Between Vice and Virtue - Hailey Byrde

March 24th, 2023

        The “Golden Age” of Dutch art was marked by significant shifts in the visual depictions of women, primarily attributed to the rise of burgher middle-class society and the increased importance given to the private sphere. Around 1650, this new outlook led to the popularization of depictions of domestic interiors often featuring women, which sought to define women’s duties within the moral and Christian home, thus positioning women in domestic spaces “along the binary divide of virtue and vice.”1 This visual interest in domestic space and the roles of women within it was motivated by the belief that the home was the foundation of the republic, a space that “conferred the attributes of citizenship.”2 Through analyzing artworks featuring women in domestic spaces, such as Gabriël Metsu’s The Hunter’s Present and Woman Reading a Letter, and Emanuel de Witte’s Interior with Woman Playing a Virginal, I will demonstrate how women’s sexuality and positionality between vice and virtue is brought into question through the use of symbolic imagery and the absence or presence of men in these works. I will argue that this portrayal of women as mediators of vice and virtue does not seek to send a moralizing message to the viewer, but rather serves to reflect the concerns of the Dutch middle class at the time.

    Dutch women in this period were said to enjoy more freedoms in comparison to other Europeans: young women were given more independence, wives were permitted to stand up to their husbands for excessive drinking, abuse, or infidelity, either through the law or church, and widows were given considerable property rights.3 Along with these greater personal liberties women experienced in comparison to the broader European population, this period around 1650 also marked an important political change—the 80-year process attempting to liberate the Dutch Republic of Spanish monarchical rule culminated in the 1948 Peace of Westphalia, successfully rendering the Dutch Republic independent.

    The Dutch burghers recognized the importance of remaining “an open and religiously tolerant republic, a state without a monarch.”4 The orderly home was considered to be the foundation of the nation and its newfound freedom, it was “a microcosm of the republic.”5 This newfound value of the home led to an emphasized role of women as upholders of the home, stressing their domestic duties, as well as their virtue and moral purity—which moralists believed stability and nation to be dependent on.6 Considering this terrain of social and political change which assigned women greater domestic importance and freedoms, moralist and republican concerns regarding female sexuality were reflected in Golden Age Dutch Art. These concerns were often visually presented through the depiction of women in domestic spaces occupying morally ambiguous positions.

    Gabriël Metsu’s The Hunter’s Present (Figure 1) illustrates these dynamics through its use of symbolic imagery representing sexuality and virtue. It depicts a young woman in a domestic setting with a hunter who has just returned from a successful hunt, as shown by the gun and game strewn across the floor and the hat tucked under his arm. The hunter is offering a partridge to the woman as she sits sewing. The hunter offering the young woman a bird is a sexual symbol, because the imagery of the bird acts as a pun; in that period, the word vogel meant bird as a noun, but when used as a verb, it was slang for sex.7 This sexual symbolism is furthered by the presence of the Cupid statue resting on the wardrobe above the woman’s head. As Cupid is the god of love, this affirms the sexual nature of the hunter’s proposition.8
    Symbolic imagery representing the woman’s virtue, such as sewing, the book she reaches for, and her shoes laid out in front of her, work to juxtapose this sexual propositioning. She acknowledges the hunter’s proposition, looking at the partridge he offers her in the midst of her sewing, and reaches over to what is presumably a Bible or prayer book. The woman reaching for this prayer book or Bible thus shows her consideration of religious values as she contemplates this proposition, indicating that she is a moral, religious, and virtuous woman. hoes in Dutch art have been understood to be a more ambiguous symbol and are sometimes considered to have a sexual connotation. However, considering the assertion of the woman’s virtue in depicting her careful contemplation of the proposition while sewing, the shoes in front of her likely further assert the woman’s virtue, as they were also used as a reminder of women’s belonging in the home.9

    She is shown in the process of a mundane but domestically important act, yet is interrupted by a man sexually propositioning her. In this sense, symbolic imagery is used to illustrate a binary between the man and woman by placing the virtuous symbols around the woman and the sexual pun around the man, giving the viewer insight into the “process of refinement and naturalization of the heterosexual subject, with its drive to produce masculinity and femininity visually as bipolar difference.”10 This binary, as well as symbolic imagery, highlights the values of morality and virtue in overseeing the home by depicting the woman in the act of sewing and reaching for the religious book while being propositioned; the painting reflects the concerns at the time by asserting the woman’s position within the home as the domestic and moral overseer, yet threatens this virtue through the hunter’s proposition.

