Masters of Mobility


1.4 Reasons to be Mobile

The urge to travel is a returning theme in Arnold Houbraken’s Groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (Great theatre of the Netherlandish Painters and Paintresses, 1st edition 1718-1721), which has been analysed by Hein Horn in his The Golden Age Revisited (2000).1 Notably, adventurous travels and experiences fascinated him and the anecdotes he wrote down, made his biographies of artists all the more entertaining. Houbraken paid plenty of attention to the ways artists could ‘get possessed’ by Wanderlust, which was ‘congenital to Painters in particular’.2 The affliction could simply show up in someone’s head one day, or would come on like a kind of influenza, even a contagious one. Sometimes a person could get over it, too, and decide not to travel at all. To Houbraken, the urge to travel was simply a human tendency for which no explanation was needed in terms of plausible goals.3

Needless to say, in real life it was more complicated than that, if only because the whole undertaking took quite some planning. In the well-drafted introductory article of The Encyclopedia of Migration and Minorities in Europe, the authors dedicate some words on the process of decision-making concerning migration on a macro, meso and micro level, according to the current holistic view of modern social historians. The first, macro level reasons, such as wars, oppression and economic downturn, were formerly simplified as mechanic ‘push and pull factors’. The last two levels involve human agency in the context of a network-family economy (micro level) and cultural and societal factors (meso level), resulting in both family and professional chain migration. ‘In the minds of the migrants these levels are integrated, according to the information available […]’.4

In his study of 1986, Brulez made an attempt to calculate goals or motives for international mobility of artists before 1800, namely commission, education, pleasure, family affairs, political-military reasons and religious reasons, again on the basis of sampling Thieme/Becker. In no less than 63.9% of the cases of international migrations, a motive was identified.5 Although such a strict division of motives is artificial and no longer in line with the modern paradigm assuming mixed motives, the exercise is interesting. For artists of all countries, the motive ‘commission’, which belongs to the category of network migration, was the most common: in 59.4% of the cases.6 This high score implies that courts, town councils and churches played an important role in the motivation of artists to migrate.

For artists of the Northern Netherlands, Brulez found the average of 59.4% in the category ‘commission’, 20% in ‘education’ and, curiously, 9.4% travelled for pleasure.7 Pleasure trips (‘speelreisjes’) in the recreational sense, however, became only fashionable for the elite in the 18th century.8 This type of leisure cannot have been a major motive for Dutch artists to travel in the early modern period, simply because they could not afford it. Houbraken literally used the word ‘speelreis’ in relation to three artists who travelled abroad: Gillis Schagen (1616-1668), David Beck (1621-1656) [14] and Hendrick Verschuring (1627-1690), who indeed didn't lack cash.9 Southern Netherlandish travelling artists were even in 64% of the cases motivated by ‘commission’ and in 21.4% by ‘education’ in the findings of Brulez.10 This desire for education could be stimulated by a paying parent, as was the case, for exemple, of the brothers Gilles and Hans van Hemessen, who were sent to Italy by their father Jan van Hemessen (c. 1500-1556/7) in 1551 ‘to learn, to hear and to see’.11 In contrast to Germany, France and England, for example, wandering years – domestic or abroad – were not an obligation in the Netherlands, but a matter of choice, and, in some periods more than in others, of fashion.12

Again according to Brulez’s survey, Italian (87.8%), Austrian (71.2%) and artists from the Low Countries were the most often motivated to travel for commissions, while countries like England, Spain and Germany scored highly on the motive of education. These numbers indicate that, generally speaking, Italian artists and, to a lesser extent, the Austrian and Netherlandish ones, were educated in their own country and were attracted abroad by commissions. For English, Spanish and German artists, foreign travel was considered to constitute the completion of their education. Brulez claimed that the Netherlands were an export country of court artists as a result of the attraction of commissions abroad, in combination with a high density of artists at home.13

Jacob Houbraken after Arnold Houbraken
Portrait of Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719), 1718 or shortly before
The Hague, RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History

