Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait and Seventeenth Century Dutch Genre Painting

By Courtney A. Lynch

A piece by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, entitled The Pets, has recently entered the Hawthorne collection. In it, a young girl stands in the center of the frame, surrounded by her ‘pets’; to her left, a young deer inquisitively turns towards her, while around her feet rabbits munch on generous fronds of lettuce, baby chicks investigate the scene, and a calm young goat watches on. The vitality with which the animals are portrayed gives the painting depth and charm, as if one can hear the munching of the rabbits or the quiet chirping of the chicks. Painted in warm brown tones with delicate brushstrokes, Tait’s confident hand sets the scene awash in a luminous light that creates a sense of harmony and contentment among its actors. Though throughout his oeuvre Tait painted the idyllic scenes hunting and wildlife that emerged as popular in nineteenth century America, one cannot also help but see the influences of styles and themes past. Most clearly represented in The Pets are distinct influences of Dutch genre painting, not only in aesthetic but also in temporal circumstance.

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819 – 1905) The Pets, 1859 Oil on canvas Collection of Hawthorne Fine Art
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819 – 1905)
The Pets, 1859
Oil on canvas
Collection of Hawthorne Fine Art

The history of the term ‘genre’ is complicated, but for our purposes we can consider it to be scenes painted from daily life. It was in the early sixteenth century that painting began to diverge from the religious, historical or portraiture commissions of the past. By the seventeenth century, painters in the Netherlands had begun to specialize in certain types of scenes such as landscapes and still lives. With upper-class commissions greatly reduced following the Reformation, and the middle class rising in social and economic status, painters met the needs of their patrons by gearing their work towards decorative – rather than commemorative – purposes. In general, the painting that emerged during these centuries was intent on realistic representation, and this new decorative impetus meant that un-commissioned landscapes, still lives, and genre paintings were in demand.

Since interest was high among their middle class consumers, a certain degree of conventionality emerged among genre painters. Dutch genre painting in seventeenth century can be generally divided into several groups: the koortegaardje, or, the guardroom scene; the geselschapje, or, friendly company; the bordeeltjen, or, the brothel scene; the boerengezelschapje, or, the peasant group; and the buitenpartij, or, the outdoor scene. Artists such as Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu and Gerard ter Borch were only several of many to exemplify these profitable and highly sought after conventions.

Tait’s The Pets, in particular, not only relates to Dutch genre painting in style – with muted tones, a central composition, and the suggestion of everyday life in the lower class – but in circumstance. The development of Tait’s aesthetic in mid-nineteenth century America mirrors the emergence of seventeenth century Dutch genre painting in its social, cultural and economic environment.

In the years approaching the American Civil War, American artists were on the rise. The middle class was experiencing an economic boost through industrialization and city growth, and thereby began to develop a more sophisticated taste. Tati’s particular brand of painting and subject matter – that of sporting and game – became immensely popular, as new middle-class patrons regarded hunting and fishing as gentlemanly endeavors. With an increased public interest in art, a confluence of patrons, and the emergence of art dealers and middlemen who would eventually form the American art market, these art pieces quickly became status symbols.

Eventually, when attitudes towards sporting changed in the latter half of the nineteenth century and subesquently depressed the market for such pictures, Tait shifted his focus to scenes of domestic animals and countryside pastorals. These pieces, which most often featured sheep and cows, again were met positively on the market, as they conjured peaceful and serene references for members of a now industrialized, urban society.

The Pets, although not a sporting piece, provides a complement to Tait’s oeuvre, incorporating the wildlife of his popular mid-career works while foreshadowing his later works of pastoral idylls and domestic animals. It is quite similar to the aesthetic and trope of another early piece, The Reprimand. Ah! You Naughty Fawn, You Have Been Eating the Flowers Again (1852), from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, which uses a similar dynamic.

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait The Reprimand. Ah! You Naughty Fawn, You Have Been Eating the Flowers Again, 1852 Oil on canvas Collection of the Brooklyn Museum
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait
The Reprimand. Ah! You Naughty Fawn, You Have Been Eating the Flowers Again, 1852
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Brooklyn Museum

While intellectually meeting similar social and cultural needs as genre painting had done two centuries before in the Netherlands, The Pets also harbors a distinct aesthetic reference to these Dutch fore-bearers. Tait has treated this no-doubt fictional scene with care and delicacy, with a great attempt at realism. Pictorial space is divided carefully and treated with a convincing spatial representation, while the figures are arranged to tell a story. The upward gesture of the deer, the gaze of the girl, the shape of the canvas and the bottom-heavy proliferation of animals all form a compositional unity that holds the gaze of the viewer and sets a narration in motion, reminiscent of the later and more sophisticated genre paintings of the established Dutch style. Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s The Pets is a unique piece that encapsulates the cultural depth of mid-nineteenth century America and a variety of long-resonating art historical influences.

Should you be interested in learning more about these or any other pieces in the collection, we invite you to make an appointment at our Manhattan showroom, or visit us online at http://www.hawthornefineart.com.

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