Historical story

Networking was the art

This year it will be 350 years since the most famous painter of the Netherlands died:Rembrandt. In his own time, however, he fell out of favor and died poor. He failed to do what his students did:network and climb the social ladder.

In 1669 Rembrandt died penniless and that was not necessary. If he had paid more attention to his social contacts and keeping up his status, he could have amassed a great wealth. But Rembrandt refused to conform. Against the prevailing social conventions and moral codes, the artist chose his own path in work and love.

Due to a strong awareness of his value as an artist, Rembrandt did not accept any criticism of his work. He casually let clients wait for their ordered portrait. Still, he wanted to be well paid. Rembrandt's artistic fame was great, but his idiosyncratic behavior was notorious. The sum of reckless financial management, extramarital affairs, social maladjustment, disputes with clients, unwillingness to adapt artistically to the wishes of clients and his bankruptcy placed him outside the elite network in which he had previously been so successful.

The initially enthusiastic clients no longer wished to conform to the whims of the master painter. Even a brilliant artist was required in the first place for reliability and virtue. But Rembrandt chose freedom over honor and paid a high price for it:the loss of reputation and social status. How different it was for his students Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol…

In front of the new town hall

Govert Flinck's career was at its peak when he was awarded the largest commission in the history of the city of Amsterdam at the end of 1659. The mayors Cornelis de Graeff and Joan Huydecoper asked him to paint twelve canvases for the prestigious new town hall on Dam Square, then the largest public building in Europe. It concerned four famous heroes and a series of eight with the subject of the revolt of the Batavians against the Romans. The mayors wanted to present this story in the town hall as a precursor to the Revolt of the Republic against the Spaniards.

Although the magistrates had plenty of choice of history painters working in Amsterdam for the execution of the project, the lucrative assignment went to one man:Flinck. This was no coincidence, because as a friend he enjoyed the support and protection of Huydecoper and De Graeff. He owed this to the careful building and maintenance of his network.

The commission guaranteed him a royal income for six years:for two paintings a year he would receive the top price of 1000 guilders per canvas. However, only a few sketches have survived. It should have been the crowning glory of Flinck's career, but he died unexpectedly in 1660, aged forty-five.


Almost ten years later, Ferdinand Bol marked a momentous high point in his life with his 'Self-portrait with Cupid'. With his elegant clothing, distinguished attitude and proud look, Bol presented himself as a gentleman with an honorable social status. No trace of the painting profession in which he had been so successful for decades.

The canvas was made in 1669, the same year in which Bol concluded his second marriage to the wealthy widow Anna van Erckel. He was then 53 years old and financially free to leave his successful painting career behind. Bol's last self-portrait is therefore a statement. He concluded his artistry with it and, more importantly, he presented himself proudly and confidently in his new position as a wealthy member of the Amsterdam regent class. After this impressive display of his achieved success, we no longer know of Bol's signed works.

He and his wife went to retire in the monumental canal house with coach house on Keizersgracht, which now houses the Van Loon Museum. Bol was the highest valued of all Amsterdam painters in the wealth tax. And as it should be for a wealthy man in his position, he became a member of the militia and regent of the Oudezijds Huiszithuis, a charitable institution. Not bad for the son of a surgeon from Dordrecht who rose to a wealthy man through his career as a painter.


In order to understand the success of Flinck and Bol, it is good to know that in the seventeenth century networking was the strategy to improve one's own socio-economic position. A family network offered the best guarantees of survival in a society without institutional certainties. After all, kinship required solidarity, as historian Luuc Kooijmans describes in Vriendschap (2016). But fellow believers and business associates also belonged to the network of 'friends', as they called each other.

To ensure friendship, gifts, favors, assignments and jobs were constantly exchanged. Supporting each other socially and financially was also part of it. If a gift or effort was accepted, the recipient was obliged to return the gesture in return. If a friend did not fulfill his obligation, he was labeled unreliable. This was a disgrace, damaged good honor and reputation and was not without repercussions:anyone who showed themselves to be unreliable could count on social exclusion. Honor and reputation were a precious possession that could not be taken lightly.