Joseph Antoine Couchet after David Beck published by Joannes Meyssens
Portrait of David Beck (1621-1656), before or in 1649
The Hague, RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History

Indeed it seems important to focus on migrating artists from the Low Countries who were active at foreign courts as a group. So far, not much attention has been paid to the subject in art-historical literature.14 In his lecture Court Artists from the Low Countries in Germany at the symposium Masters of Mobility, Marten Jan Bok claimed that Dutch artists were not very interested in having a permanent job serving princes and monarchs, as they treasured their freedom and independence, and, above all, because they lacked a subservient nature.15 To substantiate his point, he used Houbraken's story about the brothers Berckheyde as a pars pro toto. This train of thought seems to be in line with traditional art-historical notions. Also Gerson reported many times that long-term employment at some isolated court was not very desirable, as it could be a bit boring and involved other, less creative activities, such as refurbishing the castle, buying artworks for the collection and teaching the monarch’s offspring.16 Many rulers may have had a great interest in art, patronage and collecting, but the larger part of them cared more for hunting and warfare than anything else.

Nevertheless, it must have been attractive for artists to be attached to a court. Being allowed to work as a foreign artist in a city could be difficult and expensive, as one had to become a citizen, member of the guild and in some towns also deliver a ‘master’s piece’, which could be too big an investment for an artist who was not completely at home. In her prosopography of artists from the Low Countries who were active in Paris between 1550 and 1700, Stefanie Levert found that 24% of them were connected to the court or a member of the academy, which also meant protection of the court, 18% were established as masters in the guild and 15% was registered as a pupil or journeyman.17 This means that a substantial percentage of Netherlandish artists welcomed a connection to the court while they stayed in Paris.

We can use RKDartists& as an instrument for quantitative research in order to study the importance of court contacts for migrating artists. We tagged artists who made artworks directly for courts, including episcopal courts, or were documented as being employed by a sovereign.18 By selecting travelling artists who are tagged as ‘court artist’, we should get an impression of the amount of artists whose travels may have been motivated by commissions.19 However, we are not sure if the results are completely reliable for now, as the tagging of court artists possibly has been applied inconsistently in the past, and not all the data on travelling artists have been processed. So far, the average number of court artists abroad extracted from RKDartists& is much lower than the amounts indicated by Levert and the ones suggested by Brulez: only an average 15.3% of the travelling artists of the Low Countries appear to have been active in one or more courts.20 Probably more representative are the substantial higher percentages of artists connected to the courts in Germany, Austria and Bohemia, as we will see below.

‘Court-hopping’ was not unusual for artists from the Low Countries: we see quite a number of them pop up at different courts all over Europe.21 Rulers sent their artists to other courts to portray family members or suitable brides, but it was also quite possible that it was the artists’ own initiative to try his luck at another court when it suited him.22 Annual salaries and other arrangements of payments occur in many archives of the financial administration of court households. In addition, it was also quite usual for a monarch to reward an artist with a golden chain and medal with his (or her) portrait, or other precious mementos, not only to honour the artist, but also to advance his own reputation [15-16].23 It is clear that praise and rewards of princes looked good on an artist’s CV, so to speak, and was something to brag about. Plenty of anecdotes about these gifts occur in Van Mander, De Bie and Houbraken and artists who had such a golden chain proudly show it as an attribute in their self-portraits [17-20]. David Beck (1621-1656) [14] even boasted on having received as much as nine of these golden chains!24 The above also indicates that commissions from foreign princes were sought after, not only to earn a living or to enjoy a protected status, but also to gain fame and glory.

