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How History Shaped the Arts, The Power of Wealth

– A blog series by Bill Rau –


We have looked at a great piece of German Renaissance art, and Italian Renaissance art, and now here is one of my favorite paintings in the entire world.


This work is The Paying of the Tithes by Peter Brueghel the Younger.

The Payment of Tithe by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

The Payment of Tithe by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.


Once again, history plays a role in why this painting is so interesting. I’d like to believe that many of us would look at this work of art and agree that it is stunning.  But in the early 1600s, most people did not have the luxury of holding their own opinion on art.  There was a central authority in Europe that dictated what was and what was not acceptable art: the Academie in Paris. It was there that art was officially declared to be good or unacceptable.


Here is a chart published by the Academie, listing in order of importance was acceptable art and what was not acceptable art. One could paint:


Academie hierarchy


But they could not paint common people.


Today, we can look at chalk on a sidewalk or painting on the side of a building, or some crazy installation displayed in a museum of modern art, and many of us would agree that it is art. But 400 years ago that was not the case.


So for an artist painting in the early 17th century, before he or she created anything, their first consideration was not their own artistic impulse, or even whether an idea of theirs would be commercially desirable. Their first concern would be whether the envisioned work would be acceptable to the Academie, because they dictated what would be suitable, and thus, saleable, to the public.


Against the Grain


Peter Brueghel the Younger and his father were the very first artists to break these rules. They were Dutch, and this was important because he was a painter during the Dutch Golden Age, a period that brought us many great Masters, legends such as Rembrandt, Franz Hals and Vermeer.  The Brueghels were contemporaries of theirs.


However, Brueghel was also painting far enough away from Paris- where the French institution reigned supreme- that even though the Académie had a long arm and could theoretically censor works from a distance- they were just far away enough to give the artist leeway to paint what he wanted to paint.


Now, we must understand a little bit about Holland during his day. It had been a sleepy little country in previous centuries, and now it was waking up quite wealthy. With the discovery of the Americas, the resources of the New World offered great opportunities for money-making. The Dutch were the greatest banking and shipping country in the world, and the result was that, as the 17th century unfolded, a growing number of Dutchmen were becoming very wealthy. I am sure you’ll recall that starting in 1624, New York was then New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony. Additionally, the Dutch did tremendous trading in South America and Southeast Asia. The money came rolling into Holland.


It is also important to understand that during this period, for most people, there were very few places one could invest money safely. Buying land was extraordinarily difficult as most of it was owned by the Crown.  Investing in foreign ventures was exceptionally risky, and the idea of companies selling shares of stock highly speculative. And God forbid that somebody would put money in banks because the odds that you would ever see that money again were very much suspect. So, because there were not many other financial options, this was the very first period in the history of the world where people started to invest in art. Wealthy Dutchmen and foreigners turned to Peter Brueghel the Younger and said maybe I’ll buy a painting from you as they seem to hold their value. I actually believe these investors made very wise decisions.


It might interest you to know that on December 31, 2018, the Wall Street Journal’s end of the year report on investments made in 2018 listed art as the number one investment return, clearly besting stocks, bonds, hedge funds, and everything else.



WSJ ArtInvesting


In the 1600’s, investing in art was a completely new phenomenon, but one that proved for many connoisseurs to be a good long term decision.


Let’s go back for a second to the Academie and what they said was good art and bad art.  Before Peter Brueghel, no artist had ever painted the common man going about his life doing everyday things. This had been looked down upon by the Academie. Yes, there were religious paintings showing the common man with Jesus, or classical-themed paintings that showed regular people being slaughtered by the Romans or the Greeks. But art never gave air-time to the lower classes.


A Revolution


This was where Brueghel was revolutionary.


He specialized in painting scenes that his countrymen would resonate with.  This great work, entitled The Paying of the Tithe, shows peasant farmers bringing their goods to pay their tithe, their tax. The workmanship of the painting is superb, and it is one of those rare works of art that one can look at for hours and still discover nuances.


I love the fact that when you look at the peasants, you can see how uncomfortable they are being indoors. You can feel their awkwardness and self-consciousness. Peter Brueghel the Younger and his father have works that hang in the most prestigious museums in the world.  A smaller example of this same scene by Brueghel hang both in the Met and in the Louvre.  Also, there is something else very intriguing about this work of art, when one puts it in its historical context.


In Brueghel’s time, Holland and Belgium were part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Dutch hated the fact that they had to pay taxes to the Holy Roman Emperor, who was also the King of Spain. The King’s face was familiar to all Dutchmen as his image was on all the coins of the day.  So, what did Peter Brueghel do here -   Almost with a wink to his viewers, he modeled the tax collector as a caricature of the King of Spain.  It was a bit of political satire, a jab at their foreign ruler, and something that would have greatly resonated with his fellow countrymen.


Brueghel Tithe

Thus Peter Brueghel was able to break the mold in many different ways: from being perhaps the very first artist whose work people bought as an investment, to be the first to paint the common man doing common things, to be able to take a political swipe at the king that many of his countrymen felt were unjustly ruling Holland-  and at the same time create an endearing, fascinating and exceptional work of art.

Next: The New World


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