During the first decades of the seventeenth century the painting industry of the Dutch Republic went through a phase of unprecedented growth. Both in output and quality, Dutch painters became renowned throughout Europe. How this extraordinary expansion began is well known: in the 1580s skilled painters from Flanders and Brabant fled religious persecution and economic crisis to establish their workshops in the towns of Holland and Zeeland, where they stimulated a rapid increase in specialisms – in particular landscapes, peasant scenes and still lifes – and introduced the mass production of paintings, which were sold on the open consumer market rather than commissioned by the elites.1

Yet obvious though it may seem to us that artists wanted to escape the crisis in the south and seek out new opportunities elsewhere, for contemporaries the decision to leave was less evident: they could hardly foresee that a Golden Age in Dutch painting lay ahead. As this article will argue, southern painters were often reluctant to leave behind their homes and family for an uncertain future elsewhere, and explored career strategies other than emigration to confront the crisis on the art market. Many in fact remained in the South, because cities like Antwerp still offered opportunities to make ends meet. Those artists who did leave also tried to offset the risk of moving by heading for cities that already enjoyed close ties with the artistic centres of Flanders and Brabant, such as Middelburg in Zeeland or the exile centres in England and Germany. Amsterdam, on the other hand, was a more risky destination: although in the seventeenth century the city would become a major market for the production and consumption of art, in 1585 it was still an artistic backwater when compared to the artistic centres in the south.

To examine how Netherlandish painters coped with the crisis of the 1580s, this article focuses on the city of Antwerp. By 1580 Antwerp had become the undisputed artistic centre of the Low Countries, with more than 200 painters catering to an open market of local elites and middle classes, and exporting paintings across Europe and to the Spanish colonies in America.2 The Antwerp painting community has also been sufficiently documented to allow a detailed prosopographical analysis of painters’ careers. Whereas art historians generally focus on the life and oeuvre of individual painters, or at best on a school of painters, this article follows the lead of Michael Montias, Hans van Miegroet and Neil De Marchi, who have explored Netherlandish painting communities through statistical analysis to discern common trends in artists’ careers.3 Underlying this article is an extensive database of 221 Antwerp painters active in the years 1580–1585, which traces their careers both before and after the crisis of the 1580s (see appendix).4 Although Natasja Peeters and Maximiliaan Martens have previously carried out a prosopographical analysis of the Antwerp painting community, their research covered only the period prior to 1580, and relied exclusively on the registers of the guild of St. Luke.5 By exploring a more comprehensive set of published sources – including tax registers, notarial records, and biographical dictionaries – this article sheds new light on the careers of a particular generation of painters, as well as on the manifold ways in which they tried to survive the crisis on the art market.

Crisis in Antwerp

Without a doubt, the Antwerp art market experienced the worst of times in the 1580s, as both the demand for art and the export of paintings took a severe blow, forcing painters to pursue new career strategies to make ends meet. The roots of this crisis stretched back to the 1560s, when the concomitant revolt against Habsburg rule and the rise of Calvinism had plunged the Low Countries into a civil war between Protestant rebels and Catholics loyal to Spain. During the ‘Wonder Year’ of 1566 a vocal Calvinist minority had briefly held sway over Antwerp, but their true rise to power began in 1578, when they successfully pressured the burgomasters to allow Protestant services within the city walls, alongside the Catholic Mass. Yet the fragile coexistence between Protestants and Catholics was not to last: by 1581 the Calvinists had effectively seized control of the Antwerp government, and the new burgomasters soon decided to ban Catholic worship, expel the clergy, and strip all churches and chapels of what they deemed to be idolatrous art.6

The Calvinist takeover of Antwerp had a dramatic impact on the art market. On the short term, demand for religious art – ranging from altar pieces to devotional images of the Virgin Mary – suffered a serious setback, since commissions from parishes and monastic orders dried up. Consumer demand for religious art also declined, as an estimated 8,000 Catholics fled into exile, most notably to Cologne.7 Fortunately, religious paintings were also popular with Protestant consumers, although probate inventories reveal that they had a clear preference for scenes from the Old Testament over images depicting saints, martyrs and the Holy Virgin, which formed the staple of Catholic iconography.8 Painters who specialised in religious art could therefore still absorb the shock by switching their visual repertoire to scenes from the Old Testament, which carried more favour with a Protestant clientele. The Calvinist painter Adriaen Thomasz. Key (c. 1545-after 1589) thus based much of his religious oeuvre on the Catholic scenes painted by Michiel Coxie (1499–1592), but he tellingly excluded God from his paintings and rendered figures like Saint Jerome more human-like to appeal to a wider audience.9

In the long term, the Calvinist dominance over Antwerp was to have even larger repercussions for the career prospects of its painters. In 1578 Philips II appointed Alexander Farnese (1545–1592) as his new governor-general to the Low Countries, who was to stem the tide of the revolt against Habsburg rule and re-catholicise the territories lost to the Protestants. Before long, Farnese mustered an impressive army that laid siege to the rebellious Calvinist cities in the south. His reconquista proved extremely successful: Tournai surrendered in 1582, and in 1584 Farnese captured Ypres, Bruges and Ghent, followed in 1585 by Brussels, Mechelen and, most famously, Antwerp. The prolonged military operation came at a heavy price, however, because the sieges and Spanish troops plundering the countryside disrupted the economy. In these uncertain times demand for art fell, while the export of paintings overseas was hampered by the war. Antwerp painters thus had to find new ways to survive on a tightening market.10