Samuel van Hoogstraten
Letter rack with golden chain and medallion of Emperor Ferdinand III, in or after 1666
Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, inv./ 2620


Golden medallion of Emperor Ferdinand III
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Godefridus Schalcken
Self portrait of Godefridus Schalcken (1643-1706) with the medal of Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine, dated 1706
Ballyward, private collection John Higginson

Eglon van der Neer
Self portrait of Eglon van der Neer (1634-1703), dated 1696
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, inv./ 1872

Martin van Meytens (II)
Self portrait of Martin van Meytens II, earky 1740s
Budapest, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, inv./ 2221

Adriaen van der Werff
Self-portrait of the artist with a double portrait of his wife Margaretha van Rees (1669-1732) and their daughter Maria (1692-1731), dated 1699
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv./ SK-A-465

Lastly, there is a motive for traveling abroad that is not mentioned by Brulez, and is specific for painters, draughtsman and printmakers. This motive could be described as ‘motif collecting’, i.e. gathering attractive subjects and places which were new to the art market. For centuries, there was a vibrant market for topographical art of foreign places, particularly in prints and drawings. The artists often collaborated with publishing houses which were keen on publishing series of towns and regions. Some topographical artists, such as Anthonis van den Wijngaerde (c. 1525-1571), worked for a ruler, in this case Philip II of Spain, who commissioned him to document towns, which resulted in an extremely well-documented mobility of the artist in Spain, Italy, France and Britain. There was simply a huge demand for images of places as well as major events, particularly on the battlefield.25 Drawings by travelling artists of whatever caught their eye while they were travelling, were used for multiple purposes. They could be sold during the trip to cover costs,26 they could be used as sketches for more elaborate drawings to sell during or after the trip, they could be engraved back home and also be used as models for motifs or backgrounds in their paintings.27 In the Dutch Republic, ‘motif collecting’ became a reason for the wanderings of landscapists who were trying to conquer a part of the diversifying art market with new types of remarkable views. By coining such motifs in their paintings, they could create a niche market. In some cases it was enough to have a short look just across the border, for example in the Cleves area, like Bad Bentheim [21].28

Jacob van Ruisdael
Landscape with a view of Bentheim castle, dated 1653
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, inv./ NGI 4531


1 Horn 2000, vol.1, p. 225-279, ‘Arnold Houbraken as chronicler of Wanderlust’.

2 Horn 2000, vol. 1, p. 225-226.

3 Horn 2000, vol. 1, p. 279.

4 Hoerder/Lucassen/Lucassen 2011, p. XXVII. On the importance of (family) networks for migrated artists, see the article of Johannes Müller in this publication. On family networks of artists, both domestic and international: Brosens/Kelchtermans/Van der Stighelen 2012.

5 Brulez 1986, p. 43.

6 Note: this is 59,4% of 63,9% (with established motives) of the international travelling artists.

7 Brulez 1986, p. 44 and note 76.

8 On pleasure trips of the Dutch elite: Verhoeven 2015, p. 74-81.

9 Horn 2000, vol. 1, p. 273-275. The word also occurs in Houbraken’s biography on Nicolaes Maes (1643-1693) in relation to a trip to Antwerp. After a period of hard work Maes wanted to entertain himself by seeing artworks by Rubens and Van Dyck and meeting other artists, among others Jacob Jordaens (Houbraken 1718-1721, vol. 2, p. 275).

10 Brulez 1986, p. 44. Again: this is 65% of the 63,9% of the travelling artists where a motive was established. Surprisingly, he found very low percentages of mobility of artists for political-military and religious reasons (respectively 2,4 and 1,1%). Possibly, religious motives for migration were often not indicated in Thieme/Becker in cases where these could well have been a significant factor.

11 ...‘naer Italien om aldaer te leerene ende te hooren ende te ziene’. They were to be accompanied by Hans van Rivieren, who served Jan van Hemessen for three years in his painting gallery (Büttner 2000, p. 209-210 [note 15], p. 225).

12 About the wandering years of journeymen in Germany, see § 1.6. For an explanation why the system of Wanderschaft was not customary in the Northern Netherlands: Bos/Lourens/Lucassen 2002, p. 141-142.

