Ex Nugis - Kinder-spel - Seria (Out of trifles – Children's Games - seriousness) by an unknown artist who has reworked an engraving by Experiens Silleman, based on an original design by Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne, 1726. Dayton C. Miller Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
based on an original design by Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne, painter and draughtsman, 1589-1662
This is a delightful scene showing children at play in a city square before an avenue of trees. A few adults are present to mind the children or to entertain them. In the center foreground is a long file of children carrying flags and swords as they march behind a soldier accompanied by a drummer and flutist. The scene is filled with many activities in which children and adults take part. There are games depicting blindman's buff and leap frog, skipping rope, flying kites, rolling hoops, spinning paper windmills, walking on stilts, blowing bubbles, turning somersaults, or playing with dolls and kitchen implements. Dutch townhouses, churches and other buildings are aligned on either side of an allée of trees in the middle distance, and the sun's rays break though the clouds above the city.
This image comes from an "emblem book" by Jacob Cats (1577-1660), a Dutch poet, lawyer, and statesman. This particular plate comes from a 1726 folio edition of the collected works of Jacob Cats entitled Alle de wercken van den Heere Jacob Cats.... Kinder-spel was the most famous poem by Jacob Cats. It appeared in his first emblem book of 1618, Silenus Alcibiadis, sive Proteus, Middelburg: Hans van der Hellen, 1618.
Adriaen Pietersz. Van de Venne (1589-1662) designed the engravings for the 1618 edition, but the actual engraver of the Kinder-spel plate is not known as the image is unsigned. It is a large, beautiful fold-out plate depicting children playing games in a park with town houses and other buildings in the background. In fact, the scene depicted in Kinder-spel of 1618 represents a square and an abbey in Middelburg which still exist today. However, the text of the poem in 1618 and the plate that illustrates it are different from the text and engravings for Kinder-spel that were published in editions of Cats' work after 1625. Beginning in 1625, Cats expanded his original poem for Kinder-spel and a new engraving to illustrate it was used in the opening pages of his new book, Houwelyck (Marriage). The full title of Houwelyck refers to the complete phases of a marriage. It covers in six chapters the stages of a woman's life - maiden, sweetheart, bride, wife, mother and widow - and outlines the duties of both the woman and the man in a marriage.
As he often does, Cats presents his writings as a mirror held before the reader. He asks the reader to project himself on to the lessons in his books and he asks the reader to reflect on his own life. In this instance, each of the games the children play has some moral to offer. Even in these scenes of innocent play are lessons to be absorbed for later life. The blindfolded young man represents a lover who grabs a woman he cannot see, but he must keep her. Thus, Cats reminds young men to be more serious and cautious about choosing the woman they wish to marry. The man walking on stilts represents "ego" because he walks above others. The man blowing bubbles represents the transitory nature of life. In the expanded poem of 1625, Cats offers advice in preparing children for their adult life. For example, it is good for girls to play with dolls and kitchen implements because it prepares them for their futures as mothers and for the management of a household. Boys, on the other hand, play soldiers in the anticipation that they will one day be prepared to protect their country.
In the 1625 edition of Houwelyck, the image of Kinder-spel represents a street in The Hague, Lange Voorhout, a street which can still be seen today. It has an allée of trees which one sees in the middle distance of this engraving. From 1625 onward, Kinder-spel often appeared in editions of Houwelyck, usually near the front of the book. This same poem and image of Kinder-spel from the 1625 edition were also included with Houwelyck in editions of the collected works of Jacob Cats, Alle de wercken ..., in 1655, 1658, 1700, 1712, and 1726.
The Miller print of Kinder-spel from an edition of Alle de wercken... of 1726 resembles the version of the engraving that was first published in Houwelyck in 1625. It represents the same scene in The Hague, but there are many small differences in the Miller print which indicate that the artist has modified the original plate and, in fact, may have reworked a later plate of it. The engraving of Kinder-spel in the 1625 edition of Houwelyck is finely detailed, especially the architectural elements. The movements and clothing of the children are supple and varied, and the trees are delineated carefully. However, there is an awkwardness in some of the details of the 1625 engraving such as in the round cobblestones visible in the middle of the file of children which seem unnatural and incongruous in terms of spatial progression. The plate itself is heavily inked which obscures much of the fine detail, and its darkness adds to an overall sense of heaviness.
