Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2023
Angela Vanhaelen The Moving Statues of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam: Automata, Waxworks, Fountains, Labyrinths Penn State University Press, 2022. 236 pp.; 14 color ills.; 47 b/w ills. Cloth $114.95 (9780271091402)

The artful protagonists of The Moving Statues of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam are witty enchantments, products of active imaginations whose disappearance requires further imaginative action. Angela Vanhaelen brings to life the Amsterdam doolhoven, labyrinths attached to an array of entertaining displays that sprang up in the prosperous Dutch city beginning in the seventeenth century. This unprecedented study of a phenomenon unique to Amsterdam reveals a landscape of innovation, foreign-sourced artisanal knowledge, and moral edification pivoting around unexpected sites: early modern amusement parks that, along with taverns and inns, functioned as spaces for a cosmopolitan range of visitors to encounter astonishing works of art and technology. There, Amsterdam citizens and foreign tourists alike bore witness to the political ascendancy of the city and the fatherland, as the doolhoven purported to be repositories of unparalleled secrets and technological feats. To participate was to enter into a civic accord not only with fellow visitors but also with the political and religious leaders of the new republic.

Vanhaelen takes seriously the distinctive flavor of every portion of the doolhoven’s attractions, which she amplifies through the book’s structure as a progression from one exhibit to the next in each successive chapter. The decision to move the reader virtually through the doolhoven supports her assertion that seventeenth-century visual culture had profoundly affective dimensions yet to be fully accounted for in the literature. This study thus participates in an ongoing paradigm shift in the field toward an investigation of embodied experience, much of which has focused on artists’ tacit knowledge and viewers’ reactions to depictions of dramatic emotions. Vanhaelen’s interest in the effects of moving images and time-based installations is a bold and invigorating claim for the relevance, to the field of early modern Netherlandish art, of lines of inquiry mostly associated with the art of post-1800 Europe. This approach also allows her to re-engage with the issue of idolatry and its discontents in the Protestant Dutch Republic with a fresh perspective on the aftermath of the sixteenth-century iconoclasms. In her chapter on the waxwork galleries at the doolhoven, Vanhaelen explores the efficacy of wax effigies of the Dutch Republic’s heroes and antagonists, suggesting how the pre-Reformation zeal for religious images was, to some degree, transferred onto political icons. Hyperrealism and the emotional responses it can elicit becomes permissible when marshalled in favor of agendas of political unity in the Dutch Republic. The waxwork lineup of the allies of the fatherland—William of Orange, Henry IV—alongside its enemies—the universally loathed Duke of Alva—points to “a larger pattern in which banned practices surrounding the religious image were reactivated in the Protestant context” (127).

Indeed, throughout the book Vanhaelen presents a sustained argument about the political potential of modes of display at the doolhoven that might otherwise be dismissed as mere spectacle. Her fundamental contention about these idiosyncratic amusement parks is that they made “inventive and exclusive forms of art and technology accessible to a broad mix of people, in the process transforming them into civil, informed amateurs” (15). The sheer range of marvels available to visitors of variable means is a revelation. The enchantingly complex automata, fountains, and clockwork that were otherwise the purview of courtly elites across Europe were, it turns out, part of the urban fabric of Amsterdam throughout the seventeenth century. These exhibits were, undeniably, commercial ventures intended to entertain a wide range of people in the fast-growing city, not least among them foreign visitors. Vanhaelen recognizes the entrepreneurial spirit of the doolhoven owners and administrators while clearly rejecting the notion that sites envisioned for mass divertissement are necessarily superficial. This is one of her most significant contributions: to scrutinize cultural artifacts that are undertheorized and relatively absent from scholarship on this period despite their popularity at the time.

