In The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, English art historian Simon argues that, based on travel accounts, popular literature of the time, and art (like paintings and prints), Dutch identity and success was based on their relationship with the sea, heavy spending,...
In The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, English art historian Simon argues that, based on travel accounts, popular literature of the time, and art (like paintings and prints), Dutch identity and success was based on their relationship with the sea, heavy spending, and an understanding that prosperity came from wealthy obligations to the less wealthy.
He disagrees with Max Weber's thesis that the Protestant Ethic made the success of capitalism in Western Europe possible. He argues this based on material culture and intellectual history—referring only occasionally to political and economic history. He argues that protestantism was moderated by materialism, local government, and religious toleration. Thus, material prosperity led away from Protestant beliefs, which asserts the opposite of Weber's Protestant Ethic argument.
The Dutch got much of their land by reclaiming it from the sea: pushing the water back slowly though the use of dikes. Looking at popular art, Schama argues that the beached whale was commonly portrayed in Dutch art as a symbol of impending doom or of hardships to come, that nature would not simply give up her wealth unless it meant punishment for failing to live up to the golden mean and civic virtue in favor of self indulgence and materialism. However. Dutch people still spent heavily on furniture, clothing, and silverware.
Paintings became common household items for common people for the first time. The iconography of the shrewish wife, the domineering wife, the act of adultery, and prostitution were common in popular art and literature. The good wife also was common in portraits as the guardian of the family while children were portray in realistic terms—not idealized as in religious art. The Dutch saw childhood as a distinctive stage of human development. Dutch parents were indulgent and affectionate. Child rearing manuals were something new, and they urged patience and freedom for children. Paintings showed an orderly family and well-mannered child.
Schama's arguments have been generally well-received, like most of his work; he has had a distinguished career at Oxford and in the BBB and has been given numerous awards as well as a knighthood.