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Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age

On view at PEMFebruary 27 – June 5, 2016

SALEM, MA – ThePeabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents an exhibition that draws on its world-renowned Asian export art collection to explore a fascinating and pivotal intersection of art, commerce and innovation. Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age features200 superlative works of art – paintings, textiles, ceramics, silver, lacquerware, furniture, jewelry and books – that reveal the transformative impact of Asian luxuries on Dutch art and life in the 17th century. The exhibition features loans from more than 60 collections worldwide, including treasures from the British, Swedish and Dutch royal households, as well as from museums and private collections in the Netherlands and throughout Europe and the United States.

Co-organized with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the exhibition offers new research and fresh perspectives on the Dutch Golden Age and will be on view at PEM, the exclusive U.S. venue, from February 27 through June 5, 2016.

Founded less than a year apart – in 1798 and 1799 –  the Rijksmuseum and PEM boast rich collections inextricably linked to early international trade. Salem, like Amsterdam, was a hub for ideas, commerce and culture, connecting its citizens to the wider world. America’s first global entrepreneurs established the East India Marine Society, the forerunner of PEM. These intrepid mariners and entrepreneurs sailed beyond the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn and considered the diverse objects of art and culture they brought back from “the farthest ports of the rich East” as expressions of a new global world.


Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age examines how the Dutch perceived and valued imported luxuries from Asia, the lengths to which they would go to acquire them, and how they incorporated them into their lives. Fashionable Dutch men soon began wearing silk Japanese robes, Dutch women introduced the ritual of Chinese tea drinkinginto their social calendars and wealthy Dutch households boasted Asian luxury goods in every room.

The sensual allure of Asian imports was a key factor in their popularity, as was the great distances they had traveled. Asian spices enlivened Dutch palates and finely crafted objects, such as blue-and-white porcelain from China, intricate lacquer boxes from Japan, sparkling jewels from India, embroidered silk textiles, ivory fans, and mother of pearl vessels aroused curiosity and stimulated Dutch minds. Made of precious materials unavailable in Europe and decorated with intriguing and unfamiliar designs, these treasures caused a sensation.

“One can only imagine the delight and amazement that these imports must have inspired in the Netherlands,” said Karina Corrigan, PEM’s H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art. “They brought new color, pattern and texture to interiors that were otherwise fairly monochromatic and spare. These luxuries also offered new tactile delights, such as drinking from a cool, thin porcelain cup or wearing a vibrantly colored and weightless chintz gown instead of wool or linen. Independent of where they were coming from, these things were wonderful. But, then knowing that they came from halfway around the world made them even more interesting.”


The Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) was the largest and most powerful trade and shipping company in the world during the 1600s. At its peak, the VOC employed more than 40,000 Dutch, other European and Asian workers; owned a fleet of more than 100 ships; and maintained more than 600 stations in Asia, spanning from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. First created to import spices from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, the VOC soon established a trading network throughout Asia for costly textiles, lacquer, porcelain and spices.

These imported goods often reflected artistic interactions fostered by the global networks of the VOC. The potters of Jingdezhen and Arita, the silversmiths of Batavia and the textile dyers of Surat and the Coromandel Coast altered the designs and shapes of their wares to cater to European markets and to satisfy Dutch conceptions of Asia. The VOC’s relentless pursuit of profit, however, was often at the expense of the very people who created these wonders; the toll of that human suffering is one of the many costs of these luxuries.


One of the largest cities in Europe at that time, Amsterdam became a vibrant center for goods and information. The city’s celebrated canal ring was built in direct response to dramatic population increases and the new prosperity fostered by global trade. The city became a center for new — and sometimes radical — ideas and information. Influential Dutch publications shaped European impressions of the world, and in particular, Asia.

Many homes throughout Amsterdam, perhaps none more so than the elegant mansions built on the Herengracht, were filled with diverse Asian imports.Writing in 1611, only a few years after the first VOC ship returned home, one writer observed that the “East India traffic” had brought so much porcelain to the Netherlands that it was “in nearly daily use with the common people.” As their collections grew, the Dutch developed innovative ways to display their imported treasures.

Even a Dutch woman’s jewels reflected the Republic’s global reach – prior to the early 1700s, diamonds were only mined in India and Borneo. “In 17th-century Amsterdam, diamonds signaled not only wealth, but also a direct connection to Asia,” noted Corrigan. The VOC imported large quantities of diamonds to the Netherlands, and Amsterdam emerged as the European center for diamond cutting and resale.

Tea was imported in small quantities throughout the 17th century from both China and Japan. Drinking tea initially had a medicinal purpose, but the custom of “taking tea” became fashionable in many Dutch households by the 1680s. People bought new equipment for serving it, often combining Chinese and European pieces. Chinese tea would go on to become one of the most profitable trade commodities for the VOC in the 18th century.

Imported Asian spices enlivened Dutch palates and changed the way Europeans treated maladies. Pepper, the VOC’s main Asian import to the Netherlands, was used in most Dutch households and the VOC imported four million pounds of pepper annually in the 17th century. Costly spices were stored and served in elegant vessels befitting their real and symbolic value.

Amalia van Solms, the wife of the Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik, was perhaps the ultimate Dutch tastemaker. She voraciously collected the finest Asian luxuries and incorporated them into her homes in new and highly fashionable ways. She slept in a bed made of lacquer, wore priceless pearls from Asian waters and owned more than 1,400 pieces of porcelain, artistically arranged onto elaborately carved and painted shelves. The legacy of Van Solms’ Asian art-filled interiors can still be seen in today’s interior design publications.  