A first indication that painters were struggling to make ends meet was an off-hand remark by the deans of the Antwerp guild of St. Luke in 1579, when they noted that four painters who had recently joined the guild had not paid their full membership fees, apparently because they were too poor.11 The painter Simon Ykens was one of them: unable to repay a debt of 73 guilders, he and his wife were forced in 1581 to mortgage ‘all their furniture, chattel, paintings & other goods that they currently own’, promising ‘not to sell, move or alter these in any way’.12 Ykens was not the only painter struggling to survive, because when in 1584 the Antwerp burgomasters imposed a wartime tax on all inhabitants to defend the city against the besieging Spanish troops, only 20 out of the 108 painters listed in the register were taxed. The majority (81.5 per cent) were simply too impoverished to be taxed at all.13

Chances to make a living in Antwerp took another turn for the worse after the city surrendered to General Farnese in the summer of 1585. The one-year long siege had already devastated the urban economy, but when the harvests of 1585 and 1586 also failed due to an exceedingly wet spring and summer – just at a time when the rebels in the north blocked the river Scheldt and declared an embargo on the import of Baltic grain – Antwerp experienced the worst famine in decades.14 The Protestant population also faced a religious dilemma, because the reconciliation treaty concluded between the Antwerp burgomasters and General Farnese on 17 August 1585 stipulated that the city was to return under the obedience of the Church of Rome. Protestants were nevertheless granted a four-year clemency period ‘to consider and decide whether they would not want to exercise the old Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Religion’, after which time they had to leave the city with all their possessions.15 The combined result of these economic and religious pressures was a massive exodus, in particular to the towns of Holland and Zeeland. Within four years the Antwerp population was almost halved, falling from 82,000 inhabitants in 1585 to an estimated 42,000 in 1589.16 The departure of nearly half the city’s population seriously undercut local demand for art, thus aggravating the already precarious career perspectives of Antwerp painters.

Antwerp careers: new chances in a changing market

Yet despite this gloomy outlook many painters decided to remain in Antwerp rather than emigrate (table 1). Out of the 221 painters active in Antwerp between 1580 and 1585, at least 81 continued their trade in Antwerp, as opposed to 60 who left the city up until 1600. The percentage of departed painters (27.1 per cent) was also considerably lower than the average emigration percentage for the population of Antwerp (48.8 per cent). These figures should be treated with some caution, however, because the fate of the remaining 80 painters (36.2 per cent) is unknown – did they stay in Antwerp or leave? It is noteworthy, however, that 22 of them still paid their guild fees in 1588–1589, which suggests that they stayed in Antwerp, or left at a much later date. And although for many the archival trail goes cold after 1585, we do know that prior to the siege these were mostly run-of-the-mill painters: only Adriaen Thomasz. Key has left behind any work, and just 12 appear in the records as oil painters. These findings suggest that they were rather unsuccessful in continuing their artistic career after 1585, be it in Antwerp or elsewhere, and that they probably picked up a different trade.

Table 1

Destinations of painters active in Antwerp between 1580 and 1585

Destination Number of painters % of total
Antwerp 81   36.7
Amsterdam 16   7.2
Middelburg 10   4.5
Dutch Republic (other cities) 14   5.9
Southern Netherlands  5   2.3
Germany  6   2.7
France  3   1.8
England  2   0.9
Italy  1   0.5
Departed, destination unknown  3   1.4
Unknown  80   36.2
Total 221  100.0

Source: see appendix.

Looking at the artists whose destination is known and who continued their artistic career does raise an interesting question: why did a surprisingly large number of painters decide to stay in Antwerp than leave? The answer, as social historians have shown, is that even in times of crisis migration is never the default option: people do not lightheadedly set out for the unknown, but first weigh up the benefits of moving against the risks involved.17 In the case of Antwerp painters, the economic and religious attractions of other cities thus had to outweigh the opportunities on the Antwerp art market, the emotional price of leaving behind family and friends, and above all the uncertainty of pursuing their career elsewhere. Apparently, many Antwerp painters decided that staying home was preferable to a precarious future in the north.

