The Art Market of 17th Century Holland in Comparison to the Art Market of 17th Century Italy. Including Discussion of Methods of Production, Sale and Distribution and the Roles of Artists, Dealers and Patrons in the Structures of the Markets

Regardless of the fiscal crisis and economic downturn that looms threateningly over all global commerce, it is without dispute that the market for art in the 21st century is a branch of business which has long held its own individual power within the financial system, often resolutely remaining stable during even the most uncertain periods. Burns (2012) identifies a recent ‘pattern of strong sales at Art Basel which indicates a buoyancy bearing little relationship to the problems of the global economy.’ It is evident that the art market is a well-established, secure institution and has been for many hundreds of years. Westgarth (2009) asserts that ‘since at least the seventeenth century, the market for art has had its own specific dynamic’ and it is during this era that the business of trading artwork became widely recognized as an independent market in its own right. This in turn led to the wider spread recognition of art dealership as a profession. Commonly referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Dutch Art’ (Praak 2003) the 17th Century art market was largely dominated by The Dutch Republic; but not entirely.  Italy too found itself at the centre of a growing art industry, renowned for artistic experimentation. The two countries dominated the 17th century art world, and similarities, as well as differences, can be drawn when comparing the systems, structures and ideologies of their art markets.

It is important to take historical context into account while analyzing the art market of any period as social and economical factors invariably affect both its structure and function. In the 17th Century, Holland endured the second half of The Dutch Revolt, which began in 1568 and lasted for 80 years. The revolt was a response to the repressive rule of the House of Habsburg and resulted in the founding of the independent Dutch Republic in the Northern Netherlands (Darby 2001). Growing severity in the Southern Netherlands encouraged a mass migration of the socially elite.  Artisans, scholars and scientists alike fled to the North, where many regions had already gained independence. Here, the Dutch Republic ruled peacefully and grew rapidly into a prominent world power. With a huge influx of skilled workers and the highly educated, the Northern Netherlands flourished and was soon leading the way in the fields of art, trade and science, among many more. Consequentially, the Northern Netherlands became an affluent area, with the vast majority of its inhabitants considered middle-class or bourgeois. Kahr (1993, p.10) acknowledges the wealth of the area as a contributing factor towards the increased demand for artworks; ‘a considerable portion of inhabitants of Dutch towns had more than sufficient income to provide for their fundamental needs. Many chose to spend their surplus on furnishing for their homes, including pictures. This lead to a great demand for paintings..’. This augmented desire for art led to an abrupt and accelerated need for dealers within the art market. Fierce competition arose between both established and prospective art dealers, as the market was flooded with candidates vying for a place in the lucrative business of art dealership.

Montias (1989) identifies four different types of art dealer, typical of the 17th Century Dutch art market. The first type, the ‘uytdraegster’ was a type of dealer who operated solely in the lower-quality end of the art market spectrum, clearing estates and dealing in second hand goods. The second type was frame-makers and innkeepers who used their already established resources to display pieces. Montias (1988) identified the family of venerated Dutch artist Vermeer, as successful dealers who opted for these methods. Vermeer’s father was an art dealer come inn-keeper and his brother-in-law an art dealing frame maker. Such methods generated custom mostly from passing trade.  Merchant-dealers and artist-dealers are the final two types described by Monitas, it is these latter two types that he pinpoints as most instrumental.

Evidence shows that artist-dealers had been present in Amsterdam from as early as the 16th century (Montias 2002) and remained an active part of the 17th century art market. Artist-dealers were very often artists who were drawn into the business of dealership because they could not earn a substantial living from the primary production of art alone, and had instead turned to the secondary art market (Kleiner 2012). Their connections with the practicing art world were invaluable to artist-dealers particularly as the market, and with it specialization, grew. Alternatively, artist-dealers used their knowledge of what was in demand and searched fairs and estate auctions in smaller towns. Here they bought pieces that could be sold at a profit in the fashionable and wealthy locale of Amsterdam.

The second ancillary art dealer operating in 17th century Holland, the merchant-dealer, emerged later than artist-dealers, first appearing in the 1630s. They too often moved into art dealership from a different field. Experienced traders with financial security expanded into the art market after recognizing its lucrative potential. Despite competition between artist-dealers and merchant-dealers, both thrived in the expanding art market. This can be attributed to the increase in demand and as a result, the increased specialization of artists.

