Warren said some of the Dutch prints KAM acquired are not often collected by museums, even if they were made by prominent artists. Polemical images were often printed on broadsheets that would contain a large amount of text, so curators have seen them as more properly belonging to a library, not an art museum. But Warren and Seydl see the ways that visual culture and political culture are deeply connected through these works. To bring them to KAM, Warren wrote a successful application to the U. of I.’s John N. Chester Endowment Fund, which supported one-third of the total acquisitions.
“This is not a library collection. These are works by the finest artists in the 17th-century Netherlands working in the field of print,” Seydl said. “We were able to acquire a remarkable number for their quality and importance.”
Such Golden Age prints are often rarer than fine art prints of the period, said Brooks Rich, the associate curator of Old Master prints at the National Gallery of Art.
“Paradoxically, popular prints from this period were often produced in larger quantities but tend to survive in smaller numbers,” Rich said. “These prints were made for mass consumption, and they weren’t necessarily seen as something to collect.”
After being read, broadsheets might have been used to back the bindings of books or to line drawers or shelves, he said.
“Prints were part of everyday commerce and living in ways we don’t think of now. I think it’s important that museums collect them because they are a means to really understanding the ways that everyday people consumed information and art,” Rich said. “Prints could reach a lot of people in a very short amount of time for not very much money. Not everyone could afford to buy a painting, but they could often afford to buy a print that reproduced a painting or a penny print that produced satire or local news.
“There was such a broad range of uses and functions for prints, and they can be interpreted in so many different ways, so having a collection like this that includes overlooked popular prints is valuable for scholarship and our understanding of the period,” he said.
In addition to political propaganda and satire, the newly-acquired prints include views of the daily lives of women that depict their relative autonomy and independence in Dutch society. Other prints show images of Dutch naval power, trade, war and crime.
“We tend to think employing images for political satire is a relatively recent phenomenon. I think it’s important for folks to understand that it has a really long history and that this type of material was a critical part of the freedom of expression,” Seydl said.