The Embarrassment of Riches

by Simon Schama

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Last Updated on December 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

The Sense of a Tenuous Existence

Schama calls the landscape of seventeenth-century culture in the Dutch Republic a "moral geography." At this time, he writes, "men were faced with a stark choice: drown or be Dutch." He bases this in part on a probably apocryphal "drowning house" that was used to force idle young men in Amsterdam to work. They were supposedly placed in a room that was slowly filling with water that they could only pump out themselves. Schama argues that Dutch culture was always shaped by the fact that the country itself was claimed from the ocean, which always threatened to batter down the dikes and flood the city. Similarly, the republic was threatened by external political forces, having won its independence from Spain. These delicate balances fit into Calvinist notions of divine wrath, as well as the emphasis on work that characterized the Dutch commercial society. Schama returns to this theme throughout the work, arguing that it was a foundational piece of Dutch national identity.

The Tension Between Luxury and Frugality

In the seventeenth century, Dutch society was perhaps the most affluent on the planet—and certainly in Europe. Dutch artists depicted luxury and opulence in their works, especially those that depicted the home. Indeed, Schama sees a preoccupation with consumption in Dutch middle-class life. He notes, however, that displays of wealth were "interior, rather than exterior." Dutch houses tended to be rather plain from the outside, but wealthier Dutch families purchased and displayed expensive furniture and other consumer goods in their homes, especially in their kitchens. Even though these displays of wealth were not as public as one might expect, Schama notes that they were often the subject of moralizing sermons by ministers who decried the corrupting influence of wealth.

The Conflict Between Calvinist and Everyday Values

In the third part of the book, Schama contrasts austere Calvinist views of family relations and a more relaxed view, one associated with middle-class Dutch values. Schama notes that Dutch painters portrayed women in terms that reflected "quotidian reality" and that this reality points to the important, and somewhat liberalized, role that women played in Dutch life. Children were often portrayed as lively, fun-loving, and slightly mischievous, and (most significantly) loved by their families. At the same time, the persistent emphasis on cleanliness, a long-held stereotype of Dutch homes, placed significant requirements on Dutch women. Here, as elsewhere, the conflict between middle-class values and Calvinist strictures takes the form of a more modern, liberal view of family life.

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