The network worked as a fairly closed "economy" where jobs, assignments and favors were passed on to each other. Commissions to artists were also part of this system of mutual service. The regent and merchant elite had much to forgive. Artists who aspired to a career in this top segment were therefore advised to build up reliable personal contacts – friendship – with the buyers of their work. Of course, first and foremost they had to earn the favor of buyers with their talent. But to be assured of assignments, they also had to network according to the prevailing conventions.

Style is strategy

The talent of Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol was fine. Both were already accomplished painters when they moved to Amsterdam in 1633 and 1636 respectively to further develop their skills with Rembrandt in his famous style. This was a well-considered career strategy, as Rembrandt was the fashion portraitist of the time. When Flinck and Bol had to position themselves as independent masters, they did so in the style of their former master. This is understandable because Rembrandt's style was in high demand on the Amsterdam art market – certainly until the mid-1940s.

After that, however, Rembrandt's style fell out of fashion and a much bright, colorful and elegant way of painting became popular. This 'clear style' was associated with the Flemish painter Antoon van Dyck, a beloved painter at European courts. The courtly connotation appealed to the Amsterdam merchants and regents with aristocratic allures. Flinck and Bol also opted for this new style, with which they helped to shape the changing needs of clients and buyers in the top segment of the Amsterdam market.

An impeccable reputation

Networking was a matter of impeccable manners and the favor of friends in the right position. Flinck had both. He was born in Kleve in 1615 as the son of a wealthy merchant. The family lived in the highest circles of the city where the Elector of Brandenburg and his deputy Stadtholder Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen resided.

From an early age, Flinck learned the good manners and 'buygsaeme' behavior required in dealing with the urban elite. Flinck also had prosperous Mennonite relatives in Amsterdam; such a 'known market' of relatives, friends and fellow believers was of the utmost importance for a debuting painter. He received a large number of assignments. As early as the mid-1940s, Flinck became one of the city's most in-demand painters.

Flinck's reputation was beyond reproach, quickly building an elite network of influential friends. The assignments he received in the 1950s from his trusted friends the mayors Joan Huydecoper, Cornelis Bicker and Andries de Graeff testify to this.

Flinck's reputation also permeated at court in his hometown. He supplied several paintings to the Elector of Brandenburg and to Johan Maurits van Nassau. He was even commissioned by the widow of Stadholder Frederik Hendrik, Amalia van Solms, to paint two monumental allegories for her apartment in Huis ten Bosch in The Hague. After Flink's sudden death in 1660 it became clear how successful he had been:his son inherited a fortune of 44,000 guilders, including a collection of famous Italian and other masters whom Flinck had admired.

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For Bol, the positioning of the wealthy citizen elite in the Amsterdam network was different. He was born in 1616 and as a surgeon's son, he lacked both the education and the contacts that Flinck did have. As a newcomer to Amsterdam, Bol had to fight for himself and portraiture was the most suitable for this. After he started working as an independent master in 1640, Bol produced no fewer than fifty-two portraits in ten years. A smart strategy, because the personal contact in the posing sessions enabled him to build up a confidential relationship with his clients.

The commissioners of only five paintings from this period are known (all were affiliated with the Admiralty, the navy of Amsterdam), but apparently Bol built up sufficient honor and reputation in this circle to be a suitable suitor. In 1653 he married Elysabeth Dell, a daughter of the Dell and Spiegel regent families, who held important positions in the Amsterdam Admiralty and the city council.

Through this marriage Bol acquired a solid position in a broad and influential network, where the principle of service and return dominated. It was therefore natural that Bol received new portrait commissions in the private sphere, and that his in-laws took care of considerable commissions for those institutions where she held high positions, such as the town hall and the buildings of the Admiralty. (See, for example, the large photo at the top of the article, Portraits of three regentesses from the leper home in Amsterdam, c. 1668.)

Now that Bol was included in the Dell Mirror network, his production increased enormously. The marriage to Elysabeth ensured his breakthrough to a leading position as a portraitist and history painter in the top segment of the Amsterdam art market. When Elysabeth died, Bol remarried in 1669 – again within the Admiralty network – to Anna van Erckel, the very wealthy widow of the Admiralty cashier. Now he could retire.

Bol and Flinck had always understood that establishing and maintaining reliable personal contacts with buyers was crucial to the artist's artistic status and socio-economic success. Both understood better than Rembrandt that not only did artistic quality count, but that the contract also had to be awarded.