The 1625 engraving of Kinder-spel is unsigned, but later versions of it (1628, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford; 1642, at the National Gallery of Art; and, 1657-1659, at the Folger) are signed "Experience Silliman fecit." According to Bénézit, this would be the artist Experiens Silleman, a painter, draughtsman and engraver from Amsterdam whose life dates are given as ca. 1611-1653, but the engraving would have been based on a design by Adriaen van de Venne (1589-1662), who designed most of the engravings for the emblem books of Jacob Cats. Could Experiens Silleman have engraved the plate of Kinder-spel for the 1625 edition of Houwelyck at only age 14? Possibly. Some passages of the engraving in 1625 are handled beautifully, such as the architectural detail, while other passages, such as the cobblestones, are less successful. Perhaps this mix of precociousness and awkwardness in certain passages indicates a youthful hand, perhaps an artist who was still an apprentice. Certainly, by age 17, Silleman signed a very similar, but slightly modified, plate of Kinder-spel that appeared in a 1628 edition of Houwelyck which is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
What is interesting is that the platemark dimensions of all of the versions of Kinder-spel that were reviewed - in Houwelyck (1625, 1642) and in Alle de wercken... (1657-1659, 1700, 1712, 1726) - are identical, measuring 6 7/8 x 6½ inches (17.5 x 16.5 cm.). This could imply that the same copper plate that was used for the 1625 edition was re-used in the later editions of Cats' emblem books throughout the 17th and 18th centuries but, by 1642, the signed plates by Silleman have a different "look" than the 1625 and 1628 engravings. Though the dimensions of the 1625 edition of Houwelyck match those of the later editions, it seems clear that a new plate was used by the 1642 edition of Houwelyck. Thus, it was probably a plate from at least 1642 (and perhaps created earlier) that was re-engraved and reused in the later editions, the same copper plate simply being re-engraved and modified either by Silleman himself or by unknown engravers after his death.
Characteristic of all the engravings of Kinder-spel before 1700 is the general use of horizontal lines throughout the image - in the sky as well as the foreground. Beginning in 1700, an unknown artist has masked the signature of Silleman with cross-hatching and has modified the sky and foreground with diagonal lines. In the 1700 version of Kinder-spel, there is a general loss of detail in the faces of the children and in the architecture. Some of the original details are still evident, but they are very faint. For example, the trees in the distance are rendered more with horizontal lines, though a few vertical lines of the trunks are still visible. In the 1712 and 1726 versions, the trees no longer have any vertical lines. In fact, they could be read as trees or as shadowy Dutch gables of distant townhouses.
The 1700 and 1712 versions of Kinder-spel are very similar to the Miller engraving, the main difference in the Miller engraving being a dark cloud in the left center of the sky which is not present in the 1700 edition and, though it is present in the 1712 engraving, it is not as strongly engraved. The Miller engraving is actually very, very close to the 1712 version of Kinder-spel. Both the 1712 and 1726 versions differ from the 1700 engraving of Kinder-spel in details of the children at the left and right corners. The figure leaning over in the far left corner is more shadowed in the later engravings; the hair of the girl playing with a doll at the left is marked with stronger diagonal lines; and, the faces of the children at the right are more hatched and shadowed, almost caricatured, in the 1712 and 1726 versions, while they are more softly rendered in the 1700 engraving. Only a few details - the slightly darker cloud in the left center of the sky, three shadows on the grass beneath the distant trees (that are not present in the 1700 and 1712 editions, and only appear in the 1726 edition), and a fainter Dutch text on the verso of the Miller print - seem to confirm that it matches Kinder-spel from the 1726 edition of Alle de wercken....
Images of children's games did appear in Books of Hours in Ghent and Bruges around 1500. These prayer books were usually illustrated with seasonal activities such as May dances or the harvesting of wheat, and those illustrated with children's games were also arranged by season - skating in winter or swimming in summer. In 17th-century emblem literature, however, images of children's games had very specific meanings. Innocent games such as blowing bubbles indicated that life was transitory and play, in general, symbolized the folly of mankind.
For additional sources on Jacob Cats and other examples from his emblem books, see Miller 15/M and 581/M. See also photographs in the Miller Collection of other images from a 1658 edition of Alle de wercken... - 273a/M, 273b/M, 274/M, 275/M, and 276/M.
About the Artists and Author
Experiens Silleman, painter, draughtsman and engraver, ca. 1611-1653
Experiens Silleman was a Dutch artist, the son of an English father, Jeffrey Silleman, according to Bénézit. He was born in Amsterdam ca. 1611 and died in the same city in 1653. The only work listed by him in Bénézit is a view of the city of Amsterdam, a drawing. An example of his signature is also in Bénézit.
Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne, painter and draughtsman, 1589-1662
Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne was a Dutch painter of allegories, landscapes and portraits, as well as a designer of book illustrations and a poet. His brother, Jan van de Venne, was a publisher and art dealer with whom he worked closely. Adriaen van de Venne was the principal designer of illustrations for the emblem books of Jacob Cats, from the first editions of Silenus Alcibiadis, sive Proteus (also known in Dutch as Sinne- en minne-beelden) and Maechden-plicht in 1618 to Doot-kist and Aspasia of 1656. Until his death in 1625, his brother Jan van de Venne was a publisher of Cats' emblem books, the last one being Houwelyck (Marriage) in this year. Adriaen van de Venne also designed or engraved individual prints or series of prints of a political nature in support of the house of Orange Nassau. He also painted miniatures for a small album entitled "tLants sterckte" ("Fortress and strength of the land") to honor the new Stadholder, Frederick Henry, in 1625. While in The Hague, van de Venne produced many paintings in grisaille, that is, paintings in tonalities of black, white, and grey versus paintings in color, though he did also paint some landscapes in color. Most of van de Venne's paintings portrayed genre scenes of peasant life, usually offering a moral lesson. Van de Venne also wrote and illustrated his own books on contemporary Dutch life, some having themes of human folly, which were considered highly original.
Jacob Cats, poet, lawyer, diplomat, 1577-1660
Jacob Cats was a Dutch poet, lawyer, and diplomat, who held the post of "raadpensionaris," a position equivalent to that of prime minister for the States of Holland. He was even knighted by Charles I on his visit to England in 1627. However, Jacob Cats is most famous as a writer of "emblem books" which were illustrated collections of proverbs that offered advice on how to live one's daily life. Through simple moral tales, written in rhymed verse, Cats addressed all of the major themes in life - youth, old age, illness and death, as well as love, marriage, parenting, and managing a household. Through witty and clever stories he also presented the dangers of leading a dissolute life - drinking, gambling, carousing, and promiscuity. Jacob Cats was the most popular and beloved writer in 17th-century Holland. His first two emblem books were published in 1618, and went through numerous reprintings. By 1655, when his collected works were first gathered together and published in folio editions, more than 300,000 of his books had been printed or reprinted, the most popular being Houwelyck (Marriage) and Spiegel van den ouden ende nieuwen tijdt (Mirror of ancient and modern times) which comprised 50,000 and 25,000 copies respectively. The books appealed to persons from all strata of society and to all ages - from farmers and fishermen to city dwellers and gentry, to teachers and students, and to parents and children. Many of the proverbs are still in use today, such as "There is many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip" or "Birds of a feather flock together." In the emblem books, each of the proverbs was illustrated by an engraving, and Jacob Cats' verses were supplemented by poetry or prose from classical writers such as Ovid or Seneca, and appropriate texts from the Bible were added to reinforce a moral lesson.