Dutch painters of the Golden Age, including Rembrandt, Willem Kalf, Jan Steen and Pieter Claesz were quick to incorporate imported luxuries and Asian design motifs into their compositions. These artists transformed the art of their age into something we now perceive as distinctly Dutch, but which also references the profound connections between the Netherlands and Asia, often in subtle and surprising ways. Jan van der Heyden’s Room Corner with Rarities vividly registers the arrival of these art forms and curiosities. The celestial globes and the atlas signal worldly interests piqued by the burgeoning Dutch trade, while Asia is represented in the gathering of imported objects such as an embroidered Chinese silk tablecloth, a Turkish carpet and a Japanese porcelain bowl and weapons.

Dutch artists in a variety of media, inspired by these new sensory delights, were quick to imitate, innovate and incorporate. Still-life paintings and delftware are perhaps the clearest examples of Dutch appropriation of imported Asian material culture, but the exhibition also includes superlative examples of furniture, textiles, lacquer, silver and other innovations in Dutch design. Dutch artists adapted unfamiliar design motifs and technologies, and sometimes even incorporated Asian art into the works they created.

Asia in Amsterdam also features several works by contemporary Dutch artist Bouke de Vries. His ‘memory vessels’ reframe broken pieces of Chinese porcelain and Dutch delftware in glass jars shaped like the original ceramic. The exhibition concludes with a new work commissioned by PEM, de Vries’ Homeland, Blue and White (2015)which is a map of the 17th-century Dutch Republic made entirely of fragments from early Dutch and Asian ceramics.


PEM holds the finest and most comprehensive collection of Asian export art in the world (19,000 objects), including works made in China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Due to strategic acquisitions in the last 25 years, the collection includes masterworks of Asian export art made for Dutch patrons. Asia in Amsterdam features 30 of these exquisite works of art including embroidered textiles in vibrant colors from China and India, a Japanese lacquer-and-ivory jewel casket as rare and costly as the gems it stored, and Chinese export porcelain made for Johannes Campuijs, a VOC Governor General in Batavia in the 1680s. The art of Dutch diplomacy and gift giving in Japan is evident in a Japanese samurai coat made from Dutch gilded leather and wool. PEM’s collection also includes a number of important and early works made for the Portuguese market, providing a prelude to and context for early Dutch engagement in Asia in the exhibition.


The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation,and the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund supported Asia in Amsterdam. The exhibition has also been made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, and the Netherland-America Foundation. Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation provided generous support. Judith S. Howe, Nancy and Thomas Lurie, Chip and Susan Robie, Dr. Edward G. Tiedemann Jr., Mr. Jurrien Timmer, Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, Mr. and Mrs. Ernst H. von Metzsch, Mr. and Mrs. Christopher M. Weld, and the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum provided additional support


A lavishly illustrated 356-page exhibition catalog that features seven essays and 100 catalog entries by 30 scholars was edited by Karina H. Corrigan, The H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, Jan van Campen, curator of Asian export art at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and Femke Diercks, curator of European ceramics at the Rijksmuseum. Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age is available in the Museum Shop and online at pemshop.com.


  • Paulus Moreelse, Portrait of a Young Woman, about 1620. Oil on panel. 28 1/8 × 22 5/8 inches (71.5 × 57.4 cm). Art Institute of Chicago, Max and Leola Epstein Collection, 1954.292. Photo by Jacques Breuer.

  • Cabinet on stand. Cabinet, Japan, 1600-1630; stand, Japan, incorporating elements from a Dutch table, 16251650. Oak and Chinese arborvitae covered in lacquer, with ray-skin denticles, inlaid mother-of-pearl, and gilt copper mounts. Cabinet: 25 ¼ x 35 ¾ x 20 ½ inches (64.8 x 90.8 x 52.1 cm); stand: 30 ¾ x 40 ½ x 24 ¼ inches (78.2 x 102.3 x 61.6 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Museum purchase, 2002, AE86357.AB. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Walter Silver.

  • Charger with VOC monogram. Arita, Japan, about 1630. Porcelain. 10 ¼ inches (26 cm) diameter. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Museum purchase, 1992, E83830. © 2006 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Jeffrey Dykes.

  • Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde. The ”Golden Bend” in the Herengracht, Amsterdam, 16711672. Oil on panel. 16 ¾ x 22 ¾ inches (42.5 x 57.9 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Purchased upon the recommendation of the Vereniging Rembrandt with the support of the Stichting Nationaal Fonds Kunstbezit, thanks to a gift of the Royal Dutch Shell, and the BankGiro Loterij, SK-A-5003. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

  • Breast jewel. Possibly the Netherlands, after a French design, about 1630. Gold with diamonds and enamel. 4 7/8 × 3 inches (12.4 × 7.4 cm). Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Dame Joan Evans, M.143-1975. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

  • Cellaret with flasks for spiced oils, 1680–1700. Jakarta (Batavia), Indonesia, and Arita, Japan . Calamander wood with silver mounts, and porcelain. 6 ½ x 10 ¼ x 10 ¼ inches (16.5 x 26 x 26 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, NG-444. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

  • Jan van der Heyden. Room Corner with Rarities, 1712. Oil on canvas. 29 ½ × 25 inches (75 × 63.5 cm). Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.



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