A strong indication of the reluctance to leave home was the response of the Protestant community to Farnese’s ultimatum to convert within four years. Although most of Antwerp’s estimated 35,000 Protestants (including Calvinists, Lutherans and Anabaptists) emigrated, by 1591 the Antwerp bishop Laevinus Torrentius (1525–1595) estimated that 6,000 of them had remained and converted to Catholicism. The surviving baptism registers of four Antwerp parishes, in which the parents were marked as reconciliati if they had abjured their Protestant faith, reveal that by 1600 the total number of conversions had reached 7,490 – 21.4 per cent of the Protestant population. Moreover, most Protestants only abjured in August 1589, when the four-year deadline for reconciliation with the Church of Rome expired; they had clearly postponed emigration in the hope that the changing fortunes of the Dutch Revolt would bring the city back into the Protestant fold. In 1589 the Protestant community even tried to persuade Governor Farnese to extend his clemency period with another year, but the plan was blocked by Torrentius.18

For Protestant painters the religious dilemma was all the more acute. As the evangelical movement had spread across the Low Countries in the first half of the sixteenth century, the teachings of Luther and Calvin had enjoyed particular popularity among the Antwerp artisans and artists.19 By 1585 the painting community numbered at least 33 Calvinists, 23 Lutherans and one Anabaptist (57 Protestants in total), as opposed to 36 Catholics – unfortunately, the religious convictions of the other 128 painters are unknown.20 As we shall see, most Protestant painters indeed left Antwerp in the wake of the capture, but this decision was not self-evident, as a significant group stayed behind and converted to Catholicism. Out of the 31 painters who remained in Antwerp and whose religious convictions are known, 17 were Catholic, but the other 14 consisted of 4 Calvinists and 10 Lutherans. The percentage of Lutheran painters staying in Antwerp was thus considerably higher than that of Calvinist painters (32.3 versus 12.9 per cent), which may well have been the result of the more lenient attitude of Farnese towards the Lutheran community. In the fall of 1585, for instance, he ordered the new city council to purge the Antwerp civic militia of all Calvinists and Anabaptists, but the Lutheran militiamen were exempted.21

Protestant painters who remained in Antwerp probably decided very early on that converting was preferable to emigration. When in 1585 Catholic militia officers conducted house-to-house visits to inquire into the religious convictions of their militiamen, drawing up extensive registers for the imminent purge, some men were marked as both Calvinist and Catholic. A closer look at the painters who received this ambivalent label shows that they were in fact Calvinists who remained in Antwerp and eventually converted to Catholicism.22 They included the chest painter Nicolaes Geerts, who was still active in Antwerp by 1607, and Jan Snellinck (1549–1638), who abjured his Calvinist beliefs and set up a thriving workshop that produced grand Counter-Reformation paintings, such as the Resurrection of Christ (1602) for the cathedral of Mechelen and a series of battle scenes for the archdukes Albrecht and Isabella.23 In April 1586 the Lutheran history painter Maarten de Vos (1532–1603) likewise admitted that although he had initially wished to settle in Germany, he had resolved to stay in Antwerp and convert to Catholicism ‘because he has a large family there, several adult daughters, many affairs, and moving would take some time.’24

One of the main reasons why painters decided to remain, even if they were Protestants, was that the urban economy soon showed encouraging signs of recovery. In April 1587 the States-General lifted the blockade of the river Scheldt, allowing merchants to resume their trade in exchange for a toll levied at the border fortress of Lillo or at one of the toll stations in the merchant towns of Zeeland. As a result, the river trade from Antwerp to Zeeland reached pre-Revolt levels already in 1588 and doubled in volume within a decade.25 The resumption of cross-border trade was a blessing for Antwerp painters, who could once more export their paintings abroad, a lucrative trade that had been a major pillar underneath the Antwerp art market prior to the siege. Precise figures for the decades after 1585 are lacking, but there is evidence that the art trade was picking up again. The single surviving Lillo toll register for these early years, dated November 1590, shows the merchant Jaques de Guytere passing two casks of paintings and drawings, and Mattheeus Franssen paying toll on a case of paintings bound for Zeeland.26

In fact, it was the export of cheap, mass-produced paintings that helped Antwerp painters to overcome the crisis of 1585: despite the exodus of nearly half the population, painters could still sell their pictures to consumers abroad. The revival of the Antwerp art trade is most evident from the growing number of professional art dealers in the city. Nine of the painters included in the sample continued to trade in paintings after 1585, but they were joined by at least another seven dealers until 1600.27 The most prominent art dealer was Bartholomeus de Momper (1540–1598), who ran a permanent art gallery on the second floor of the Antwerp exchange, where art dealers could rent stalls to sell paintings. After the capture of Antwerp in 1585 De Momper struggled to find tenants, but not because trade was dwindling. On the contrary, in 1595 he complained to the city burgomasters that art dealers were running a flourishing business in the downstairs galleries of the exchange, where they freely exhibited their paintings ‘not just on weekdays, but also and principally on Sundays and feast days’, thus avoiding the expensive stalls rented out by De Momper.28 These dealers mostly sold inexpensive pictures. When in 1599 the Mechelen-born art dealer Pauwels van der Borcht passed away in Antwerp, the inventory of his shop comprised no less than 466 water-colour paintings, which were considerably cheaper to produce than oil paintings. The notary even listed seven rolls of cloth, each of which contained multiple landscapes, suggesting that these were fairly similar, mass-produced scenes. Van der Borcht’s total stock was valued at 985 guilders, an average of just two guilders per landscape.29

