Project
Narrative
   
 

 A VISUAL STUDY INTO THE MATERIAL CULTURE OF
NEW NETHERLAND

 
   
SPONSORING ORGANIZATION:
NEW YORK FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS

Photography: Geoffrey Gross
Photo styling: Susan E. Piatt
Text: Roderic H. Blackburn, PhD.
Introduction: Harrison Meeske

This book is different from those which have preceded it. Those have admirably enlightened us about Dutch history and culture in the New World. About art, architecture, and artifacts; of genealogy, settlement, and social life; we have learned much. But of love for home and family, and the visual delights of cherished objects and familiar places, we have been inspired mostly by our imagination.

For the first time here is a book of art quality photography which does for the Dutch heritage in the New World what old master paintings have done to enliven the Golden Age of the old country. Both present the aesthetic qualities and environmental settings of a life now past. Such images and objects of the home, if sensitively evoked, can recall a feeling for a lost period.

EARLY AMERICAN DUTCH ARCHITECTURE is about houses, but much more - kitchen houses, smoke houses, Dutch barns, corn cribs, gardens, farms, landscapes - with panoramas, settings, and details. The idea is to evoke from the surviving material culture of the Dutch the feeling for their daily life as if each space was momentarily vacated. This book is a "command to look" at a lost society whose culture can still be envisioned - if we may be inspired to perceive more than just to see.

The basic books of New World Dutch culture are these: on Dutch houses through family history by Reynolds (1929) and Bailey (1936 ), on Dutch objects by Dillard (1963), on Dutch culture in objects (Blackburn and Piwonka, 1988), and on Dutch settlement and architecture by Meeske (1999). Each explores different aspects of the central focus of Dutch life - the home. The present volume is actually a compliment - and complement - to all its predecessors. Through evocative color images it breaths life in all which we already know, it enriches our appreciation, and inspires our concern for the preservation of what remains.

One thing which is missing from all books on Dutch houses is the builders' vivid sense of color. This is well documented in Netherlands paintings, but has been entirely absent in our record of the Dutch in America. This book shows that indeed the wonderful sense of light and color found in Vermeer and de Hough paintings was also present in America. It takes a discerning eye to recognize it amongst two hundred years of alterations and renovations, but that is what fine photography does - to cause us to focus our attention on what we have overlooked and thereby to discover subtleties we have overlooked.

Whether by restoration or maintenance, these living examples of Colonial America provide a "rootedness" to strengthen and define American design. That many of these houses do in fact "live on" is proof of their relevancy. It is precisely this element of "livingness" which is so crucial to the success of this project. Many contemporary America values stem from the Dutch Colonial period, yet by common perception only a few are aware of this.

Another purpose of this book is education, to acquaint a wider audience with the distinctive ethnic culture of this lost society. No artifact of the Dutch expresses the essence of their culture more dramatically than their surviving architecture. Dutch houses and barns are the largest and most complex objects surviving from their historic period and as such are subject to the most informative interpretation of domestic life and economy.

A major theme of this book is historic preservation. Dutch houses in New York and New Jersey (and some now forgotten in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware), have received far less attention in the literature of architectural history than houses in other regions. For this reason alone far less attention has been paid to the preservation of Dutch structures. Scholarship helps to correct this imbalance in the facts, but what really inspires people is when they become excited, when their feelings are touched, that is when they become inspired to do something. Nothing does that in print better than an exciting, evocative, book in color.

You may preach until the cows come home but if you can't show people why something should be saved by inspiring their concern, you will not succeed well enough (or soon enough for the most endangered structures) to save them. For example, Dutch barns are truly an endangered artifact. There are no more than 500 remaining of the thousands extant at the beginning of this century. We are loosing them at the rate of 10% a year because they have recently become unadaptable to the new dairy farming mode. Yet they are inspiring structures, reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals (both derive from the same medieval source) and can be adapted for homes, offices, and non-dairy farming.

People have to know this; to see how it can be done by seeing how it has been accomplished. Here we show Dutch barns which are well preserved, derelict, restored, and adapted to living and work.

As a source for inspiration the format of the book is primarily visual. Each chapter is introduced with a brief discussion of the central themes of regional settlement and how Dutch traditions accommodated to regional resources resulting distinctive house types and outbuildings. Each image is accompanied by a short text identifying the place and time, and explaining what is significant, either an issue of preservation, a representation of a cultural value, an expression of social life, or a pleasing aesthetic feature.

To enliven the connection between object and meaning, contemporary quotations are found throughout the book which give voice to the places they once inhabited and the objects they once used and revered. In their own words we come to realize that their thoughts and feelings were remarkably like our own. For example, in 1798 Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, the Polish patriot who accompanied Kosciusko to America, met a Dutch man near Albany who showed him a cup that came from the Netherlands. The incident stirred the exiled Niemcewicz deeply:

"This cup" he told me, "is already two hundred years old and it was more than a hundred years old when my grandfather brought it to this country. It occupies a place of honor; it reminds us of our fatherland and our ancestors." I took it in my hand and was moved to tears. O Fatherland, I reflected, how sweet thy memory is to the heart of men; it passes in the blood from generation to generation; neither time nor change of place can efface it."

Addenda

The book will be divided into chapters based on regions of Dutch settlement, each with an introduction explaining regional history, settlement, resources, and architecture. Each photograph to have a brief caption of identification of the site and contents shown in the image, and a brief text on the significance of what is in the image. At appropriate places throughout the book will be quotations from contemporary sources which relate to the images. Research is now ongoing to identify previously unpublished quotes from manuscripts, letters, and documents.
                                                                                                                               
----Roderic H. Blackburn, PhD., August 1999

 


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