    Since the woman’s decision in relation to the proposition remains ambiguous, I argue that this work does not attempt to send a moralizing message, but rather seeks to entertain the viewer through its use of complex imagery and sexual puns. In considering the ambiguity of the woman’s decision, the potential moral message is unclear, as the painting does not directly show the dangers of her entertaining this vice. While it has been argued that this type of genre painting sought to morally elevate the viewer by highlighting the dangers of vice, there is little evidence that this practice was coordinated or encouraged by the church and state.11 Instead, this “low” painting was likely used to be a source of humour and entertainment, due to its main sexual symbol,12 the bird, acting as a verbal pun.

    Emanuel de Witte’s Interior with a Woman Playing a Virginal (Figure 2) follows a similar means of depicting a woman between vice and virtue through the presence of a man—in this case, a soldier—within a domestic interior. The deep interior scene depicts a woman playing the clavichord in the bedroom, next to an open doorway where a maid is seen sweeping in a more distant room. A man is seen poking his head out from the bed; he is likely a soldier, which is affirmed by his sword and officer’s clothes laid on top of a chair in the foreground.13 The presence of the man in the bed holds a definite sexual meaning, which is contrasted by the visual representations of domesticity and virtue embodied in symbolic imagery. The woman playing the clavichord holds virtuous symbolism, as learning to play instruments was seen to be a social grace and an elevating pastime for women in the home.14 The maid sweeping in the view of the doorway acts as a visual reminder of domestic duties,15 and in this way, the two women assert their valuable and virtuous positions within the home, contrasting the vices embodied by the soldier.    The presence of the soldier in the home in this example serves to represent the concerns of stability in the home being the foundation of the republic, as well as broader political concerns surrounding soldiers after independence. Dutch burghers had significant anxieties surrounding soldiers, as they worried that in their absence from the home, soldiers’ presence in the home threatened to morally corrupt women through sex, and therefore the order within the home.16 Soldiers were seen to be dually threatening to the state of the republic through their potential to usurp the order of the home, but also through their political potential to overthrow the republican system and replace it with a “military-based monarchical regime.”17 In considering the personal and political anxieties of Dutch burghers surrounding the corruptive potential of soldiers, it is evident how this painting reflects social concerns about women’s liberties in the absence of the householder, which asserts the importance of virtue in upholding the home and nation, as this stability “depended on the ‘untarnished virtue of their women’.”18 In depicting the soldier in the woman’s bed, the painting affirms the burgher householder’s anxieties about the soldier’s ability to be morally corruptive.

    Similarly to Metsu’s The Hunter’s Present, there is a sense of moral ambiguity in this work, asserting the idea that these genre paintings of women contemplating actions of vice and virtue had less of a concern to morally elevate the viewer and acted as a reflection of middle-class realities. Because the home is still being upheld by the women despite the soldier’s presence, as demonstrated through the symbolism of the maid keeping up with her domestic duties and the woman practicing a virtuous pastime, this painting does not address the consequences of allowing the soldier into the home and how this potentially threatens the republic. In this way, the painting does not send a moral message surrounding the dangers of falling into vice, but instead reflects common anxieties that Dutch householders had about the increasing social mobility of their wives in relation to the political threat of soldiers.

    Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter (Figure 3) shows similar reflections of male concerns surrounding women in the household in their absence through its symbolism which positions the woman between vice and virtue. The painting depicts a woman reading a letter, accompanied by her maid, who hands her another envelope while pulling aside a curtain revealing a seascape painting on the wall. This painting follows a common trope in Dutch genre painting that identifies the woman as the keeper of the home, and she is often depicted with her housemaid, engaged in mundane domestic duties, yet “these two stock characters come under scrutiny in hundreds of paintings even though their homely activities do not, at first glance, seem to merit particular notice.”19 The housewife and her maid are shown in this scene to be partaking in their virtuous domestic duties; the woman has paused her sewing to read the letter, shown through the work lying in her lap as well as the thimble that she has dropped on the floor. However, juxtaposing these virtuous duties is symbolic imagery that points to a sense of secrecy and sexuality. Despite the absence of a man in this particular scene, the woman’s virtue and sexuality are brought into question through the symbolic imagery of the letter, the presence of the maid, and the painting behind her.
    In reading the letter, the woman turns away from the maid, indicating a sense of secrecy, which can be read as an allusion to the possibly scandalous contents of the letter she reads. This indicated secrecy is significant, as in Dutch society the private body was becoming more visible due to the stressed importance of moral private life, as “bodily secrets tend to be sexual.”20The probable sexual nature of this letter is also enforced by the presence of the maid in this image, as while they were primarily treated in Dutch art as close helpers to the wife, Dutch literature points to the potential for housemaids to encourage vice in their mistresses, “to cultivate the corruption of their mistresses, encouraging them in… insinuating paramours into the household unbeknownst to its master.”21 The painting the maid reveals on the back wall also provides important insight into the symbolism of this piece, as “Dutch artists often used pictures within pictures to allude to hidden meanings.”22 In this work, the ship and seascape painting that the maid reveals may reference the absence of the woman’s husband who is likely overseas, as this period was marked by a rapid maritime expansion of the Dutch Empire. Evidently in this work, the woman’s sexuality and fidelity are now brought into question because of this absence of the householder, as it is implied that “abstinence and self-control were difficult for the women left behind by merchant husbands.”23

