The Peabody Essex Museum‘s exhibit Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection closes this weekend after a spectacular run. I think that Dutch “Golden Age” paintings are so popular because of the combination of technical precision and enhanced intimacy; both the familiar and the exotic are rendered with such artistry that one is drawn into the painting in a very absorbing way. I went to the Museum several times this past week to find crowds of people sneaking in their last peaks and individuals studying every little detail of the paintings so intently (with supplied magnifying glasses) that they appeared to be almost falling into the frames.
Everybody’s (including Mr. van Otterloo’s, apparently) favorite painting from the exhibition seems to be a small portrait of a white sleeping dog, with its hair and form so precisely and warmly rendered that you really did want to reach out (in) and touch him. Because I like things, my favorite paintings were the still-lifes, and one still-life in particular, Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with Glasses and Tobacco, 1633.
Tobacco (and its accessories) was such a popular subject matter in the mid-seventeenth-century Low Countries that a subgenre of still lifes, toebakje, was entirely devoted to it. Indeed, tobacco can be seen in all sorts of Golden Age paintings, in the background, in the foreground, as a primary or ancillary activity.
Tobacco was the most popular “American” plant in early modern Europe not only because of its addictive qualities but also because of its perceived medicinal virtues. The esteemed Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes, whose work was published in England under the title Joyfull Newes out of the New Found World in the 1570s, wrote enthusiastically about the virtues of tobacco,”an herb of great estimation”, that can “reduce wounds to perfect health” and cure “griefs” of the head, breast, joints, stomach, teeth, and women. Due to the influence of Monardes and other “medical” writers, as well as that of Sir Walter Raleigh who returned from America a fierce (addicted) advocate of tobacco, smoking became particularly popular in England. Instead of lovely oil paintings, illustrations from popular pamphlets illustrate the general English acceptance of what Ben Jonson called that tawny weed.
Illustrations from Anthony Chute’s Tabaco (1595), Richard Braithwaite’s The Smoking Age (1617), George Glover’s Fowre Complexions (1630), and The Sucklington Faction or (Sucklings) Roaring Boyes (1641)
Another indication of the popularity of tobacco in England was the protestation of King James I (r. 1603-25) against it. In his Counterblast to Tobacco, first published in 1604, the King condemned smoking as “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain,dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” The King had his anti-tobacco admirers, but his prescient words didn’t really catch on for another 350 years.