Another indication that the art market was rebounding was the growing number of apprentices registering with the Antwerp guild of St. Luke (fig. 1). Although there was a clear dip in the years 1585–1587, from 1588 onwards registrations rose again, in particular the number of apprentices. The parents of promising young painters clearly saw possibilities on the art market; otherwise they would never have set their children on an uncertain career. Among these pupils was the 14-year-old Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), who would become the epitome of Antwerp Baroque painting in the early seventeenth century, but who was still an artistic nobody in 1591, the year he began his training in the workshop of the landscape painter Tobias Verhaeght.30 In fact, from 1585 onwards Antwerp masters were taking on more apprentices than ever before, which led to a rapid growth in the size of their workshops. Between 1570 and 1585 a total of 67 apprentices trained with 42 masters (an average of 1.6), but in the years 1586–1600 this ratio changed significantly, as 183 new apprentices were taken in by 70 masters (2.6 on average). Indeed, prior to the capture of Antwerp the overwhelming majority of master painters had just one or two pupils working for them, and workshops of more than three apprentices were extremely rare.31 Yet from 1586 onwards large workshops became a regular feature of the Antwerp art market: Adam van Noort (1562–1641), for instance, had no less than 15 pupils working for him until 1600, while another 22 painters took on at least three apprentices, including Juliaen Teniers (nine pupils), Jan Snellinck (eight), Tobias Verhaecht (seven), Philips Lisaert III (six), and David Remeus (also six).

Fig. 1 

Inscription of new painters in the Antwerp guild of St. Luke, 1570–1599

Source: Liggeren (n. 4), vol. I, p. 239–410. The registers for the years 1578 and 1583 have been lost; no painters registered in 1576.

The expanding Antwerp workshops not only suggest that demand for art was on the rise, but also that the production of paintings was taking place on a much larger, almost industrialized scale, as masters were using apprentices as a cheap workforce to increase their output and produce many similar pictures.32 Even masters catering to the higher end of the art market relied on this strategy, such as the brothers Ambrosius Francken I (1544–1618) and Frans Francken (1542–1616), who had their most talented pupils assist them in the production of copies.33 A new ordinance issued by the Antwerp guild of St. Luke in 1586 is revealing of the economic potential of apprentices: they were to work for their masters without any form of remuneration for at least three years, and both in summer and winter they laboured from six o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock in the evening.34 By 1608 the Antwerp export industry had become so successful that the Dutch Republic was awash with cheap, low-quality paintings, prompting guilds all over Holland to protest against the import of what they called ‘Brabant rubbish’.35 For instance, the painter and art dealer Jacques van der Lamen (1584–1626) had begun his career in Antwerp, but by 1608 he was living in Amsterdam, where he sold 74 anonymous paintings in a public auction.36

The economic recovery of Antwerp went hand in hand with the re-Catholisation of the city, which also created new opportunities for painters. After 1585 many expelled clergymen returned home, as well as Catholic families who had fled the Calvinist-controlled city in the early 1580s. Imbued with the vibrant Tridentine Catholicism of the Jesuits they had encountered abroad, these returning exiles were promoted to key positions in the Antwerp city government and founded Marian confraternities, which pushed for the restoration of works of art that had been destroyed under Calvinist rule.37 It is telling that already on 9 September 1585, just weeks after the capture of Antwerp, the new burgomasters ordered the restoration of all destroyed altar pieces in the city’s churches, chapels and convents.38 The artistic effort was immense: by 1590 bishop Torrentius had re-consecrated no less than 72 altars throughout the city, most of which had to be refurbished with new paintings.39 The city cathedral in particular required a substantial make-over. Over the course of the sixteenth century the Antwerp guilds had rivalled each other in erecting sumptuous altars, but as these had virtually all disappeared during the Calvinist regime, the guilds commissioned 30 new paintings to replace them. Such commissions provided lucrative work for famous artists like Maarten de Vos, the Francken brothers, Rafael Coxie, and Crispijn van den Broeck, but also for some lesser-known figures like Pieter Balten, Bernard de Rijckere, Jan Snellinck, and Gillis Mostaert.40 The first altar to be completed in the Antwerp cathedral was that of the joint guild of schoolmasters and soap-boilers. In March 1586 the deans contracted Frans Francken to deliver a triptych depicting Jesus among the doctors, to be finished in four months for the generous sum of 240 guilders (fig. 2).41

Fig. 2 

Frans Francken, Jesus among the doctors, 1586, Antwerp, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Kathedraal © Lukas – Art in Flanders, photo Dominique Provost.

Yet not all Antwerp painters were highly skilled artists who were able to deliver lavish altar pieces. The painting community was in fact highly diverse, including both high-end artists and run-of-the-mill painters of whom no work has been preserved, as well as artists commonly referred to as grofschilders or kladschilders, who decorated houses and furniture or painted signs, plates and playing cards. Out of the 81 painters who remained in Antwerp, 49 produced oil paintings, but only 21 of them have left behind any work. The other 32 artists were either house painters (at least seven documented cases) or humble painters who produced cheap, low-quality pictures that have not survived the ages or are now among the many anonymous works of art from this period.

Faced with a crisis on the art market, it is possible that many of these lower-end painters began catering to different segments of the art market. When in the 1660s fierce competition and dwindling demand for paintings put Dutch artists in a similar position, many oil painters in Leiden instead became interior decorators, painting ceilings, furniture and signs. Whereas the number of oil painters in the Leiden guild of St. Luke steadily fell after 1660, the number of huisschilders thus grew exponentially.42 Unfortunately, the Antwerp guild registers do not systematically inform us about the evolving careers of painters, but scattered evidence indicates that Antwerp artists also responded to the crisis of the 1580s by redirecting their artistic career. For example, Samuel Engelant had trained with the history painter Antoni de Palermo before joining the guild as a master in 1581, but in 1584 he had run up a debt of 400 guilders. To survive the crisis he instead became huisschilder.43 Likewise, Cornelis Nuyts initially registered as a tafereelmaker (painter of pictures), but in 1588 he appeared in the guild accounts as a merchant in paint, alongside four other dealers in pigments.44 Even for struggling painters, then, the Antwerp art market still offered possibilities to make ends meet.

Painters on the move

A minority of painters did leave Antwerp after 1585. Out of the 221 artists in the sample, at least 60 moved to other cities (see table 1). They were not the first to leave, as a handful of painters had already emigrated during the first stages of the Dutch Revolt. After an iconoclast fury had swept across the Low Countries in 1566, the Duke of Alba (1507–1582) had forcibly restored Habsburg rule at the head of a 10,000-strong army, persecuting image-breakers and rebels before the Council of Troubles. In response to these policies some 3,000 Antwerp inhabitants – mostly Protestants and rebels sympathising with the Prince of Orange – fled to England and Germany, including at least 20 painters.45 In 1567, for example, the Lutheran painter Lucas van Valckenborch (1535–1597) obtained a passport to visit the fairs of Cologne, but the authorities soon discovered that he had taken all his furniture with him and emigrated to Aachen. In 1570 he was joined by his brother Marten (1534–1612), the Calvinist painter Hans Vredeman de Vries (1526–1609), and Hendrick van Steenwijck (c. 1550–1603). Yet all these men returned to Antwerp when the fortunes of the Dutch Revolt changed with the capture of Brielle in 1572 and the recall of Alba in 1573. Already in 1572 Vredeman de Vries wrote to the deans of the Antwerp guild of St. Luke to ask for an attestation testifying to his good behaviour during the troubles, and by 1575 he was back in Antwerp, just as the Valckenborch brothers, followed by Van Steenwijck in 1577.46

The capture of Antwerp in 1585 provoked a second migration wave, made up mostly of Protestant artists (fig. 3). Out of the 34 departing painters whose religious convictions are known, only three were Catholic; the majority were Calvinist (21 painters), Lutheran (nine), or Anabaptist (one). As shown in figure 3, emigration peaked in 1586. Although some artists had left prior to the siege, the number of departures was comparatively low in the early 1580s – only in 1582 did the deans of the guild of St. Luke remark that a handful of painters had ‘left because of the bad times’.47 The year 1585 saw a clear upsurge in departures, but the real peak was in 1586, when 16 painters left Antwerp. Smaller groups followed in subsequent years, such as in 1589, when it became clear that Governor Farnese would not extend his deadline for reconciliation with the Church of Rome. These trends mirror those of the Antwerp population at large: most people emigrated either in 1585–1586 or in 1589.48

Fig. 3 

Painters leaving Antwerp, 1580–1600

Source: appendix.

The reason why most painters did not leave prior to the capture of Antwerp, or even directly in 1585, was the difficulty of settling their affairs, in particular the sale of property. In the wake of the capture house prices and rents had dropped by almost 50 per cent, which meant that property could only be sold at a serious loss, making emigration more difficult.49 Those who left Antwerp already in 1585 and 1586 were therefore painters who rented a house or had little possessions they needed to sell before they could leave. Painters who owned a house generally stayed in town or only left in later years. Matthijs de Musser, for instance, owned a house near the Eiermarkt, so he probably only moved to Amsterdam in 1590, when he married Truycken Verhagen, also from Antwerp.50 Other painters entrusted their property to converted family members, who could rent out or sell their house when the real estate market would recover. The Calvinist painter and art dealer François Provost left Antwerp in the summer of 1589, but before his departure he empowered his son Peter to manage his property.51 We know, however, that few Antwerp painters owned a house, which meant that emigration should have been an easy option.52 Many nonetheless had possessions they needed to either sell or transport, in particular their stock of paintings. In January 1585, for instance, witnesses testified that they had seen landscape painter Gillis van Coninxloo (1544–1607) ‘packing many goods and chests, and sending them away’; by the end of the year he had left for Middelburg, before settling in Germany.53

