By Carly Benedict
Historic Huguenot Street is currently showing the fascinating exhibit, Marking the Occasion: Dutch Silver Spoons from the Collection of George Way and Jonathan Z. Friedman. The exhibit celebrates the influence of Dutch culture on the Hudson Valley and in particular on the Huguenot settlers by commemorating the art of Dutch silver spoons from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Huguenots first arrived in the Dutch colony of New Netherland and settled in the town of Wiltwijck (today’s Kingston) before going on to found New Paltz. In this new Dutch environment, Huguenots were influenced by their culture and way of life. They probably came into contact with many forms of Dutch arts and crafts, including silver spoons like the ones displayed in the exhibition.
The importance of these skillfully crafted silver spoons in Dutch culture was great. They were given to commemorate important events like births, marriages, and even deaths. They were highly prized for their artistry but also for their symbol of wealth. For these reasons, the spoons were often used as heirlooms in families and passed down from generation to generation. This is how the silver spoons and their tradition made its way to the New World and to the Hudson Valley. Silver spoons were so important that they made appearances in other art forms, like painting. The exhibit features four contemporary Dutch paintings from the collection of Jonathan Z. Friedman that all feature people taking part in a meal in some way. These works give a glimpse into Dutch life during the 17th century and show the cultural context surrounding the spoons.
Dutch painting has a rich history of its own. During the 17th century, the Netherlands was experiencing a golden age. They had recently won their independence from Spain and were thriving economically and culturally. The Dutch were proud of their prosperity and expressed their feelings of pride in their many artistic traditions. Painting during this time took off and became a refined and highly respected craft. Artists honed their skills and made names for themselves among the social elite that funded and purchased many of their works.
Portraits and genre paintings, or paintings showing scenes of everyday life were particularly popular in the Netherlands. The paintings featured in the exhibit fall perfectly into this category of genre paintings. One of the paintings features an old woman eating a meal. It is called “A Frugal Repast” and was created by the Dutch painter Nicholas Maes. Maes lived from 1693 to 1691 during the Dutch Golden Age. He was a pupil of Rembrandt and began working in the famous artist’s studio in 1648. It is from Rembrandt that he learned to use dark shadows and glowing colors to evoke the feeling of a dramatic light. He mostly did domestic genre scenes, with his favorite subjects being women spinning, reading the Bible, and preparing a meal, like “A Frugal Repast”.
Much of Dutch painting, like the works of Nicholas Maes, seems ordinary and unassuming at first glance. On the surface they are depictions of things that people could have seen on any given day. It seems, when you look further, and really observe how the artists took such care to render these scenes and infuse them with vibrant colors and glowing light, they are really doing something bigger. They are capturing the extraordinary in the ordinary, the magnificence in the quiet. They serve to remind us that the scenes of everyday life are things of beauty that we should take time to appreciate instead of passing over them and taking them for granted.
Looking back at this time in history from today’s perspective, it seems the spoons are doing the exact same thing. On one hand, they were modeled after the utilitarian objects that people used to nourish themselves every day, but on the other hand they were crafted to be elaborate mementos of significant events and familial status. Although it may not have been their intended purpose, these spoons, in their very essence, commemorate the extraordinary lives that people lived every day. It is through this commemoration that we today can understand what life was like for these people that lived long ago.
This weekend, collector George Way will be on site for a champagne reception to discuss the history and significance of the collection. During the reception, guests will have the opportunity to handle the spoons that at on display and view them up-close.
“Nicolaes Maes.” Rijks Museum. Web. 8 December, 2016.
Wheelock, Arthur K. “Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century.” National Gallery of Art. Web. 8 December, 2016.
Historic Huguenot Street Celebrates Dutch Culture with Silver Spoon Exhibit. Historic Huguenot Street. N.p., 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.