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Grotesque dish

A family drama from Haarlem

There he stands, a naked, corpulent little boy with wings. He holds a globe with a cross on it in his left hand, and a slender staff with a flag in his raised right hand. He looks a bit grumpy, maybe because he’s outdoors and it’s cold. He is called a cupid, a putto or an angel depending on whether the context is pagan Greco-Roman or biblical. This image is probably biblical. The resemblance to the Christ child with a globe – a symbol of his power – is striking. The angel is the main subject on a large dish painted in blue, purple, orange-brown but predominately yellow. The space around it is filled with a grotesque decoration, a decorative style that dates back to Ancient Rome.

Dish, ca. 1645-1655, Plateelbakkerij Willem Jansz Verstraeten, Haarlem (attributed), earthenware, Ø 46 cm, on loan from the Fries Museum.

Dish, ca. 1645-1655, Plateelbakkerij Willem Jansz Verstraeten, Haarlem (attributed), earthenware, Ø 46 cm, on loan from the Fries Museum.
Click on the image for an enlargement.

The dish was made in the Netherlands in the middle of the seventeenth century and is attributed to the Delftware factory of Willem Jansz. Verstraeten from Haarlem. It belongs to a large group of dinnerware, mainly plates, crespinas (small pleated bowls) and large dishes, which are decorated in a similar way with landscapes, heraldic armorials, biblical themes and occasionally flowers. Yellow is the dominant colour, but combinations with blue, or only blue, also exist. 

For a long time it was uncertain whether this group was made in the Netherlands; Italy or Antwerp were more likely locations. That’s not so strange, because the style in which the pottery is made is pre-eminently Italian. The grotesque decoration with its mainly yellow colour scheme was developed in Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century. Such pieces ended up in the Netherlands after travelling through the Strait of Gibraltar. The Italian motifs were adopted by Dutch Delftware factories, after which the colours and the way the landscapes and biblical themes were rendered on this type of earthenware also became typically Dutch. Nowadays nobody doubts a Dutch origin, but the attribution to Willem Verstraeten from Haarlem is a different matter. There are no known examples of earthenware that bear his signature, nor has kiln waste from his factory been found in Haarlem. So what’s the story?

Willem Verstraeten came from Flanders or Wallonia and was originally called Willem Jansz de la Rue. He settled in Delft, where he was first mentioned in the sources in 1613. He played an important role in the development of Delft earthenware. Around 1625 he moved to Haarlem, where he started a successful Delftware factory. According to his own account he employed no less than 60 men and boys. Then things went wrong. In 1642 Willem fell ill and left his business to his eldest son Gerrit. He did not expect to survive his illness, but miraculously he did. Willem started his own business again and made a deal with his son about who would manufacture what. Exactly what they agreed upon sparked off decades of bickering. Presumably the agreements related to the decorations. In any case, it is clear that father Willem tried to avoid honouring them. What followed was a family drama that would not be out of place on Breakfast Television. Father and son fought a pitched battle in court all the way up to the Dutch High Court. The crème de la crème of the Dutch earthenware industry from Haarlem, Delft, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leiden and other places became involved. Statements in defence of both father and son were taken down in writing. In Haarlem, they both had each other’s ships with their cargoes of ceramics broken into and confiscated. The father, a persistent man, fired all of his staff in 1648 and had them re-employed by his fourteen-year-old son Gijsbrecht and his sixteen-year-old daughter Marija. He hoped that this would help him to circumvent the agreements made with his son Gerrit. We don’t know how it ended: the sources are either lost or yet to be discovered. But we do know that father and son eventually reconciled. Good for them.

In the case file there is frequent mention of a supposed ‘new invention’ by father Verstraeten, possibly a new technique, shape or decoration, but we don’t know which. In 1982 a Dutch art historian came up with the bright idea that this referred to the grotesque decoration in Italian style. This theory prevailed for about three decades, but in recent years it has been tinkered with again. It seems that discussion, which has been going on for decades, will continue for some time to come.

Grotesque

The word grotesque is a translation of the Italian word grotteschi, which is derived from grotta, ‘cave’. The first-century palace of the Roman emperor Nero, the Domus Aurea (Golden House) was rediscovered shortly before 1500. Over time it had been buried beneath metres of rubble and soil, so visitors had to descend into the ground, hence the association with caves. The walls of the excavated rooms in the palace were adorned with exuberant decorations, such as human-like figures, fabulous creatures, masks and birds. They were distributed symmetrically over the entire wall and connected to each other by leafy vines. Nowadays we call this a grotesque decoration. It has continued to inspire many artists, studios and factories well into the twentieth century. The dishes attributed to Verstraeten are an outstanding Dutch example of this.

Jaap Jongstra, independent art historian and ceramics expert

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