands during all those decades.
Kunzle tells us that some of the artists he writes about came from towns that had been under attack or siege when they were children, and had families that were dispossessed or killed, forced to flee or scattered. Kunzle merges his own hatred of war with the feelings he is sure were guiding the hands of his painters and engravers; and if we follow his view, we can see that today’s IHT photojournalist and the two Dutch painters I mentioned in my first paragraph are in the same pictorial business, displaying the same protesting view of the same kind of atrocity, and selling the image of it to a section of the public eager to see it that way, too. The differences in the pictorial medium and the historical period register less than the similarities in subject – and even in composition and lighting, which convey and evoke similar responses to what the pictures show.
For this book on the theme of artistic protest, whether blatant or veiled, Kunzle has found many unfamiliar paintings of unlovely subjects not usually considered typical of the Netherlands, or even of the painters who did them, as well as grim details in otherwise serene-seeming groups and views. He is sorry that Jacques Callot’s quite explicitly dreadful series of engravings of 1633, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, isn’t about the Netherlands; and he sneaks some of the scenes in anyway. But he leaves out the well-known small Dutch battle pictures that mostly depict skirmishes among opposing cavalry, perhaps as containing no civilians and no strong attitude – often you can’t even be sure which side is which.
Kunzle reminds us that before the middle of the 17th century, there was no military uniform as we know it, and pictures could not show troops dressed according to their allegiance, opposing one another in a mêlée. The armed escorts of great nobles still wore household livery, as they had done since feudal times, but there were no uniforms to identify a diversely composed army brought together for war under one leader. Troops wore badges in distinguishing colours and otherwise dressed in ordinary clothes, naturally similar but not deliberately alike. Officers had distinctive sashes and otherwise dressed similarly as gentlemen, with sword and plumed hat. The ensign, who carried the colours but no weapons, and the trumpeter, who was also an official military envoy, wore special and sometimes ornate dress. These two romantic characters appear in several of Kunzle’s illustrations, as do many dashing officers in hats and sashes; but in others we see trained ranks of foot soldiers rendered mainly as threatening masses of perfectly spaced nine-foot pikes, exactly vertical when still, all at an identical angle when on the march: they are clearly the real uniform.
Groups of menacing pikes appear in versions of the Massacre of the Innocents, a subject which Kunzle has established as significantly increasing in use among Netherlandish painters in the middle of the 16th century. Medieval Netherlandish use of the story had been theatrical, not pictorial, Kunzle writes, and primarily comic, with cruel Herod appearing on stage as a ridiculously boastful Oriental (emphatically non-Christian) potentate, his murdering soldiers and the frantically resisting mothers cast as slapstick characters, the horror neutralised by laughter. Kunzle finds Flemish artists such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder continuing some of this comic-horror flavour into 16th-century painting, but with new emphasis.
He suggests that the North European custom of portraying all antique and biblical scenes as contemporary and local had already offered painters a way to make scenes of legendary violence refer to (and thus protest against) current violence. In the 15th century, for example, a Flemish Massacre painted with modern mothers trying to save their babies from a modern-looking Herod’s soldiers could be taken as a direct protest against the violence inflicted on the Flemish population by the armed retainers of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, a century before Charles V became an imperial predator with much wider scope. We are also reminded that this habit of referring to contemporary military abuses in representations of the Massacre of the Innocents was not universal: classicising Italian Renaissance painters portrayed instead an assortment of semi-draped male, female and infant nudes in vigorous action, perhaps adding a few bits of ancient Roman armour.
Sometimes the actual abuses to which these Netherlandish artists were responding weren’t even recorded in chronicles or official reports of the events. Kunzle has a chapter on a set of 12 immense tapestries designed by the Haarlem artist Jan Vermeyen between 1545 and 1550, commissioned by Charles V to record his conquest of Tunis in 1535. These enormous precious objects were rolled up and carried all over Habsburg Europe during succeeding decades, to be temporarily hung up in palaces for various royal and imperial celebrations, presumably to honour Charles, though most of them mainly portray his dreadful treatment of the Tunisian population. Kunzle points out that Vermeyen was present during this campaign; that he brought back and married a Tunisian woman whom Charles had enslaved; and that his set of tapestries and the drawings for it constitute the only record of these cruelties.