13 Brulez 1986, p. 41-44.

14 Inspired by the Gerson project, Elmer Kolfin organized the course Art at Court: Dutch artists at international courts 1580-1720 at the University of Amsterdam for master students, February-May 2019. On the court artist in general: Warnke 1985; DaCosta Kaufmann 1995 and Eichberger/Lorentz/Tacke et al. 2017. On court culture at European courts: Adamson et al. 2002.

15 Unfortunately this lecture did not result in an article for this publication. It is striking that some artists, such as Carel de Moor II (1655-1738) and Theodorus Netscher (1661-1728), behaved quite cocky to their princely clients, Prince Eugen of Savoy and Friedrich I, who were sitting for them in The Hague to be portrayed (Weyerman 1729-1769, vol. 4, p. 144-145; Braubach 1963-1965, vol. 5, p. 86-87, see also Gerson/Van Leeuwen et al. 2018, § 7.3, note 1). For the portrait by De Moor of Prince Eugen, see RKDimages 142798.

16 Jacques Vaillant (1643-1693) had to train Friedrich von Cussé, the black servant of the Electress, as a painter, for which he received 100 Thaler a year. For the same salary his brother Andries Vaillant (1655-1693) had to teach the princes mathematics and perspective (Gerson/Van Leeuwen et al. 2017-2018, § 2.8).

17 Levert 2017, p. 228, 256. The total amount of artists in this study is 333; of more than 100 artists the status is unknown.

18 Top term is ‘court artist’, narrower terms are ‘court painter’, ‘court engraver’, ‘court sculptor’ and ‘court architect’, making possible both generic selections and specific ones. We should keep in mind that the travelling party could also be the prince or ruler visiting the Netherlands and commissioning an artwork, usually a portrait (see also note 15). Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722) and Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) were allowed to work in the Netherlands as court painters of Johann Wilhelm (see also § 1.5, note 18).

19 Also other aspects related to motivations of travelling artists can be found in RKDartists. Although not yet visible online, religion, if known, is listed for artists of the early modern period. Furthermore, it is possible to focus on international relations between masters and pupils, as master and pupil relations are recorded.

20 Northern and Southern Netherlandish travelling artists were about as much involved into court art, respectively 15% and 16,09% (reference date RKDartists: March 2019).

21 Hein Horn uses this expression in his analysis of Houbraken’s Groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (Horn 2000, p. 266).

22 Jan Frans van Douven (1656-1727), court painter of Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz (1658-1716), and Anthon Schoonjans (1655-1726) were sent together to Copenhagen in 1696 at the expense of the Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) to paint portraits of King Christian V of Denmark, his wife and children, especially the king’s daughter, Princess Sophia Hedwig (1677-1735), who was betrothed to Joseph I, the future Roman Emperor. The marriage has not transpired though, as the princess did not wish to convert to Catholicism (Gerson/Van Leeuwen/Roding et al. 2015, § 2.13). Later on, Schoonjans also came into the service of Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz. Walter Moens is preparing a dissertation on Anton Schoonjans for Leuven University, entitled 'Anton Schoonjans (1655-1726), Ein Flämischer Hofmaler unterwegs in Mitteleuropa. Sein Leben und Werk zwischen Ehefrau, Auftraggebern und Konkurrenten'.

23 On golden chains as an elegant payment for a painting, or a reward: Becker 2002, p. 54-58. On gifts/payments of the golden ‘Gnadenkette’ by Emperor Leopold I to painters: Haupt 1983, p. XV.

24 Houbraken 1718-1721, vol. 2, p. 84.

25 For an interpretation with an emphasis on the supply side (the ‘mapping impulse’ of Dutch artists): Alpers 1983, chapter 4, p. 119-169.

26 Nils Büttner convincingly argued that Pieter Bruegel I (1526/30-1569) probably sold most of the drawings he made during his trip to Italy to make a living while travelling (Büttner 2000, p. 240-242).

27 See Gerson/Van Leeuwen et al. 2017-2018, § 1.3 and 1.4.

28 Gorissen 1964; Büttner/Unverfehrt 1992.

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