On my walks through Haarlem I often moor myself at the Teylers Museum. Regularly there are small exhibitions of good quality. The captions under the art exhibited may sometimes be babble, the presentation may not be perfect – but in this populist era a museum must ‘do’ something, should create ‘an experience’.

This time there were hanging Watteau’s, accompanied by finely made dresses from the Rococo period. Now the Rococo has never suited me. Too many frills, too many purring females, too much subtle mannerism and empty gesture – and above all, at least in my eyes, painting of a kitschy and often poor quality.

Say typically ‘Boucher’.




Watteau is just that little bit worse. But I say, in this case at least: This is not a knowledgeable and argued, i.e. critical judgment – I offer my reader only an opinion, because this is no more than an introduction to what follows, an explanation for how it came about: A little piece on smelly women, fishermen’s wives, with their the arm’s sleeves rolled up.

Of those Watteau and Boucher females you can not make such a remark about sleeves and arms. They either carry no sleeves at all:




Or they are almost completely wrapped up in silk, as in this Watteau:



In any case, ‘purring’ is not an exaggerated description of these wenches, even if a dog is playing the leading role in their little theatre:




Rococo originates in the French word rocaille meaning shell-like. You will find this shell motif in much of its architecture. As far as the women in the Rococo paintings are concerned, we may need to think of that other connotation of the word shell.




Anyway, my reader will now perhaps understand why, at the sight of so many frills and all that ‘elegance, artificiality and light-hearted wit which was highly regarded’ by the Rococo bourgeoisie and aristocracy, I spent only ten minutes with Teylers’ Watteau’s.

In order not too to shorten the visit to the museum too much, I walked once again into the room containing a magnificent painting of Sadée, a Dutch artist from the late 19th-century The Hague School.

This man represented the splendour of toiling women, mates of the men fishing off the Dutch coast, women who certainly rolled the sleeves up their arms. The fish caught by their husbands was taken ashore and placed in large baskets and buckets. I am speaking here about the coast off Kennemerland, west of Haarlem where I live.




Then they walked with those buckets and baskets through steeply sloping dunes to the inland. Just north of the beautifully landscaped grounds of House Elswout they descended the dunes and planted their buckets with fish in front of a pub which later was named The Smelly Pail.

Here their fish was sold to traders, or the women walked into Haarlem to sell their wares in the Vischhal or even door to door.

‘Tough’ is the keyword here.

Meanwhile, the name of The Smelly Pail has been renamed The Coat of Arms of Kennemerland.




Now, if there’s anything deserving the title ‘kitsch and petty-bourgeois’, it is the use of feudal heraldic emblems to designate an establishment in order to make it ‘posh’. Usually, this does not mean much more than higher prices for the drinks…

The Coat of arms of Kennemerland would be the perfect name for an institution housing the slutty or prissy or plump and purring females of Boucher, Watteau and Fragonard. Sometimes I sit on its pleasant terrace. Indeed, rarely does one of the female visitors whom I see makes me think of what I consider the more attractive type of the tough fisher-woman.

Sierksma 19.2.7


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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