How did the European nobility respond to the images of military atrocities paraded before their eyes at splendid receptions and banquets? We learn that Vae victis was the general attitude of the time, backed up by biblical references saying more or less the same thing, especially if the conquered were of a despised religion. Vermeyen could relieve his feelings and suffer no censure, protected by the conviction, supported in 16th-century law by ancient Roman precedents and references, that innocent civilians are fated to be victims in war. Even their torture and slaughter can be licensed if that will ensure victory, and would confer automatic honour and glory on a victorious leader. Kunzle, always pointedly suggesting and wondering, but never stating what he can’t prove, thinks these tapestries might have served as a deliberate warning – connected to Charles V’s ‘carefully staged’ abdications from 1555 onwards – of the cruelties soon to be visited on the occupied Netherlands by his son Philip, whom he had just made King of Spain, and to whom he now entrusted them.
Kunzle sees one of Pieter Brueghel’s versions of the Massacre of the Innocents as an expression of political protest specifically against Philip’s military tyranny in the Netherlands, and even more specifically against the Duke of Alva, whom Philip sent with troops to subdue and plunder the country in 1567. Alva was to show no mercy to rebellion and resistance, especially on the part of non-Catholics, who, as heretics, had been suffering at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition since the Reformation began. In this and other paintings, the Innocents of the Bible story stand in for the hapless peasant population, quite unprotected by law and often victims of false witness borne against them in exchange for a share of the plunder. During these late 16th-century decades in the Netherlands, it’s the Imperial Habsburg soldiery, defined by the red of their scarves, garments or banners, who are painted slicing into infants and mauling their mothers. Kunzle likes to find instances of female resistance – women biting soldiers, scratching their eyes, trying to bash them on the head before the aimed pike hits the baby. Men always seem to be doing much less of this.
Brueghel’s original painting was not dated, but it is thought to come from the late 1560s, and it now exists in several copies. The one given by Kunzle is from 1600 by Brueghel’s son and shows a snow-covered Flemish village, its centre occupied by a grim mass of upright lances carried by mounted men in armour. They are led by a bearded man in black who looks exactly like the Duke of Alva – a close-up detail and a portrait are given to prove this. Before him, dismounted armoured men are spearing babies and any townsfolk who try to resist. Infant corpses are wailed over by women. In the foreground, mounted officers clad in red with long swords and plumed hats are ignoring the pleas of other townsfolk, while foot-soldiers with short swords at right and left are molesting women, yanking children from them by the leg, pursuing those who are holding wrapped babies, and breaking into houses to find others. The energy for all this clearly emanates from the motionless, unarmed, mounted figure of the leader at dead centre in the picture, his black shape silhouetted against the rows of breastplates and helmets behind him.
There is no trace of biblical or legendary setting and costume in this scene; but it does look, especially from the wide, pleated skirts, low necklines and flat hats on the officers, as if it were taking place several decades before the 1560s, in Holbein’s or Cranach’s day. Kunzle calls these clothes contemporary, but they are extremely old-fashioned, as he says the armour is. By the late 16th and early 17th centuries it was customary in the Netherlands to dress antique legendary characters in outdated modern modes, to indicate antiquity with a quaint oldness – Rembrandt, for example, put himself in the dress of Raphael’s or Cranach’s times, not just in portraits where he posed as the Artist, but also when he showed himself present at the Raising of the Cross. It would seem that Brueghel, or at least his copyist, felt safe in picturing Alva as Herod commanding and directing the slaughter of children, so long as his officers were shown dressed in the outmoded gear that conventionally suggested ancient days. The villagers, on the other hand, might be expected to wear the same styles for forty years or more, and they do look contemporary – that is, still medieval, as Bosch (died 1516) used to portray them.