As the market expanded, it became evident that there was enough demand to enable artists to focus on acutely specific subjects. Many artists began working in highly specialized areas (Kleiner 2012). Dilettantes who desired or favored such exceptionally particular themes often relied on dealers to locate such specialists in order to produce specific pieces to fit their requirements. If dealers became aware of a sudden demand for a certain subject, they could augment supply by ordering such pieces from a suitable artist. Often contracts were drawn up between artists and dealers to produce a set amount of paintings on a certain subject. It was important to ensure the market was not saturated with a certain genre of painting, which would devalue it, but that demand was sufficiently met.

Very often artists were required to work at a surprisingly swift rate (Franits 1997). As a result, artists developed techniques that improved their productivity and reduced overall costs. Art became accessible to everyone in Holland during the 17th Century. Artists began creating works before they had been commissioned, resulting in a steady supply, which was met with unwavering demand. This was only possible due to financing provided by dealers, who gave the artists monthly wages, as well as material costs and bonuses upon completion.

However, dealers did not operate alone in the business of art, the Guild of St Luke, founded in Antwerp in the 14th century continued to function in Holland in the 17th century, representing a range of artists, dealers and dilettantes. As the 17th Century progressed, The Guild of St Luke began enforcing ever more stringent measures upon the art trade however, this limited artists more than it did dealers. Membership to the guild was required in many places for an artist to own a shop, take on an apprentice and even sell paintings to the public. These restrictions did not apply to dealers. The Guild’s attempt to monopolize the art market was inauspicious; many artists chose to work with dealers, who were minimally restricted by the guild’s rules. Artists chose, or were forced, to work with dealers for a number of reasons. A certain city’s guild limited the deportation of art works, but there was no restriction on guild certified dealers trading works sourced from outside of the city, (Praak 2003, p.246) therefore competition between artists reached an all time high. Contracts between dealers and painters reduced the risk for painters as wages and financial rewards were guaranteed, and often negotiated prior to sale.

However, sale and distribution of artwork in Holland during the 17th century was not limited to direct sourcing and commissioning. Lotteries and auctions played a huge role in the circulation of art works. The two also worked as a gateway for the common public to access art, both as owners and viewers. Auctions would often include lots of starkly ranging prices, and lottery tickets would be sold at a very low price. This gradually made art more accessible to the general population, and no longer was art a privilege of the extremely wealthy. As the availability of art grew many artists also built up a collection of unfinished pieces for potential buyers to view, similar to a gallery. The artist would then finish the painting if a client was interested. A similar practice was also very common in the Italy at the same time.

 The self-generating nature of Holland’s supply and demand equilibrium was not a unique one in the 17th century. Italy, and in particular Rome, also found itself at the centre of a vast and impressive art market fuelled by an ever increasing demand, subsequently met with unrivalled supply. The mechanics of Italy’s art market did vary from that of Holland, but several similarities can be drawn between the two.

     Contextual similarities are immediately noticeable. The art markets of both countries were hugely affected by war. Where war at the turn of the century had eventually led to the flourishing art market in the Dutch Republic; the wars of Castro, between the papacy and the city of Castro, completely transformed Italy’s art market in the mid 17th Century (Daltrop 1982).

     Before the decadal war, the Italian art market was heavily dictated by the ruling pope, his family and their extended entourage of dignitaries and cardinals. Leo XI, Paul V, Gregory XI were all keen patrons of the arts, but none so much as their successor; Urban VIII.  Pope Urban VIII in particular, who ruled with unconcealed nepotism during his 20-year reign of 1623-1644, relentlessly commissioned the most impressive, and expensive, of art works (Nussdorfer 1992). He and his nephews, of the Barbarini family, did indeed enthusiastically support the arts but also depleted an insurmountable sum of money in their attempts to glorify both themselves, and Rome. Their extravagant behavior was imitated by dignitaries and courtiers who cultivated impressive collections and built an array of grandiose churches and palaces; wealth poured into the art market and an in surge of artists began; a catalyst very similar to the mass migration of the Netherlands.  As a result artists who recognized the opportunities available to them in Rome, flocked from across Italy and Europe to the city, which soon became a creative metropolis and saw a remarkable growth in artistic production.

      Many members of the papal entourage viewed Rome as symbol for the church, rather than a nation (Haskell 1959). This lack of patriotism towards Rome as a state was reflected in the support they offered artists. Dignitaries and courtiers were inclined to offer patronage to artists who were from the same town as them. Haskell (1963) also identifies a repetitive pattern of patronage, which was essential to the success of the artist for two main reasons. The chosen painter would be immediately accommodated by the nobleman; often in a monastery or even his own palace and an altar painting would be commissioned for the luminary’s titular church. This commission was of vital importance as it usually brought the artist public recognition for the first time. Secondly, once the artist resided in the cardinal’s palace, he would be introduced to more high-ranking officials and potential future patrons. It was these contacts that would secure the prolonged success of the artist. The painter would continue to work in situ for his patron for many years before his reputation was respected enough by the widespread public for him to risk independent venture.  Even with a respected reputation, the painter had to be financially sound and well connected before he had any chance of succeeding independently.

