Doncker was active in Haarlem (where he painted genre scenes such as ours) and from before 1640 in Enkhuizen (where he specialised in portrait painting).
Our painting has in fact a moralising subject: it represents Dutch officers in a brothel playing backgammon, a game that stood for lethargy and laziness.
About Herman Doncker
Circa 1600/1620 – after 1656
His name is sometimes spelt Herman Mijnerts or Meindertsz. Doncker.
Doncker was active as a painter in two towns:
- in Haarlem (an important economic centre some 15 km W. of Amsterdam);
- in Enkhuizen (a port town on the ‘Zuiderzee’ some 40 km N.E. of Amsterdam).
Herman Doncker joined the Guild of Painters in the city of Haarlem in 1634 (Fr. Laarmann, 2000, P. 7 and note 8 on P. 30). In 1635 he is still documented in Haarlem. All of Doncker’s dated genre scenes are from the period 1634/1636.
In the period between 1641 and 1646 he lived in the town of Enkhuizen. He must have arrived before 1640 and remained here well after 1646. In West-Friesland he specialised into portrait painting; he occasionally turned to history painting. His last dated work is from 1650.
Doncker regularly signed his paintings, either in full, or with his ‘HD’ monogram.
There is a clear stylistic difference and evolution in the paintings of Doncker:
- his early paintings, made during his stay in Haarlem around the middle of the 1630-ies can be considered modern for their days. Although not a large town Haarlem was one of the most important cultural centres of Holland during the Golden Age of the 17th century; it housed an incredible number of very important painters such as Frans Hals, Hendrick Goltzius, Hercules Seghers, Esaias van de Velde, Jan van Goyen, Jan Miense Molenaer, Judith Leister, Adriaen Brouwer, the van Ostade brothers, the Ruisdael-Ruysdael family, Pieter Claesz., Willem Heda and many more.
- the second and largest group of paintings date from after the middle of the 1630-ies, when Doncker lived in Enkhuizen, a smaller town whose population favoured an old fashioned stiffness of portrait paintings typical of this Northern part of Holland.
Backgammon is a very old board game for two players. Its oldest predecessors are some 5000 years old.
In the Low Countries people played a variant invented in France circa 1500, called ‘Trictrac’. One often sees it represented in 16th and 17th century Flemish and Dutch paintings, where it symbolized lethargy, laziness.
About the subject of Herman Doncker’s interior scenes: brothel scenes
Doncker’s interior scenes with elegant companies were meant as moralizing advices against bad behavior for the respectable Haarlem Calvinists. His paintings with rather cheerful companies were indeed set into brothels. Common elements in all these interior scenes are food, drinks and music, sometimes even a bed and the old procuress.
Brothel scenes (“Bordeeltjes”) were a popular theme in 17th century Dutch genre painting. One may wonder how this was possible in a largely Protestant society that criminalized prostitution, procuring and adultery. Similar moralizing themes were cheerful companies in tavern interiors, representations of unequal love (between a rich old man and a young woman) and Vanitas still lifes (about the vanity of earthly goods).
Today these brothel interior scenes are often called ‘merry companies’ or ‘elegant companies’, but for contemporary viewers they were easily recognizable.
While the Catholic Church had regarded prostitution as a necessary evil, made sadly unavoidable by the sinful state of humanity, in the new Protestant societies it was prohibited. Whenever a city was taken over by the Calvinists during the course of the Dutch Revolt in the late 16th and first half of the 17th century, one of the first acts of the new city government was to close down the municipal brothels and to suppress prostitution.
But this prohibition was impossible to maintain in a society that possessed too many characteristics favouring widespread prostitution, especially in its main town Amsterdam, where each year thousands of sailors ended their journeys and were paid off, following long journeys without women.
Prostitution was condemned from the pulpit and regulated through fines, jail terms, flogging or banishment. But still it flourished, not in large bordellos (as one would find them in Catholic states), but in hundreds of small houses.
Seventeenth century prostitution in Holland was mainly in the hands of women: a bawd (“hoerewaardin”) usually ran a very small whorehouse with one, two, maximum three harlots. If there were more clients a maid would fetch more whores in the neighbourhood. In paintings these bawds are generally represented as ugly, often hideously grinning, old procuresses (“koppelaarster”). The books of confessions from the prisoners learn us that most bawds were not that much older than their whores. Representing them as old women, as the embodiment of vices and evil, seems to go back to the persecution of witches.
Although Amsterdam was notorious for its prostitution, a fame that only grew with time, the majority of “bordeeltjes” was painted in Utrecht (by its Caravaggist painters, many of whom had gone to Rome) and above all in Haarlem (by Herman Doncker, Hendrick Pot and by Jan Steen, who had his most productive period here between 1660 and 1670).
(most information on this subject I have taken from Lotte C. van de Pol’s article, ‘The whore, the bawd, and the artist: the reality and imagery of 17th century Dutch prostitution’; in JHNA, vol. 4:2)
About our painting
Our painting is signed with Doncker’s monogram ‘HD’ and it is dated 1634.
It therefore dates from his early career, when Doncker was still living in Haarlem, working under the influence of such painters as Dirck Hals (the brother of Frans Hals), Anthonie Palamedesz. and Pieter Codde.
Doncker painted his interior scenes in the final stage of the Eighty Years’ War, which by then had turned into a war of independence of what was to become the Dutch Republic in 1648. As military uniforms only appeared at the very end of the 17th century colours of plumes decorating hats and sashes would identify a friend or enemy: in general the Dutch wore orange, the Spanish red. The three main men in our painting are all three officers of the Dutch army.
From 1625 onwards the Dutch were on the winning hand, besieging and finally taking town after town. The Dutch were lucky: while Spain was regularly in great need of money, with soldiers and mercenaries that could not be paid, they had captured under Admiral Piet Hein the famous Spanish silver fleet in Cuba in 1628. All this money could now be used for the war. An offensive and defensive treaty sealed with France in 1635 proved to be very successful and finally forced Spain to accept peace with an independent Dutch Republic: the Treaty of Westphalia or Munster of 1648.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is a nice example of Doncker’s Haarlem interior scenes form the middle of the 1630s.
Because it is an interesting conversation piece.