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NYT Syndicate

If you were asked to quickly close your eyes and conjure a picture of the Dutch Golden Age, you might come up with an image of dour, pale figures clad all in black with stiff white ruffs bracing their necks. But it may be time to update that image.
Jokes, and particularly coarse or bawdy humour, were apparently central to the life and art of the Dutch 17th Century, according to a new exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands, 'The Art of Laughter: Humor in the Golden Age' which runs from November 11 through March 18. The exhibition features about 60 masterpieces from leading artists such as Hals, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Judith Leyster and Gerard van Honthorst, inspired by comic characters, explicit humor and visual punning ” with lots of images of people laughing.
"If we learned anything from the research, it was how incredibly important and how widespread humour was in the Golden Age in Dutch culture, but also in painting," said Anna Tummers, one of the show's curators at the museum, in an interview a few weeks before the opening."The more we worked on it, the more we realised quite how many paintings have a joke as their very core."
One of the best known comic images of the 17th century is Hals' own Pekelharing, (Pickled Herring) a portrait of a jester who is red-faced and"pickled" from the inside with liquor. The portrait apparently hung in a popular bar, where those on the road to a similar condition could recognise themselves in it.
When Tummers and Elmer Kolfin, an art historian from the University of Amsterdam, began researching the exhibition in 2015, they took an inventory of artworks from the period at the Netherlands Institute for Art History, known as RKD, looking for those that were based on humour, and discovered some 2,500 examples,"where it was not just a funny detail" as in one of the famous skating scenes by Hendrick Avercamp,"but where it was really the essence of the picture."
The Dutch were apparently known across Europe for their sense of humour, which was noted by foreign visitors in many journal entries. The historian Rudolf Dekker, according to the exhibition catalogue, described the Dutch 17th Century as the"Golden Age of humour, comparable to the Italian Renaissance." Books of jests were also very popular among the locals, with about 25 of them published and reprinted more than 70 times each.
Although the dominance of the Calvinist church in Holland in the 17th century meant there were plenty of sober and serious people, one famous Dutch poet of the era, Anna Roemers Visscher, summed up the Dutch approach to humour quite succinctly:"He is not wise who cannot be silly from time to time."
With such a great fondness for humour among the population, there was apparently a vital market for artworks that made jokes using punning, and many of these paintings were prized among collectors and sold for great sums of money.
"There is not just one genre of humour," Tummers said."You see it also in the high-end paintings; some of the topics are just jokes, and some of these paintings were incredibly expensive."
She added,"They were not just laughing at the other, peasants or people from a different social class, but they were increasingly laughing at people from their own or similar social class."
For example, a work by Gerard Dou, De Kwakzalver, (The Quack), on loan from the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, is a comical portrayal of a charlatan doctor at a city fair, which sold for a few thousand guilders. On the table in front of him we see a monkey, which Dutch viewers in the 17th century would have understood as a symbol: The quack is"making a monkey" of his audience.
The type of humour in the pictures breaks down into three categories. More than half make scatological references (in which"human excreta feature prominently," according to the exhibition catalogue) while sexually suggestive images make up much of the rest. In the second category, the jokes often focus on"unbridled lust or unequal love." The third category is trompe-l'oeil images ” which are designed to fool the eye ” or painted practical jokes, which had been in existence since antiquity but surged during the Dutch Golden Age.
"There are lots of sources about how art lovers and others couldn't stop laughing when they realised that they were taken in by pictures of for example, a boy sleeping or a maid that someone tried to kiss, but who turned out to be a painting," Tummers said.
Part of the reason that trompe-l'oeil images sold particularly well was that they performed a dual function: they told a joke and they demonstrated the skills of a painter who could use his or her paintbrush to fool even the most erudite in society.
"It was a way for artists to develop their skills in developing lifelike scenes and to show their wit on all levels," Tummers said."Humour was already a source of inspiration in the 16th Century, but in the Golden Age, it became a much more rich, prevalent factor and it created this enormous diversity of art, a rich soil for new inventions, artistic quality and display of skill."
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