Kunzle’s earlier two-volume work on the history of printed strip narrative showed his interest in political commentary as expressed in sequential printed imagery. Here he devotes several chapters to demonstrating how much freedom of expression graphic artists could enjoy in the afflicted Netherlands, by comparison with painters who depended on the approval of patrons. Haarlem and Antwerp were already great centres of print media by the 16th century, ready to distribute protest and propaganda, in black and white words and images, alongside neutral instruction books, maps, engraved reproductions, and texts deemed unprintable in other countries. Kunzle reproduces pages of engraved protest against war, tyranny and the Spanish occupation by such superb graphic artists as Marten van Heemskerck, Jacques de Gheyn and Hendrick Goltzius, along with many now nameless practitioners.
Much of it is allegorised, with personified abstractions such as Patience and Poverty playing their part along with Mars and Pluto, and some are built onto the Death of Lucretia or the Wisdom of Solomon or other legends, including the Massacre of the Innocents; and much is quite specific, with labelled contemporary characters; but all convey the artists’ pacifist position in similarly violent, tortured, protesting style. Kunzle contrasts these intense, squirming images with war-friendly engravings by the French artist Antoine Caron, for example, who used Roman legends to show the virtues of military might in placid scenes of cruelty enacted by sober classical figures.
Brueghel had omitted plunder from his painting of child-slaughter. His Census at Bethlehem, which has the Holy Family entering a town encumbered by a grim military presence, the modern imperial eagle visible on the wall above the census-taker’s table, could be seen as a protest against oppressive war taxes; but as the war continued, it became acceptable for Dutch and Flemish painters to portray modern military pillage without invoking Bible stories to dignify it. The Flight into Egypt might still be painted with soldiers slaughtering innocents in the background, and the Good Samaritan might feature a man set upon by soldiers, then helped by a foreigner as a passing priest looks away; but plunder increasingly became a genre on its own. Again and again, we see soldiers laying waste to peasants’ homes or to whole villages in Flemish works by Gillis Mostaert, Lucas van Valckenborch and others before 1600, or by Sebastiaen Vrancx and Roelandt Savery after that, all of whom made a speciality of the theme. Later Dutch painters created more realistic landscapes for it, with fewer figures used for a more focused drama in the emerging Dutch 17th-century mode, abandoning Flemish Brueghel’s panoramic and episodic bird’s-eye views.
But we still see many villages like the ones Brueghel painted, invaded by a group of armed soldiers led by an officer who, with a trumpeter at his side, directs the looting of the houses, the tavern and the church, leaving the inhabitants for dead or taking them prisoner. Trying to avoid this fate are the comparatively well-to-do, desperately offering their bolts of cloth and bags of coins, who then must watch as their pots and pans, kitchen pottery and household utensils are stolen and their serving-women raped. All this goes on in the presence of a few richly dressed and bosom-revealing camp-followers, who receive caresses from the officers as the booty is packed onto animals or into carts, and the destitute villagers led into servitude far away. Some works show the peasants momentarily getting the upper hand, whacking soldiers with farm tools inside a barn or on the edge of town. Such moments of triumph are sometimes contrasted to scenes of pillage in a pendant work, the pair illustrating Peasant Joys – soldier-bashing, along with drinking, smoking, dancing and letching – and Peasant Sorrows.
By 1600, the soldiers aren’t all Spanish or Habsburg. In the North, the emerging Republic had pulled itself together and, after considerable success at sea, began to mount sustained and successful military resistance to the occupation. The murderous Alva, old and ill, was recalled in 1573; in 1576-77, the Spanish garrison departed from Haarlem; and in 1579 the northern provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, becoming the United Provinces, Protestant, self-governing and independent from Spain. They were thereafter definitively separated from the southern Catholic Netherlands, still governed by Spain, first in the person of John of Austria. By the end of the century, the ever more numerous Dutch soldiers came to be quartered in northern towns and villages, and it was their prerogative to plunder the countryside. A squad under an officer might emerge from town to waylay a rich convoy passing on the main road, or ambush a few peasants carrying goods through a narrow pass between rocks – Kunzle shows many such scenes, beginning before the turn of the century and continuing all the way through the 1640s.
There were, however, rules about this activity. As with the prize money from the capture of enemy ships, commanders and officers got the largest share of any such haul, and the rest was divided up among lower ranks, the lowest getting the least. If they left off their military insignia and attacked as anonymous bandits they would get more spoils, but might end up hanged. So bandits posed as soldiers to look legitimate, and soldiers posed as bandits to get more loot – or perhaps reverted to the banditry they had practised before becoming soldiers. When a robber in a painting wears a breastplate, Kunzle tells us, he’s probably a real soldier.
