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

For some today, nineteenth-century images of labor are better known than their seventeenth-century predecessors. Ford Madox Brown’s mural-sized Work of 1852-65 (Fig. 4) comes immediately to mind. This and related paintings have recently occasioned a good deal of discussion about art that pictures labor in nineteenth-century Europe.” A plethora of texts, among them narratives by the artists, including Madox Brown himself and later Vincent van Gogh, and writings by such social critics as Thomas Carlyle, the foremost articulator of the Victorian “Gospel of Work,” allow historians to reconstruct the interpretative field for this kind of art with some confidence. Although no Carlyle exists for earlier periods, it is still possible for us to discern the outlines of the early modern European discourse of work, a discourse rife with competing positions. The traditional early modern view, a legacy of ancient andmedieval Christian thinking, understood manual occupation as inferior to intellectual activity.” In this conservative view, any work involving the physical body was considered degrading, a punishment for humans’ original disobedience in Eden, and thus a mark of their fallen nature. Nevertheless, the Bible commanded people to work. Moreover, work protected the industrious against the vice of sloth, considered one of the deadliest of sins. Work also served an important moral purpose. One would work in order to live a virtuous life, to serve God, even to gain salvation. But gradually during the early modern period, a more worldly, secular, and civic appreciation of work began to develop. Attitudes drew closer to our present-day thinking, which connects work with productivity, social advancement, esteem, and wealth. This new set of attitudes emphasized the link between diligence and personal prosperity as a desirable end both for the individual and for society.“ Physical work that paid well came to be seen as inherently valuable. For a good long time the traditional religious view, stressing work’s essential virtue and moral purpose, coexisted, sometimes uneasily, with this more modern view, highlighting the contribution of work to individual and socioeconomic prosperity. (p.696)


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


Work in Art

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