The migration wave of the 1580s differed from the previous wave of 1566–1572 in two important respects: not only was it much larger in scope, the 60 painters who left also went into different directions. Whereas only eight artists went to England and the German Rhineland, the majority settled in the merchant towns of Holland and Zeeland, which had not figured as destinations during the previous emigration. Those who moved to Germany were precisely those painters who had already emigrated there after 1566, including Vredeman de Vries, the Valckenborch brothers and Van Steenwijck, although this time they settled in Frankfurt, which became an important centre for refugees from the Low Countries.54 Another second-time emigrant was Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (1519–1591). A Calvinist from Bruges, he had first left the Low Countries in 1568 to settle in London, after he was condemned for producing satirical prints against the pope and the Church of Rome. By 1577 he was back in Antwerp, leaving behind his wife Susanna and his son, the future painter Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561–1635). It comes as no surprise that after the capture of Antwerp Marcus the Elder again emigrated to London to join his family and pursue his artistic career.55 These migration patterns suggest that the existence of professional and familial ties were a key factor in determining where painters went. Artists who had previously emigrated had gained knowledge of foreign art markets and had built up a network of family and friends abroad, which facilitated emigration along the same routes after 1585. Indeed, migration historians have shown that social networks have a big impact on the destination of migrants, who have to rely on relatives and friends already living abroad to provide them with aid, information and encouragement (also known as chain migration).56

Conversely, painters who first left Antwerp in the 1580s virtually all followed new routes, as the majority settled in the merchant cities of Holland and Zeeland, in particular Amsterdam (16 painters) and Middelburg (10 painters). The decision to move to Amsterdam may seem unsurprising from our current vantage point, as the city became one of the foremost artistic centres of the Golden Age, but in the sixteenth century it was still a backwater. While at least 221 painters were active in Antwerp between 1580 and 1585, Amsterdam numbered less than 20 painters, who had only organised themselves in a separate guild of St. Luke as late as 1579, together with the glaziers, sculptors, embroiderers, and tapestry makers.57

The small size of the Amsterdam painting community indicates that the art market was of relatively little importance, geared mostly towards local consumption. Before the outbreak of the Revolt painters in Amsterdam mostly relied on commissions from the religious and urban elites, not on the open market, and they overwhelmingly produced religious scenes and portraits. Moreover, the iconoclast revolt that struck Amsterdam in 1566 and the take-over in 1578 by a Calvinist city government led to a dramatic drop in commissions, forcing painters to tap into private demand.58 According to the artist biographer Karel van Mander (1548–1606), the Amsterdam painter Pieter Pietersz. I (c. 1541–1603) had to abandon altar pieces and history scenes in favour of portraits, ‘because very few large-scale works were commissioned in his time.’59

Amsterdam, in other words, was a risky destination, but for Antwerp painters seeking to pursue their career it also offered new opportunities. To explain why they settled in Amsterdam we must look to other factors, in particular the changes that transformed the city and its art market in the closing decades of the sixteenth century. From 1585 onwards Amsterdam rapidly caught up with the artistic centres in the south thanks to the stream of refugees arriving from Flanders and Brabant. What had been a modest provincial town became a bustling metropolis, its population of around 27,000 inhabitants exploding to 60,000 by 1600.60 As the massive influx of manpower, skills and capital boosted the urban economy, purchasing power among the Amsterdam elites and middling classes grew accordingly, which in turn created new demand for art. This was especially true for the many Southerners, who were accustomed to buying paintings on the open market, especially still lifes and landscapes – genres that were hard to come by in Amsterdam, but which immigrant painters from Antwerp could supply.61 A strong indication that the demand of Southerners created new opportunities for immigrant painters is provided by the registers of auction sales held in Amsterdam. Between 1597 and 1619, 54 per cent of all buyers (141 out of 263) were immigrants from Flanders and Brabant, including 98 from Antwerp, whereas only 42 buyers (16 per cent) were native to Amsterdam. Among the cluster of 139 merchant buyers the percentage of Southerners even rose to 60.62

Amsterdam also offered immigrant painters an advantage over other Dutch cities. Precisely because the guild of St. Luke had been established only in 1579, its authority was less well-defined than in the more prominent artistic centres of Delft, Utrecht and Haarlem, where membership was carefully policed by the guild, and where outsiders were barred from the market unless they paid the required fees.63 Painters in Amsterdam nominally had to purchase guild membership and town citizenship, too, but the repeated warnings issued by the guild to persuade painters to register betray that many never did.64 Research on probate inventories also shows that outsiders entered the Amsterdam market more readily than elsewhere: whereas in Delft 60 per cent of all paintings were produced by local painters, and in Haarlem even 80 per cent, in Amsterdam this figure reached just 42.5 per cent.65

Still, in 1585 the decision to settle in Amsterdam was not a gambit that established Antwerp masters were willing to make; they preferred the well-trodden path leading to Germany or London. Second-rate painters who had little to lose, on the other hand, did move to Amsterdam. A closer look at the 16 painters who went there reveals that most of them are virtually unknown: only four have left behind painted work, namely Frans Boels, Hans Bol, Gillis Coignet and Hans Rem. It was only the second generation of painters – either born in the south or descended from immigrant parents – that was responsible for the phenomenal take-off in production, as well as for the emergence of new genres.66 The Antwerp painter Frans Badens I (c. 1549–1604) is a case in point. Badens had moved to Amsterdam with his family in 1585, but he remained a rather obscure artist whose work has not been preserved. His son Frans Badens II (1571–1618), on the other hand, became a highly successful and sought-after artist who introduced Italianate painting to Amsterdam, in particular the art of painting nude bodies that radiated a new sensuality.67

