For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Ryckaert at work: A Flemish painter's view of labour"

by van Haute, Bernadette (2008)


AbstractIn his depictions of men at work, David III Ryckaert reveals an acute awareness of social differentiation on the basis of professional identity. The craftsman is invariably depicted as an example of industry and diligence, a view strengthened by the inclusion of the artisan's spinning wife. Ryckaert, however, made sure to remind the viewer of the fundamental baseness of the labouring classes, whereas professions of a more intellectual nature (such as artists) were treated with greater respect. This reflects the artist's desire, shared by his clients, to consolidate and justify the social order. By using his art ?tot leeringh vande jeught? (to instruct the youth), he actively contributed to the shaping of social norms.

Key Passage

In his portrayal of labour, Ryckaert applied a formula derived from his paintings of drinking, smoking, courting and gambling peasants. However, like the works of his colleagues in the Northern Netherlands,37 his paintings of artisans’ workshop interiors must be interpreted as expressions of the early modern civic virtue of industry and diligence (De Vries 2003:135). In the earlier representations which are still rooted in traditional iconography related to the peasantry, the milieu of the craftsman is openly subjected to criticism. The artisan himself, on the other hand, is always seen at work, the focus being on the process of labour, not the end product. The cobbler is represented as the prototype of the artisan: hard working, poor but honest, and an example to others (De Vries 2003:122, 137). By choosing this iconography, Ryckaert established the craftsman’s professional identity in visual form without the active input of the artisans themselves or their guild.38 Starting in the early 1640s, he made a genuine effort to improve the professional image of the craftsman by eliminating blatant derogatory references. Later on he also added the motif of the artisan’s spinning wife to demonstrate the virtue of the joint labour of the working-class couple. (p.16)


Work In Art, Aesthetics, Class, Social Differentiation, Personal Identity, Dutch Art, Dutch History, Social History


Work in Art, History of Work

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