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The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters

The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters
Schouburg I PlateTitleprint with Otto van Veen.jpg
Title page of the Schouburg with a portrait of Otto van Veen
AuthorArnold Houbraken
Original titleDe groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen
SubjectArtist biographies
PublisherArnold Houbraken
Publication date

The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters, or De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, as it was originally known in Dutch, is a series of artist biographies with engraved portraits written by the 18th-century painter Arnold Houbraken. It was published in three volumes as a sequel to Karel van Mander's own list of biographies known as the Schilder-boeck. The first volume appeared in 1718, and was followed by the second volume in 1719, the year Houbraken died. The third and last volume was published posthumously by Houbraken's wife and children in 1721. This work is considered to be a very important source of information on 17th-century artists of the Netherlands. The Schouburg is listed as one of the 1000 most important works in the Canon of Dutch Literature from the Middle Ages to today.[1]

Background and influence

The Schouburg was not the first sequel to Karel van Mander's work. Various authors had attempted to illustrate Van Mander's work and in 1649, Jan Meyssen published Image de divers hommes in imitation of Anthony van Dyck's Iconography. Cornelis de Bie published his Het Gulden Cabinet in 1662, André Félibien published his Entretiens sur les vies et sur les ouvrages des plus excellents peintres anciens et modernes in 1666, and these were followed by Jacob von Sandrart's illustrated Teutsche Akademie in 1668. Houbraken was very familiar with Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, 1678, published by his teacher Samuel van Hoogstraten for students of art. Roger de Piles published L'Abrégé de la vie des peintres in the 1690s followed by Florent le Comte with his Cabinet des singularitez in 1699. As a gifted engraver, Houbraken wished to correct mistakes and omissions in these earlier works, while updating biographies with engraved portraits of artists. All of these works were used as sources for Houbraken and he mentions them in the first chapter of his first volume.

The Schouburg was published in three volumes, the first of which was simply meant as an addendum to Karel van Mander's work, and listed about 200 artists born between 1466 (starting with Erasmus) and 1613 (ending with Jacques van Artois) that had been omitted or whose lives extended beyond Van Mander's 1604 publication date. The popularity of this volume was such that a second volume was prepared immediately, while plans were made to continue the project up to the period in which Houbraken was writing at the start of the 18th century.

While leaning heavily on the sources already mentioned, Houbraken also consulted local history books of various cities in the Netherlands. Other, unpublished sources for his material came from various contacts via his professional network, mostly members of St. Luke Guilds in Holland. He listed many men who became members of the Bentvueghels group in Rome while on their Grand Tour, but he also listed most of the men in a competency list drawn up by Vincent van der Vinne before he died in 1702. Houbraken kept to a system of importance where capitals meant very important, and lower case were honorable mentions. Though the capitalized names were meant for the index, the index of the first volume was far from complete at the time of publication. A later edition of all three books in 1756 contains an improved index and this book is now available on line in the Digital library for Dutch literature.

Volume I

The engraved portraits included as illustrations in Volume I are below, followed by the artists listed in order of appearance in the text. The first illustration is of Houbraken himself.

Media related to Schouburg I at Wikimedia Commons

Volume II

The engraved portraits included as illustrations in Volume II are below, followed by the artists listed in order of appearance in the text.

Media related to Schouburg II at Wikimedia Commons

Volume III

The engraved portraits included as illustrations in Volume III are below, followed by the artists listed in order of appearance in the text.

Media related to Schouburg III at Wikimedia Commons

Notable omissions

The absence from Houbraken's work of several painters who are now much more highly regarded than very many painters he considered noteworthy, is an interesting feature of the work, and reveals changes in taste since his time; the most notorious omission is Jan Vermeer, who is mentioned once in passing. One must not forget however, that Houbraken himself died before publishing the final work, and he mentions again and again the impossibility of a complete list. In his first volume he includes painters that he complained were oversights by Karel van Mander, who he regarded as his greatest example. He highly respected all artist biographers who came before him, such as Sandrart, de Bie, and de Lairesse. In fact, Houbraken was quite keen to include painters that he thought were overlooked before him, and was quite thorough in his endeavors. Therefore, his omissions are equally the omissions of previous biographers, though it is Houbraken who receives all the blame. Unfortunately we don't know the exact state of his book at the time of his death, but his son Jacob, his daughter Antonina, and his wife all helped to patch things up for publication, and it is quite possible that their own opinions slipped into the finished work. In general, Houbraken tends to follow the contemporary prejudices of the hierarchy of genres and undervalue landscapists, marine artists and painters of still life. One can also speak of certain prejudices of the Houbraken family. These were in order:

  • Family dynasties: All painters who made up a family dynasty received extra space in the book. More space was given to the founder of the dynasty than to any other member (note that Houbraken considered himself the founder of his own family dynasty). An example is that though Rachel Ruysch was the most famous painter of her family, Houbraken devotes more space to her grandfather Pieter Post and his brother Frans. Similarly, though Wouter Crabeth II was the most famous painter of the family, Houbraken devotes more space to his illustrious heritage in Gouda, the glass painters Dirk and Wouter.
  • Engravers: Houbraken had a business of his own in biographical engravings, and his large family probably all helped in the business, with his son and daughter helping with the oval portraits. Houbraken was quick to realize the importance of reprints, and used them whenever possible for art provenance. He highly respected good engravings. Therefore he was heavily prejudiced towards artists who were also good draftsmen and engravers, such as Rembrandt and the Visschers. He includes also notes about various publishers and engravers, who did not paint at all.
  • Rome: Houbraken had great respect for all artists who took the trouble and overcame many hardships to travel to Rome. He went to great pains to add entries for the entire list of painters mentioned in a poem about the Bentvueghels.
  • Flattery: As a Mennonite, Houbraken would have been against flattery; however, he writes again and again of the importance of flattering one's patrons in his books, and a recurring theme is when an artist fell onto bad times because he failed to flatter his patron. This type of artist is admired by Houbraken as a sort of "martyr to the artist's cause". Examples of flatterers that Houbraken deprecates are Anthony van Dyck and Sir Peter Lely followers, and his omissions speak for themselves if we note famous portrait painters of his day such as Adriaen Hanneman, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck and Thomas de Keyser. Similarly, though architecture was considered one of the highest genre's, the popular "family portrait with a view of the house or garden" was omitted as a genre entirely from Houbraken's praise, since this just showed off the wealth of the sitters. Thus landscape-portraitists were often omitted or deprecated, such as Hendrik van Steenwijk II and his wife.
  • Religion: Certainly Houbraken included artists of all religions in his book, but we can say that Mennonites are over-represented (see his story on the Mennonite martyr Jan Woutersz van Cuyck), while Catholics are under-represented. These were the De Grebbers, the De Brays, the Ruisdael family, Jan Vermeer, Adriaen Coorte, Adriaen Hanneman, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Hendrick Dubbels, Pieter Anthonisz. van Groenewegen, Meindert Hobbema, and others.

Other notorious omissions are Jan van de Cappelle, Judith Leyster, Jan Wynants, Jacobus Mancadan, Hendrick Avercamp, and others.[2]


Translated, the title of the book is Theatre of Painters and Paintresses, indicating that Houbraken wrote about women painters, or schilderessen. However, the list of women he included in the book is really quite short. Though he included short biographies of very many painters who were closely related to women painters, the only paintresses he included by name were: Artemisia Gentileschi, Anna Francisca de Bruijns, Mayken Verhulst, Anna Maria van Schurman, Margaretha van Godewijk, Maria de Grebber (sister of Pieter de Grebber), Maria Potter, Alida Withoos, Catharina Oostfries (from a glaspainting family, married glasspainter Claes van der Meulen), Maria van Oosterwijk, Geertgen Wyntges (who he mentions as being the servant of Maria van Oosterwijk), Anna Katrina, Catharina Rozee (1632–82), Adriana Spilberg (daughter of Johannes Spilberg), Rachel Ruysch, the three sisters Anna Maria van Thielen, Françoise Katharina van Thielen, and Maria Theresa van Thielen, Marie Duchatel, Diana Glauber, Maria Sybilla Merian, Margaretha Wulfraet, and Johanna Koerten Blok. Of these, he included illustrations of only three women: Schurman, Merian, and Koerten-Blok. Houbraken also mentioned two poetesses; Gesina Brit and Catharina Questiers.


  1. ^ Website of the Basic Library of the dbnl, the section on the Golden Age (in Dutch)
  2. ^ Vermeer, Ruysch, and Leyster were mentioned, but only briefly. The subject is dealt with in Arnold Houbraken's "Groote Schouburgh" and the Canon of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting, by Bart Cornelis, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 26, No. 3 (1998), pp. 144-161, JSTOR

External links