     Conditions varied greatly between artists and patrons but the type of patronage known as ‘servitu particolare’ was common. Artists would take residence in the patron’s palace and receive a regular monthly wage. In addition to this wage the artist would also receive market price for any paintings he produced. Patrons were also known to incur trade related expenses of the artist, such as visits to view other artworks that may improve the artist’s ability. This form of patronage was popular among artists who were yet to establish a secure reputation as it gave them the opportunity to make important contacts while receiving a stable income. However, this form of patronage could be very restrictive and as an artist’s confidence and reputation grew, this type of patronage became less appealing and many artists opted for independence. Some artists involved with ‘servitu particolare’ patronage maintained a working relationship with their patrons, even after they had moved into their own studio; often artists would receive monthly allowances in exchange for first refusal of any paintings. Even entirely independent artists who worked without the support of patrons were in high demand and particularly well-established artists freely turned away noteworthy commissions, particularly if they were from foreign buyers. This situation however, soon changed.

     The unrivalled success enjoyed by many artists in Italy was short lived and toward the second half of the 17th Century, the country dipped into economic uncertainty as a result of the war with Castro. Pope Urban VIII had tumultuously financed an unnecessary war while he and his sycophants continued abundantly to build palaces and commission paintings. When Pope Urban VIII died, Pope Innocent took the papal throne and launched an investigation into the war. Remaining members of the Barbarini family fled Italy, leaving the papacy with considerable debts.  Acutely aware of the damage inflicted upon the economy, Pope Innocent enforced stringent austerity measures. Nepotism within the church weakened and cardinals were no longer given the funds to commission so many paintings. The art market was metamorphosed.

Artists worst affected by the new stringent guidelines were independent artists, with few official ties. This was because despite the strict regulations, Pope Innocent continued to authorize the lavish decoration of cathedrals across Rome. This was an attempt to project an image of wealth and power to Europe, an image that had been severely damaged by the actions of Pope Urban VIII and the Barbarini family. Rome’s artistic community was now in a state of disarray, as previously artists had been able to frequently turn away commissions and choose work at their will, many now struggled to find any work at all. Art dealers worked to find foreign commissions, which became the main source of income for most artists in the 1740s and ‘50s. Germany in particular became keenly interested in the artistic endeavors of Italy. German aristocrats used art as a tool much like the Italian papacy had done before them, using it to glorify their name and estate. This lead to a huge Italian presence in the European art market.  The importation of Italian art is widely considered a significant catalyst for the European art market to follow.

However, the Italian art market did allow Italian artists much more freedom than that of Dutch painters in their respective market. Commissions for paintings made in Holland were often very specific, whereas Italian patrons placed a considerable amount of trust in the judgment of the artist. Italian artists were left with a great deal of free reign and commissions were often made with little more than a suggested theme or event. Italian artists were known to turn to academics, philosophers and writers in order to create a truly profound painting. Despite the freedom enjoyed by Italian artists, they did face difficulties that were absent in the Dutch art market. Many Italian artists were commissioned to create paintings destined for distant palaces and churches, making it impossible to see the environment in which their painting would reside. Lighting and sizing were frequent concerns of Italian artists.

The art markets of both Italy and Holland during the 17th Century were remarkably resilient. Despite huge changes in the social and political economy, they remained active and thriving; this can be attributed to the extraordinary adaptability of the art market, which adjusts in order to suit the requirements of the time. The importance of supply and demand is tangible when discussing the structures of the markets and both markets benefited greatly from the self-generating nature of their respective markets. The artists practicing in both Holland and Italy during the turbulent era also showed remarkable adaptability. The general public’s perception of art as a profession was in a constant state of flux, changing between inspired artisan to little more than a skilled laborer.




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Nussdorfer, L., 1992. Civic Politics in the Rule of Urban VIII [online]. Available at: Accessed: 27.12.12

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Praak, M., 2003. Guilds and the Development of the Art Market During the Dutch Golden Age. Netherlands Quarterly for The History of Art, Volume 30 (Issue 3) p. 239-240

Westgarth, M., 2009. The Art Market and its Histories. The Art Book, Volume 16(Issue 2), p32-33


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