Wealthy private convoys or those attached to armies travelled with armed guards, and the paintings sometimes show the guards being brave, sometimes cowardly, when attacked by brigands true or false. Political protest these pictures may be; but they also seem to be the earliest versions of Great Train Robbery movies, offering scenes of criminal adventure that make delighted viewers shudder with fear and disgust, thrilled to watch, glad not to be there. A vividly active Attack on a Coach by Nicolaes Berchem, painted late in the period, has this flavour very strongly.
A large group of paintings illustrates a chapter called ‘Transacting the Plunder’, where soldiers and officers are shown relishing and distributing the booty. Victims plead in vain for restitution or exemption, or they are gloomy hostages waiting to be ransomed. Certificates attesting to the payment of the ‘Contributie’, an illegal form of war tax or protection money supposed to spare from pillage those who paid up, are hopefully offered and contemptuously ignored. Often a dashing officer stands in an arrogant posture before a kneeling, tearful girl dressed in silk with a big lace collar, the unfolded certificate between them on the floor. The big room is littered with Dutch ‘Vanitas’ still lifes composed of rugs, gold vessels, coins, jewels and crushed fabric. The company standard is often propped and draped across an open chest as if to signal military possession, and some soldiers are playing cards on barrel-heads in the background. In one picture, the officer’s bosomy harlot is grinning right at us as she holds up a string of pearls – the kneeling girl doubtless inherited them from her mother, and now look.
The Utrecht painter Jacob Duck (1600-67), also known for much less explicit paintings of soldiers, girls and peasants, evidently made a speciality of this subject. Kunzle gives no fewer than ten of his paintings, showing more or less the same situation with different emphases. In Soldiers Assaulting Nuns in a Church, however, sexual violence is depicted at the back, while the bare left hand of the foreground officer slides inside and yanks open the bodice of the startled nun nearest him (Kunzle’s caption indicates that he hasn’t noticed this). He looks at us, gripping a drawn sword in his gloved right hand. But this painting may not be by Duck, since in most of his work, officers and soldiers have only mild fun with the high and low prostitutes to whom they give pearl necklaces and chains of gold. A sumptuously dressed woman decked in plumes is often seen holding up a gold or crystal cup, as if identifying herself as booty, too, and adding a lascivious note to the Vanitas theme; but in some cases the recipients of plunder appear to be the officers’ modest wives and children. Kunzle describes the skill with which Duck portrays the ambiguity of these military men’s feelings for the innocent people, rich and poor, pleading with them for their lives or their possessions.
He has found scenes of plunder by Anthonie Palamedesz and Pieter Codde, better known for ‘merry company’ paintings, and by Willem Duyster, mostly known for pictures of companionable soldiers chatting and smoking. The work discussed in this chapter evokes an aspect of military life that rarely comes to mind when we think of Dutch soldiers in art. We are more familiar with Frans Hals and Rembrandt’s stolid groups of Civic Guards; or with the officers painted by Ter Borch, De Hooch and Vermeer making muted advances to ringleted girls in bright rooms, or writing them letters to be dispatched by a waiting trumpeter; or with soldiers drinking at disorderly inns, or struggling into their armour in cluttered guard-rooms. No one is doing any harm in these pictures, or ordering harm to be done.
Kunzle finally gets round to all of them, but not before he has paved the way by discussing other themes and genres that support his general thesis about the political engagement of artists. A considerable shift in tone occurred in the middle of the 17th century, which Kunzle introduces in his long chapter on siege-maps called ‘The Soldier Redeemed’. These immense and expensive public engravings, aerial views of the many cities that underwent sieges during the second part of the 80-year struggle for Dutch autonomy, show how the battles progressed and were eventually resolved. The sieges themselves, Kunzle reminds us, having at first been conducted with great brutality, were much more humane when war resumed after the truce of 1609-21.