The second major destination for painters leaving Antwerp was Middelburg, a merchant town in the province of Zeeland. Although during the Golden Age the city lagged behind the towns of Holland, in the late sixteenth century it was a thriving artistic hub, which made moving there decidedly less risky. In fact, Middelburg had been closely linked to the major artistic centres in nearby Flanders and Brabant since the early sixteenth century. Just as in Amsterdam the guild of St. Luke numbered just a handful of painters prior to 1585, but this was due to the city’s close proximity to Antwerp, not because demand for art was lacking: much of the religious art commissioned by the Catholic churches and convents was imported from the south rather than produced locally.68 When in 1567 the Middelburg town council ordered the restoration and replacement of religious art that had been destroyed during the iconoclast revolt of 1566, most orders therefore went to Southern artists. For example, the Antwerp painter Huybrecht Beuckelaer (c. 1530-c. 1605) was commissioned to repaint the wings of two altar pieces in the Franciscan convent, while Christiaen van der Perre from Brussels was paid to deliver a Resurrection for the altar of the Fishmongers’ guild in the church of St. Martin.69

In contrast to Amsterdam, moreover, consumer demand for art was booming in Middelburg already prior to the arrival of Southern immigrants. Because of its strategic location in the Scheldt estuary the city had become an important trade hub on the route to Antwerp, creating a class of prosperous merchants and artisans that conspicuously spent its money on paintings, statues and silverware produced in Flanders and Brabant. A sample of 24 Middelburg inventories from 1567 demonstrates that on average they possessed 12 works of art, a figure close to that of Antwerp households in the period 1565–1585, where the average number of paintings alone amounted to 12. Moreover, the Middelburg inventories contain not just religious scenes, but also profane themes such as landscapes that were clearly produced in Antwerp.70 Another indication that the art market was supplied by outside artists was the registration in 1579 in the Middelburg guild of St. Luke of the Antwerp painters Hans Willems and Daniel van Queborn (c. 1555-c. 1605), together with Balthasar Flessiers (c. 1550–1626) from Brussels.71 All three men would settle in Middelburg after 1585, but the reason they became guild members six years earlier had much to do with guild regulations: in 1539 the Middelburg guild of St. Luke had ordered that only registered members could sell works of art, a measure that was carefully policed, given the regular fines handed out to tradesmen from the south.72 The Antwerp painter Crispijn van den Broeck (1524-c. 1590) likewise came over in 1584, writing to the Antwerp burgomasters that ‘he had left for Middelburg in Zeeland, to his children who had been living there for a long time, and [that he] had taken up a large painting commission.’73

Painters from Antwerp, in other words, were already familiar with the art market of Middelburg, which meant that relocating their workshop was a well-considered career move rather than a leap of faith, as was very much the case with artists who moved to Amsterdam. Moreover, the exodus from Flanders and Brabant in the 1580s considerably expanded consumer demand for art in Middelburg and thus created new opportunities for painters to pursue their career. In 1576 the city numbered a modest 7,000 inhabitants, but as a result of mass immigration Middelburg boasted some 18,000 people in 1600. Most newcomers had fled the captured cities of Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp: out of the 2,429 people who purchased citizenship between 1580 and 1594, an impressive 1,822 (75 per cent) came from the south.74 Among these immigrants were many well-to-do families who had already built up extensive art collections, but who continued to buy paintings after their arrival. Cornelis Monincx (†1618), for instance, a Protestant merchant from Ostend who settled in Middelburg around 1585, bought a landscape from Gillis van Conincxloo.75 And as late as 1612, merchant Balthasar van Vlierden (1552–1615) had his family in Middelburg portrayed by Salomon Mesdach, a second-generation painter whose Anabaptist parents had fled from Flanders (fig. 4). The Van Vlierden family was also of Flemish descent: Balthasar van Vlierden was a Protestant merchant and burgomaster from Antwerp who had moved to Middelburg with his wife Catharina in the 1580s, becoming one of the first governors of the Dutch East India Company. Their daughter Gillina subsequently married Guillaume Sweerts, another Southern émigré – they are portrayed on the right with their four children.76

Fig. 4 

Salomon Mesdach, Portrait of Guillaume Sweerts, his wife Gillina van Vlierden, their four children and her parents Balthasar van Vlierden and Catharina Nieuwels, 1612, The Hague, Haags Historisch Museum, 1922–0068-sch.