    Again these veiled sexual symbols coupled with domestic practices position the woman between the vices of her affair—alluded to by the symbolism and secrecy of the letter and presumption that her husband is overseas—and her virtuous, domestic duties. Metsu alludes to the anxieties of the absent householder in depicting the woman mediating vice and virtue, yet because of the ambiguities which lie in the symbolism, it is unclear if the woman is truly doing anything immoral, which obscures the possibility of a straightforward moral meaning to the piece. Similarly to The Hunter’s Present and Interior with a Woman Playing a Virginal, it appears to represent middle-class concerns pertaining to the changing social dynamics in which women experienced greater freedoms and importance within the home.

    In conclusion, Metsu’s The Hunter’s Present and Woman Reading a Letter as well as de Witte’s Interior with a Woman Playing a Virginal distinctly position women between vice and virtue through the use of symbolic imagery. The visual contemplations of women’s sexuality in these works are ambiguous; in this sense, they do not necessarily intend to morally elevate their viewers, as they do not directly visually address the dangers of falling into vice. However, their visual contents are indicative of the social and political concerns at the time, as women had greater social liberties and thus had to rely less on men yet were seen as the primary upholders of the home, which was particularly significant in ensuring the stability of the republic. These works by Metsu and de Witte demonstrate how male anxieties surrounding the newfound freedoms and greater importance of women in the home shaped the portrayal of women through their visual mediation of the distinct moral terrain.

Works Cited
  1. Nanette Salomon, “From Sexuality to Civility: Vermeer’s Women,” Studies in the History of Art55 (1998): 309. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42622615.
  2. Simon Schama, “Wives and Wantons: Versions of Womanhood in 17th Century Dutch Art,” Oxford Art Journal 3, no. 1 (April 1980): 8. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxartj/3.1.5.
  3. Schama, “Wives and Wantons,” 6.
  4. Richard Helgerson, “Soldiers and Enigmatic Girls: The Politics of Dutch Domestic Realism, 1650–1672,” Representations 58 (Spring 1997): 57. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928823.
  5. Angela Vanhaelen, “Vermeer’s Secret Sphere: Privacy, Publicity, Sexuality,” European Data Protection Law Review 6, no. 3 (2020): 347. https://doi.org/10.21552/edpl/2020/3/5.
  6. David T. Roth, “Moral Messages in Dutch Realist Art of the Seventeenth-Century Golden Age,” ANU Historical Journal II, no. 2 (October 2020): 35. http://doi.org/10.22459/ANUHJII.2020.
  7. Roth, “Moral Messages in Dutch Realist Art,” 34.
  8. David R. Smith, “Irony and Civility: Notes on the Convergence of Genre and Portraiture in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting,” The Art Bulletin 69, no. 3 (September 1987): 415. https://doi.org/10.2307/3051063.
  9. Wayne Franits, “Wily women? On sexual imagery in Dutch art of the seventeenth century.” In From Revolt to Riches: Culture and History of the Low Countries, 1500–1700, ed. Theo Hermans and Reinier Salverda (London: UCL Press, 2017) 228.
  10. Salomon, “From Sexuality to Civility,” 316. 
  11. Roth, “Moral Messages in Dutch Realist Art,” 27.
  12. Roth, “Moral Messages in Dutch Realist Art,” 37.
  13. Helgerson, “Soldiers and Enigmatic Girls,” 62.
  14. Salomon, “From Sexuality to Civility,” 320.
  15. Helgerson, “Soldiers and Enigmatic Girls,” 62. 
  16. Helgerson, “Soldiers and Enigmatic Girls,” 53.
  17. Helgerson, “Soldiers and Enigmatic Girls,” 53.
  18. Roth, “Moral Messages in Dutch Realist Art,” 35.
  19. Vanhaelen, “Vermeer’s Secret Sphere,” 34.
  20. Vanhaelen, “Vermeer’s Secret Sphere,” 349.
  21. Schama, “Wives and Wantons,” 11.
  22. Smith, “Irony and Civility,” 411.
  23. Vanhaelen, “Vermeer’s Secret Sphere,” 350.
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