Negotiations intended to prevent the repetition of those horrors now governed the taking of cities and, at the same time, practical siege-craft became a science, a game, even an art. This new style of siege, Kunzle believes, was suited to the Dutch temperament, with its ‘prudence, patience and vigilance’, and Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, Stadholder of the United Provinces from 1625 to 1647 and one of the sons of William the Silent, the hero of the initial 16th-century Dutch revolt, became an excellent siege tactician. On the other hand, siege-map prints, Kunzle writes somewhat disapprovingly, tended to dehumanise war and its horrors altogether, and to ‘promote the technocratic fantasy of victory by means of perfect scientific planning which still haunts the military mind today’.
The Dutch siege-maps nevertheless display brilliant visual rhetoric, showing the interior plan of a city and the layout of its fortifications forming patterns of striking beauty. The plates are strewn with elegant inscriptions, emblematic decorations and landscape vignettes, often with the figures of soldiers resting or looking through telescopes. Nobody is raping anyone, or robbing houses, or stripping corpses. There are little scenes of male and female peasants digging trenches (which they were paid to do), of defeated soldiers retreating in good order (pikes at a uniform slant), of ladies arriving in closed carriages, of enemy commanders amicably greeting one another – as Kunzle says, there is nothing of Mars in any of this. The map, he points out, had ‘symbolic magic’: simply owning such a marvellous God’s-eye view of a place could convince an attacking general that he possessed it.
A German print of the 1625 Siege of Breda shows the defeated Frederick Henry and the victorious Spaniard Ambrose Spinola, both on horseback with small mounted escorts, casually passing one another as Frederick Henry vacates the town. The encounter is very different in Velázquez’s great painting of the Surrender of Breda, where an emotional ceremony takes place against smoke rising from the conquered city. The slim, armour-clad Spinola has dismounted in front of a forest of triumphant vertical pikes at the right, to pat plump Frederick Henry condescendingly on the silk-clad shoulder as he bends his knee in front of a few distractedly tilted halberds to the left, and offers him the key of Breda. None of this happened, Kunzle says – its details are taken line for line from a contemporary play by Calderón de la Barca. We may rejoice to know that Frederick Henry took Breda back again in 1637, and we are shown a vast siege print of that battle, too, which includes files of Spanish Catholic clergy leaving the city protected by Dutch musketeers, with all their Popish gear intact. Religious tolerance was a matter of pride in the North: none yet existed in the South.
In the chapter entitled ‘The Magnanimous Soldier: The Continence of Scipio Africanus’, Kunzle examines 18 different versions of this subject in Dutch and Flemish art, along with examples from France, Germany, Italy and England, appends a list of a further 45 and declares that there are hundreds more, dating from the early 17th century through the 18th. He tells us the story, found in Livy, of the young Roman conqueror of New Carthage who takes a fancy to a captured native virgin, but publicly returns her untouched to her fiancé, adding as dowry the treasure locally collected for her ransom. Then we are shown how the subject could variously be painted to suggest nobility on the part of any victorious modern military leader. The theme of soldierly magnanimity was becoming widespread, opposing the many images of soldierly triumph confirmed by massacre, theft and rape. Kunzle suggests that patrons commissioning those hundreds of Scipio pictures all over Europe were finally weary of war, and longing for a ‘just peace’.
The ‘Continence’ renderings vary, but the meek fiancée always seems to represent the freshly subject nation, while the returned treasure consists of beautifully wrought objects (more still lifes), rather than crude coin. Interpreting the image with the aid of many literary and theatrical variations on the story, Kunzle suggests that it has to do with the value to any victorious commander of cementing an alliance with a conquered people by making immediate reparations and publicly encouraging the local population and its culture to flourish, instead of despoiling them and arousing the thirst for vengeance, not fealty. Use of the Scipio theme was simultaneous with all the transacting-the-plunder pictures; and Kunzle sees those as cynical parodies of it.