It was not just the Middelburg elite that purchased art; the flourishing art trade suggests that paintings also sold well to the lower and middling classes. Much of this trade was carried out inside the local exchange (Beurs), constructed in 1583 following the example of Antwerp, where, as we have seen, the exchange also functioned as a hub for art dealers. Apparently the Middelburg art trade was so lively that by 1611 the other merchants protested that it interfered with their own business, prompting the burgomasters to ban the sale of paintings during regular opening hours.77 Dealers included the Flemish-born painter Ambrosius Bosschaert I (1573–1621), who in 1612 exported ‘a large quantity of beautiful paintings’ to England, while the next year he sold works by different masters to the Amsterdam art dealer Abraham Decker, for the phenomenal sum of 2,100 guilders.78 Yet by far the most important dealer in Middelburg was Melchior Wijntgis, whose stock numbered over 160 paintings by 1618, including works by Bosschaert and Van Coninxloo.79

The proximity of Middelburg to Antwerp also offered immigrant painters another advantage over the cities in Holland: they could easily return home. The lifting of the blockade of the river Scheldt in 1587 not only allowed the trade in artworks to be resumed, refugees from Antwerp could also travel back to visit family and friends – by boat the journey lasted just a few hours. The passenger registers of the border fortress at Lillo reveal a lively going back and forth. In August 1604, for instance, Ambrosius Bosschaert visited Antwerp in the company of his son-in-law Balthasar van Ast, returning 20 days later.80 Like so many who had left after 1585, emigrant painters such as Bosschaert considered their departure as an interlude, hoping they could return home when the Southern provinces would be reconquered by the States-General and Calvinist worship restored. Gillis van Coninxloo had left Antwerp in 1585, but he never lost hope that ‘when we shall have the right to live freely and exercise the Reformed religion in the city of Antwerp’, he could go back.81 Likewise, Balthasar Flessiers had moved to Middelburg before settling in The Hague in 1586, but a decade later he still owned a house in Brussels, leaving open the possibility of return.82

Bishop Torrentius even believed that the desire among Antwerp emigrants to return home was so strong that he could persuade Protestant refugees to convert to Catholicism. He therefore urged the Antwerp city authorities not to confiscate the possessions of absent Protestants, as an incentive for refugees to return.83 Many apparently did, because in 1589 the papal nuncio Ottavio Mirto Frangipani (†1612) reported that ‘many heretics, who have left Antwerp and retreated to Middelburg, are forced by necessity to return with the intention to reconcile themselves.’84 Among them was the painter Crispijn van den Broeck, who had gone to Middelburg in 1584, but who returned to Antwerp in 1586 to work as a draughtsman for the Plantin firm. In fact, Van den Broeck had already produced book illustrations for Plantin in the 1570s, while he also owned a house in Antwerp – ties that may well have persuaded him to return.85 A similar example is that of the painter Hans van den Bemden; although he had settled in Middelburg in 1587, he eventually returned to Antwerp, where he took in an apprentice in 1610 and worked together with his son Gaspar.86


Examining how Antwerp painters coped with the crisis of the 1580s reveals a wider range of career strategies than just emigration. Whereas scholarship has often stressed the profound crisis on the Antwerp art market and the subsequent artistic emigration wave to the Dutch Republic, a prosopographical analysis of the Antwerp painting community shows that many artists actually stayed in the South rather than emigrate. This reminds us that in early modern Europe, migration never was the default option in times of crisis. Most people preferred to weather out the economic or religious storm at home, rather than risk an uncertain future elsewhere. In the case of Antwerp, moreover, demand for Counter-Reformation artworks after 1585 proved an unexpected boon for painters, especially those catering to the upper segments of the art market. Others managed to survive the crisis by relying on cheap apprentices and the export of mass-produced paintings, or by becoming a kladschilder. Focusing on the painters who did leave, it turns out that established masters mostly followed the well-trodden path to London, Germany, or nearby Middelburg, because existing ties of commerce and kinship between Antwerp and these destinations offered some assurance that they could pursue their career. By contrast, only a minority of painters took the risk of settling in Amsterdam, which in 1585 was still an artistic backwater compared to Antwerp. Few among these immigrant painters succeeded in making a name for themselves; it was only the second generation of painters, who had left Antwerp as children or who had been born in the North, that contributed to the phenomenal take-off in production and the diversity of Golden Age painting.

These findings also reveal another misconception: the notion that the Dutch Republic and the Southern Netherlands were different artistic realms. Because previous scholarship has focussed almost exclusively on either the migration of painters to Holland or the upswing of Counter-Reformation art in Antwerp, it has merely reinforced the idea that the North and South were incommensurable entities. Although the Dutch Revolt would indeed tear the Low Countries apart, producing two separate polities, their inhabitants still shared the same cultural space. In the eyes of Karel van Mander, there existed no such thing as a ‘Dutch’ or ‘Flemish’ artist: in his Schilder-Boeck (1604) he simply referred to them as ‘our famous Netherlandish painters’.87 Recent scholarship has likewise called for a more integrated approach towards these supposedly distinct artistic traditions, arguing that the North and South remained very much tied together throughout the seventeenth century.88 Exploring the career strategies of Antwerp painters again drives home the message that the North and South should be studied in conjunction. Painters continuously moved between the cultural centres of the Netherlands – and even beyond – to pursue their career, whilst maintaining ties with those who stayed behind, just as their works of art made their way across long distances. Rather than two autonomous spheres, then, we must conceive of the Low Countries as Karel van Mander did: as a shared cultural space thriving on its many interconnections.