Sex Jokes: Humor in Art in the Dutch Golden Age (museum)

Edition 28 September 2017, by Benjamin Roberts

When Elmer Kolfin, the professor at the University of Amsterdam started researching humor in the seventeenth century, he came to an astonishing conclusion. In comparison to other countries, the Dutch produced a staggering amount of art with humorous undertones. “That’s one of the reasons for the upcoming exhibition ‘Humor in the Dutch Golden Age’”. According to art historians there was definitely a market for the painting genre among Dutch middle class city-dwellers in the seventeenth century. The exhibition, which opens on November 11th and runs until March18, 2018 in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, features more than 60 works from the Netherlands and abroad including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London.

Painters that especially worked in Haarlem, around the school of Frans Hals, became specialists incorporating humoristic aspects into their works, which is one of the reasons the Frans Hals Museum is hosting the show. Kolfin explains, “When painters portrayed themes such as sexuality, children, farmers, drinking, or even self portraits they seemed to always integrate humor into the scene”. Viewers in the seventeenth immediately picked up the punch line, usually first with an innuendo of a word or object that contemporaries usually knew but now, have been lost in the course of time. In Rembrandt’s painting, The Salesman of Spectacles (1624) (Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden) the artist elaborated on the genre of the five senses (sight), but also included a little humor. According to Kolfin, “Once the public saw the painting, they understood the play of words because the seventeenth-century Dutch, the expression ‘to put spectacles on someone’ meant to cheat them or make them look really ridiculous”.

Besides the slapstick humor, paintings with sexual innuendos were especially popular. One of the exhibition’s gems is a work by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) (St. Louis Museum of Art) where a young woman holds a small medallion in her hand that illustrates the backside of a naked woman. Under the medallion are inscribed: “Wie kent mijn naers van afteren’ [who knows my ass from behind]. Kolfin adds, “despite prevailing notions that the Dutch were country of moralists in the seventeenth century, they still could appreciate a good joke”.