Cleanliness and Dirtiness in Daily-Life Paintings in the Seventeenth-century Northern and Southern Netherlands.


Dr. Jan Blanc, Professor of Art History and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Geneva

Dr. Gaëtane Maës, Professor of Art History and Visual Culture in Modern History (1600-1830) at the University of Lille, IRHiS member.


Painting with a woman washing her hands with the help of her servant in a luxurious interior, while a disheveled woman in the background reaches out for a man entering the room, who is held back by a maidservant.
Picture credits : Mauritshuis, The Hague

The Dutch and Flemish obsession for cleanliness in the seventeenth century is a well known stereotype in current research and for travelers who visited the Northern and Southern Netherlands at that time. This has often led researcher to leave cleanliness out of their studies or to brush it aside as trivial or anecdotal. Nevertheless, concerns for cleanliness at the time were deeply-rooted in the local culture, with cleanliness and dirtiness shaping much of the literary and visual culture in both regions. Cleanliness and dirtiness also appear as artistic terms to discuss the painter's practice in both contemporary criticism and art treatises.

My work focuses on daily-life scenes, which establish a connection between real life, pictorial depiction and artistic practices. I will try to show the importance of cleanliness and dirtiness as key concepts in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, at each step of the picture's making and in the way painters think of their own work.

I will try in this work to combine history of art, cultural, material, and social history, to see how these images, born from Dutch and Flemish culture, modify and question it in return. I will also confront Dutch and Flemish art theory with European theory during the same period.


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Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion

UMR 8529

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