Vanhaelen thus addresses an essential problem in the writing of history, particularly art history—namely, how to do justice to material that survives in forms that our discipline has not prioritized as evidentiary and worthy of study. Though most of the physical traces of the doolhoven no longer exist, information about their contents and their impact on visitors is preserved evocatively in prints, pamphlets, city descriptions, and travelers’ written accounts. Vanhaelen’s “experiment in recovering what can be known about nonextant works and their modes of display” (8) presents a model for future research into aspects of visual culture that remain marginal in our scholarship. After all, even if they survived in greater numbers, the works of art and ingenuity on view at the doolhoven would not fit neatly into categories privileged by art history, in part because of their populist appeal and experiential modalities. Yet they were marketed specifically to amateurs, a point that Vanhaelen also interrogates. Period sources offer at times subtle and often explicit judgments about the presumed abilities of male connoisseurs to appreciate the feats of innovation at the doolhoven, in contrast to other members of the public. She argues that the exhibits—from the sensory stimulation of elaborate fountains to the subduing effects of the labyrinths—were a kind of training ground for Neostoic ideals of behavior governed by logic and composure. Descriptions of the doolhoven single out women and foreigners as the more feeble-minded members of the public who lack the self-possession and shrewdness to progress from sheer astonishment to a deeper understanding of what they were seeing. Vanhaelen duly identifies the misogyny and xenophobia stirred up during these site-specific experiences, in which the conduct of fellow participants could reinforce a prevailing message of social reform and discipline.

The Silenus box—externally rough or ugly, but full of deep wisdom within—and the labyrinth of controlled chaos appear throughout the book as manifestations of the paradoxes that operate at the doolhoven, according to Vanhaelen. At times, their recurring presence leads to ironically meandering philosophical passages that lose the thread of the main arguments, particularly when Vanhaelen tries to relate multicursal trajectories through real mazes to the legend of Daedalus’s role in the conception and subsequent imprisonment of the Minotaur. Much more compelling is her understanding of the attractions at the doolhoven as an extraordinarily vernacular form of the revival of antiquity in the Netherlands. They instantiate a “colloquial classicism” (14) distinct from the engagement with the ancient world most often found in scholarship about humanism’s reception of antiquity. There is a powerfully democratizing implication to this insight: Vanhaelen considers how common folk could gain access not only to the sorts of artificialia mostly enjoyed by elites, but also to the aesthetic pleasures, knowledge, and technology of the ancients. At the same time, she does not lose sight of the moral foundation upon which all this was built, persuasively reading the doolhoven as “experimental attempts to reconcile Protestantism with classical paganism” (168)—discourses seemingly at odds with yet central to the formation of a coherent political identity in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. Given the strength of Vanhaelen’s overall analysis, it is frustrating that she never posits a working definition for certain concepts that are intended to substantiate her claims. For one, she regularly refers to “ritual” without a critical discussion of that loaded term. A similar problem arises with “body politic,” which is submitted to a too-literal reading of whole and fragmentary bodies represented in political prints and waxworks.   

The Moving Statues of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam ultimately charts a deft course between the prevailing poles of interpretation of early modern Netherlandish art. Vanhaelen invokes, as expected, Eddy de Jongh’s iconological methods, with their emphasis on Protestant-inflected content, and the decidedly secularizing model proposed by Svetlana Alpers. The framework developed by Vanhaelen attends to the exigencies of a Protestant society and also discerns how the doolhoven awakened a Baconian curiosity in their audiences. The fountains, labyrinths, waxworks, and automata communicated a Protestant worldview—down to the clockwork that heralded an imminent apocalyptic future—and provoked questions about the intricacies of new technologies. Many of these supposed inventions were adapted from non-European sources, itself a sleight-of-hand whereby the entrepreneurial Dutch appropriated mechanisms devised, for example, in China or Morocco in order to stimulate a sense of pride and admiration for the local. Vanhaelen devises an updated understanding of tot leering en vermaak: works of art at the doolhoven certainly delighted and, simultaneously, provided viewers with a moral and intellectual education. One of the most astonishing moments in the book arrives precisely when wondrous objects that can stir emotions (without causing the beholder to lapse into idolatry) meet the empiricism at the heart of early modern science. Vanhaelen points out that the lack of scholarly interest in the doolhoven has precluded consideration that René Descartes—who lived in Amsterdam at the height of their popularity—was impacted by actual interactions with automata as he pondered the causes and ontology of human consciousness.

The labyrinth at the center of the doolhoven plunged visitors into an edifying situation: in order to reach the tantalizing, lively attractions on the other side, wanderers needed to muster their logic and discipline. Vanhaelen convincingly argues that the doolhoven imposed a combination of pleasure and restraint on early modern spectators, a performance of model citizenship that converged with the religious and political interests of the Dutch Republic.


Isabella Lores-Chavez
Associate Curator, European Paintings, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco