For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Men at Work in Dutch Art, or Keeping One's Nose to the Grindstone"

by Kettering, Alison M (2007)


Depictions of masculine labor in Dutch art, although falling outside the usual repertoire, extend our understanding of European visual culture in the seventeenth century. Investigation of this imagery brings class and gender into art historical analysis while considering what was deemed appropriate subject matter, and what was not. Gabriel Metsu's Interior of a Smithy, Gerard ter Borch's Grinder's Family, and the artisan paintings of Quiringh van Brekelenkam are discussed in detail. Each is compared with the notion of the ideal workplace, and each is seen in the light of contemporary labor conditions, socioeconomic forces, ideologies, and gender norms.

Key Passage

Among the chief delights of leisure is getting away from toil. This is not new. Why would a person at leisure want to look at a person who is working? More particularly, why would a well-to-do and well-educated viewer hang a painting of manual labor on his wall? Why would an artist paint such an image? In early modern Europe, these questions were easily answered: viewers did not seek such images and artists did not paint them. Like most generalizations, however, this one had its exceptions. In the early modern period, one European society produced more images of labor than all the others combined. Dutch artists produced-and Dutch buyers purchased-paintings of men engaged in all sorts of skilled labor: straining over a grindstone (Fig. l), slamming a mallet against hot metal (Fig. 3), bending mind and body to shape a shoe (Fig. 16). Urban artisans dominate these pictures, men whose trades helped form the economic core of the thriving Dutch cities. (p.694)


Aesthetics, Work In Art, Dutch History, Visual Culture, Gender, Historical Analysis, Labor Conditions


Work in Art

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