Allegory of Poverty
Adriaen van de Venne, a Dutch artist born in Delft in first half of the seventeenth century, is most notable for his grisaille paintings (works painted in shades of grey) and prints. He moved to the Hague in the first half of the century, and continued to work there until his death in 1662. Around 1630, Van de Venne painted one of his rare, polychrome paintings entitled Allegory of Poverty. In this work, a blind beggar, pulled by a white dog attached to his belt by a rope and chain, is beleaguered by the weight of an old woman in a voluminous skirt that he carries on his back. A wailing, red-faced boy perches on top of these two figures, and holds the old woman’s hair tightly as they press forward. A cloudy sky and dirt path emphasize the dreariness of their condition. Its pendant, or companion piece, the Allegory of Wealth, is now lost, but earlier photographs depict a similar theme of ridicule through farcical figures. Positioned against a backdrop of sky, almost identical to the vagrants in the Poverty painting, the subjects of the Wealth allegory are a jaunty young man who supports a woman in luxurious dress on his shoulders as she tosses gold coins carelessly into the air.
Typically for Dutch allegories, there are numerous symbolic clues sprinkled throughout the painting. For example, the old woman clutches a clapper and alms bowl in her hands; each were characteristic possessions of a leper, or someone inflicted with a contagious skin disease. At the beggar’s feet are discarded wooden supports that the disabled poor sometimes used to pull themselves from place to place. The scroll, or banderole, behind the straw-wrapped legs of the beggar reads 't Sijn ellendige beenen die Armoe moete draege, or, “Miserable are the legs that have to bear poverty.” Van de Venne, though he also painted landscapes, was more famous for his depiction of common people, places, and situations. According to his books (which he himself illustrated and published using engravings and his brother’s printing press), van de Venne actually despised vagabonds and beggars, calling them wicked and clever. His revulsion for the poor is clear in the treatment of his subjects in the Allegory of Poverty.
Van de Venne often sought courtly patronage, and he even attempted to raise the status and conditions of artists in the Hague by establishing a guild. Van de Venne made a living off of his prints, which were easier to mass produce, and sold them to the rising middle class of his era. Many of these works contain humorous depictions of the impoverished acting out foolish adages or old Dutch sayings.
Audio: Alexandra Bishop, Oberlin College