Houbraken Translated is a complete, fully illustrated and augmented edition in English of Arnold Houbraken’s famous De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (The Great Theatre of Netherlandish Painters and Paintresses) of 1718 to 1721. Next to the English translation readers can consult the original text as scanned from the three volumes of the RKD rare books collection.
For most art historians Houbraken’s Groote Schouburgh is a work to be consulted for information about artists and not a book to be read. However, the text is much more than an artists’ lexicon. Mixed in with his biographies Houbraken writes about art theory, shop practice, foreign travel, and social interaction, but he also touches on matters religion and even philosophical, while his theoretical digressions are loaded with iconographical and archaeological information. Often Houbraken’s convictions are virtually encoded. With this online publication in English, Houbraken’s intellectual legacy becomes accessible to a non-Dutch public, but it will doubtlessly also provide Dutch art historians with fresh insights conducive to a better understanding of the biographical information provided by Houbraken.
As biographer of artists Houbraken was very well informed. He was himself a thoroughly trained painter and etcher with social skills and a connoisseur’s eye, who had access to important collectors and dealers. For most of his life Houbraken assembled antiquarian information and evolved as a heterodox thinker, but it was only in the last few years preceding De groote schouburgh that he began to carry on correspondence with ancestors and students of deceased painters to learn about their background, training, travel and patrons, along with their financial successes or failures and their most important achievements. It was Houbraken’s intention to grant Dutch artists a lasting reputation, and he certainly succeeded in this aim. In his Groote schouburgh all the Netherlandish artists about whom he was able to collect information are brought onstage, beginning with the humanist Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1467/9-1536), who is also to have painted, and ending with Adriaen van den Werff (1659-1722), the most successful painter of his time. Artists for whom he was not able to retrieve precise dates he placed in his chronology to the best of his abilities.
The Houbraken project was in part undertaken as an opportunity to work out his information in detail in the database RKDartist&, so that it is clearly demonstrated just how current biographical information is based on Houbraken. Even when the biographer was sloppy or incorrectly informed – which is sometimes the case – that is also worked out in RKDartists&. In short, Houbraken’s information is placed in the context of other sources. In Houbraken Translated the names of all the artists are supplied with hyperlinks to RKDartist& so that the information there can function as a body of notes for the translation. Houbraken names or discusses 1207 artists, of whom 1,015 are Dutch or Flemish painters and glass painters. The remaining 192 are engravers, etchers, gold and silver smiths, sculptors and architects, as well as foreign artists.
In addition to artists, numerous other individuals pass in revue in Houbraken’s biographies and digressions, such as politicians, military commanders, philosophers, authors, poets, collectors and patrons, about whom he sometimes provides a surprising amount of information. Because the research mandate of the RKD places special emphasis on the history of collecting, the RKD Houbraken-project attempts to identify as many of the mentioned collectors and patrons as possible and to place them in RKD artist& as well as to hyperlink them in Houbraken Translated. This effort has succeeded for 294 collectors. In case an individual is not of importance for RKDartist& – there must be a connection to art – hyperlinks to other sources have been implemented. Though De groote schouburgh mainly concerns Dutch painters and paintresses, it also yields much information about individuals and their networks in historical context. Many individuals have been identified here for the first time.
Houbraken Translated is illustrated with depictions of the art works – paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and even buildings – mentioned by Houbraken, in so far as these can still be identified. Much research in the art-historical literature has been done, with Arnold Houbraken und seine ‘Groote Schouburgh’ kritisch beleuchted of 1893 by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot serving as a seminal point of departure. Of the works Houbraken names 521 could be identified, which are all illustrated and linked to RKDimages, where further annotations may be found. Naturally all the 45 original illustrations of De groote schouburgh are also included.
Clearly Arnold Houbraken’s life, art and ideas require much more detailed study than we can give them as part of this study. In addition to being an assiduous biographer, Houbraken was a dedicated family man, prolific artist and courageous amateur theologian. Raised as a Mennonite, he married as a Calvinist in 1685 but had evolved into a deist by the time he published his Philaléthes Brieven in 1712. The next year the Church Council of Amsterdam censured his ‘abominable’ ideas, forcing him to flee to London for nine months. Though he stressed the importance of Christ’s passion, he dismissed or ignored all other Christian dogma. Houbraken’s belief in a hands-off God whose wonderful but remote plan can be glimpsed only through the study of nature, underlies the biographies, predilections and theory of his Groote schouburgh.
We owe a vote of thanks to Jan Kosten, former RKD curator of Flemish art, who introduced many artists, collectors and patrons to RKDartists and to Paul van Kooij, former registrar of the RKD, for the introduction of art works mentioned by Houbraken in RKDImages. Padraigh O’Cleirigh of the University of Guelph kindly translated the Latin passages of De groote schouburgh. Finally our thanks go out to Christina Wüstling, master student at the Freie Universität Berlin who carried out research for the Houbraken project during her internship at the RKD.
Although it sometimes seemed that there would be no end to this project, we always worked on it with great pleasure. Two bits of Houbraken’s wisdom were ever our mottos.
Well done is much done.
To be helpful to each other's benefit (in any form whatsoever) as well as to one's own is the chain that links human society.
Hendrik Horn & Rieke van Leeuwen
Jacob Houbraken most likely after Arnold Houbraken
Portrait of Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719), c. 1714-1718
paper, red chalk 125 x 100 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv./cat.nr. RP-T-1897-A-3421