‘The Ideal Soldier’ is what Kunzle calls any member of the Civic Guard Companies composed of rich and powerful urban civilians, like those turning out for practice in Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Such town militias had existed in the Netherlands since the Middle Ages; one of them had even defeated a company of mounted French knights in the early 14th century, although in that case the victory was considered something of a miracle. These armed groups were the opposite of the effective professional army the rich Netherlands had created, which was a mongrel fighting force that included the criminal element we see at work in the plunder pictures. The distinguished gentlemen in military gear who gather around a large draped standard in Dutch Civic Guard paintings instead suggest that the ideal warrior is never a professional, but a citizen-soldier with deep civic loyalties. The works ‘gave substance to the illusion’, Kunzle writes, that ‘the defence of towns in the Republic was in the hands of responsible, trained and patriotic citizens.’
The Civic Guard Companies were indeed trained, and in principle they stood ready to fight in defence of their city, as some actually did during the long war. But an idea of purity was attached to their military service: besides lacking much opportunity, they were presumed to be immune to the very thought of destruction, rape and theft; they were not killers, nor were they killed. They would normally serve as benign super-police, putting down riots without bloodshed, manning the ramparts at night, guarding the town gates and monitoring access to public buildings. Membership was a matter of prestige and politics, as with any influential urban club, and a captaincy in such a Company was the only route to high political office – to a burgomastership, for example. A captaincy in the professional army, on the other hand, barred one from holding civic office.
But the high-ranking officers of these Companies, being members of the governing merchant oligarchy, paid for the war and had considerable say in its conduct. This meant that the huge life-size group portraits were truthful (if indirect) mirrors of Dutch military achievement. These vast paintings were on public view, magnets for tourists and a source of local pride. Dutch painters rendered the faces, armour, feathered hats, weapons, flags and ceremonial décor in crisp detail, praising a communal soldierly glory based on clear facts and shared power. Their flavour is quite at odds with the swirling mythological elements and elegantly allegorised scenes of exaltation mingled with cruelty that Rubens used during the same period to praise the glory of individual potentates all over Europe. Kunzle gives us a whole chapter on Rubens, calling into question his famous reputation as a ‘man of peace’, and taking him to task as the naive tool of relentless absolutism – too Flemish, too fond of monarchy, naturally not Dutch-republican enough.
We finally reach ‘The Gallant Soldier’, the star of so many scenes by Ter Borch, on whose oeuvre Kunzle concentrates in his last chapter. The earliest of these works date from the 1650s, when the war was officially over. The republic was safe, the big Dutch Army was dispersed to be bored in its garrisons. Civic Guard group portraits ceased being made, as the Companies became more socially diverse. Both Guards and Army neglected weapons training and practice manoeuvres, even though border attacks by the French and Spanish continued, a Dutch fortress was seized, and there were still further invasions by the Bishop of Münster. Although the Navy continued strong and successful, the Army had weakened, and some forces even deserted to the enemy.
Now we begin to see the paintings of soldiers fallen asleep in taverns, tickled by girls, or girls fallen asleep in taverns, tickled by soldiers, everybody else drinking or urging others to drink. It’s clear that officers are no longer leading cavalry charges or commanding the rape of the countryside. Instead, they come courting in rich houses, disgracefully using the official military messenger – the chivalric trumpeter-herald, who parlayed the surrender of besieged cities – to carry their billets-doux across town. The silk-clad and bejewelled woman, loose or virtuous, is no longer booty: she has to be approached strategically and her surrender negotiated. Other paintings show the trumpeter/messenger bringing orders to a dismayed soldier whose girl clings to him, posing the choice: duty or love?
Here, military zeal is compromised by the amorous itch, and Venus disarms Mars with the help of Bacchus. Nobody seems to be in the slightest bit prepared for the massive French invasion, planned over the space of four years by the young and ruthless Louis XIV, which burst in on them all in 1672. By then the odds were too great, the dykes had to be opened to flood the land and prevent occupation – but all that is a later story. During the 1650s and 1660s, Dutch soldiers are portrayed as fit mainly to join in the pleasures of civil society, making the final transition from criminal to courtier. Kunzle has a conclusion about the admirable native peacefulness of the Dutch, quoting Frederick the Great: ‘Holland is pacific by principle and warlike by accident.’ He adds some facts about the modern Dutch Army, which make it ‘unique in the world: it has a union, freedom of expression, a standard work-week with paid overtime, abolition of saluting, and the right to wear long hair’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.