the bookshop by johannes jelgerhuis pd

When I go fishing for pictures to show on this “Historic Painting” series, I never quite know what I’ll find. I admit this one was kind of a slow burn, for I passed it up at first but the more I looked at it the more it began to grow on me. The full title of this painting is  De winkel van boekhandelaar Pieter Meijer Warnars op de Vijgendam te Amsterdam, which in Dutch means The shop of bookseller Pieter Meijer Warnars on Vijgendam Amsterdam. It was painted by Johannes Jelgerhuis and dates from 1820. The original is in the Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands in Amsterdam, which I’ve been to (though I do not remember seeing this exact painting). As its title suggests, it’s a bookstore, which is a venue you don’t see very often in paintings of this era. Although I study the period 1810-1820, until seeing this picture I confess I had no idea what a bookstore might have looked like at that time, nor had I wondered, but now I know.

Books were a big deal in Europe and America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Pieter Meijer Warnars was a well-known publisher and bookseller in Amsterdam, and from this picture he seems to have dealt mostly in big-ticket items, leather-bound and hand-crafted books that would have been quite expensive and were aimed at wealthy educated people, almost exclusively men. Printers and bookshops did print lots of books and pamphlets for common people, which sold like hotcakes (Isaiah Thomas of Massachusetts made his fortune doing that sort of thing), but those were usually staple-bound without durable covers, unlike the magnificent books you see on the walls here. The man at the counter may be making a deal for a set. Publishers often offered sets of books from an author or on a theme, such as “Here are the great Roman classics,” or “Here are Shakespeare’s plays,” in sets of bound matching volumes that sold for a high price. Many of the old volumes you see in the rare books rooms of modern libraries come from these sets. Note the bustling street scene visible outside the front door, and the traditional Amsterdam architecture.

I couldn’t find out much about Johannes Jelgerhuis, except that he was known more for being an actor than an artist. Though the son of an Amsterdam portraitist who evidently taught him to paint, Jelgerhuis is remembered mostly as an acting teacher, sort of the Lee Strasberg of 19th century Holland. He died in Amsterdam in 1836.

Amazing what you see in the world’s art collections, and how many have been digitized!

This painting is in the public domain. The original is owned by the Rijksmuseum.