- Jacob Cats entitled Alle de wercken van den Heere Jacob Cats..., published in Amsterdam by J. Ratelband. A copy of this book is in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. LC call number: PT5620 1726 Pre-1801 Collection. A copy is also in the Folger Shakespeare Library, call number: PN6349.C2 1726 Cage. [back to article]
- See an image of it online in the Emblem Project Utrecht. [back to article]
- See Jacob Cats, Houwelyck, dat is, De gansche gelegentheyt des echten staets. Middelburgh: J. P. van de Venne, 1625. Folger Shakespeare Library, call number: PT5630.H6 1625 Cage. [back to article]
- The summaries of Jacob Cats' poems for Kinder-spel are courtesy of Joost Wellen, Washington, DC, 25 August 2005. [back to article]
- For a reproduction of this engraving, see Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Knopf, 1987, p. 501. [back to article]
- Compare the engraving of Kinder-spel from the 1625 edition of Houwelyck with those from the 1657-1659, 1700, 1712 and 1726 editions of Alle de wercken..., all at the Folger Shakespeare Library; and, compare these images with a 1642 edition of Houwelyck at the National Gallery of Art, call number: PT5630.H8 1642. Though the plates of Kinder-spel from the 1642 (NGA) and 1657-1659 (Folger) emblem books carry the signature "Experience Silliman fecit," by 1700, his signature had been burnished from the plate. The image of Kinder-spel in the 1642 edition of Houwelyck (NGA) has a much cleaner, open look as compared to the engraving of 1625. All of the details in the 1642 engraving seem more delicately rendered - the architecture, the children's faces, the cobblestones, the trees, and the sun's rays. Space is more easily "read," especially in the revision of the cobblestones in the middle distance, and the paths among the trees in the far distance are more clearly delineated. Flocks of birds have been added in the sky at the left, which were not present in the 1625 version, and the trails of smoke at the left are now more natural than they appeared in the 1625 version. [back to article]
- A passage from Jacob Cats' Kinder-spel (lines 25-28, 33-34) is quoted in an online article by Sandra Hindman on children's games represented in Books of Hours in Rare Book Review (which is no longer available online): "Play, even if it appears without sense, / contains a whole world therein; / The world and its complete structure / is nothing but a children's game ... / You will find there, I know it well, / Your own folly in children's games." See especially Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Knopf, 1987. LC call number: DJ158.S32. A discussion of children's games in 17th-century Dutch paintings and prints appears on pages 498-516. Images of Kinder-spel from the 1618 and 1628 editions of Cats' emblem books, both from the Bodleian Library at Oxford, are reproduced on pages 501 and 509 and are discussed on pages 499-503 and 507-512. [back to article]
- More complete biographical information is available in an article on van de Venne by Martin Royalton-Kisch, "Adriaen (Pietersz.) van de Venne," in Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online (subscription only). [back to article]
- Most of the literature on Jacob Cats is in Dutch. A short biographical notice on Jacob Cats is available in the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online (by subscription only). There is also a biographical entry on Cats in European Authors 1000-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of European Literature, edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Vineta Colby. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1967, pp. 160-161. Rare Book Reading Room, Reference Section. LC call number: PN451.K8. The information provided for Jacob Cats above is derived from an excellent article by Benjamin B. Roberts and Leendert F. Groenendijk, "'Wearing out a pair of fool's shoes': Sexual Advice for Youth in Holland's Golden Age," in Journal of the History of Sexuality 13.2 (2004):139-156, which is available online (by subscription only). The article describes the huge population growth in Holland in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, especially in the major cities such as Amsterdam, Leiden, Utrecht, and Groningen. Urban centers were filled with university students, apprentices, sailors and servants, and the shenanigans of adolescents and young men were rampant. Thus, the emblem books of Jacob Cats, which provided advice on leading a moral life through simple rhymed parables, were particularly apropos in 17th-century Holland and were enormously popular. [back to article]