Elementary education was widespread in the northern Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Children of the upper classes were generally taught at home, but large numbers of middle-class children attended school, where they learned not only the catechism but also reading, writing and arithmentic.1 In these small schools, pupils could not be grouped by age, making class teaching impossible. Children learned the material by heart, practicing out loud, and were then tested by the master – as we see in Verelst’s painting. The quality of instruction depended greatly on the individual teacher: given the low salary, it was often not the most competent figures that took on these posts. The profession’s dubious reputation undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of ironic depictions of the schoolmaster and his chaotic classroom in seventeenth-century Dutch art, of which this work is an example.2
The subject, which gained prominence thanks to the Haarlem painters Jan Miense Molenaer (cat. no. 42), and Adriaen (cat. no. 47) and Isack van Ostade (cat. no. 48), can be traced back to sixteenth-century Flemish prints. Particularly influential in this regard was Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s print The donkey at school of 1557 (fig. 1), where we find the bedevilled schoolmaster faced not only with the usual disorderly band of children but also a donkey.3 From around 1645 Gerrit Dou (cat. no. 18) in Leiden began depicting somewhat more civilised classrooms, with only a slight mocking tone.4 In terms of style, Dou was undoubtedly the inspiration for the painting shown here: the minute brushwork of the master’s orange-red velvet beret and his pupil’s cloak, for example, clearly recalls the technique of this Leiden fijnschilder. The grey-bearded teacher also seems to have been directly borrowed from Dou.5 Verelst, however, piles on the irony: while the short-sighted master carefully studies the tip of his quill, his grinning and gesticulating students poke fun at him behind his back.
That the old schoolteacher is a comic figure is obvious, not only from the giggling boys.6 His clothes, too, are an indication that he is not to be taken entirely seriously. He wears a gown that is not only old-fashioned but also torn. The slashed velvet beret is borrowed from Dou, who used it, among others, in his scenes of doctors and schoolmasters, and in some of his self-portraits.7 Rembrandt had introduced this type of sixteenth-century headgear in his own self-portraits, thereby giving them an historical character.8 The schoolmaster’s attire thus underlines the fact that he is not of his own time. The pince-nez strengthens this impression: it is a typical attribute of the foolish pedagogue who is both literally and figuratively short-sighted.9 In the Bruegel print the same type of eyeglasses – there belonging to the donkey – are also a symbol of stupidity and lack of insight. The quill, too, is a typical motif found in these classroom scenes, for example in works by Dou and Jan Steen, where the teacher is shown cutting his pen.10 This latter can be understood as an emblem of sight,11 but also of the schoolmaster’s failings: he sharpens his pen rather than honing his pupils’ mental abilities. The master in Verelst’s painting attends only to his writing implements, ignoring the students who have brought their work for his inspection.
The extinguished lantern in the right foreground probably also has a hidden meaning: in Cesare Ripa’s handbook of symbols, the Iconologia, which appeared in Dutch translation in 1644, Knowledge is represented by a woman with a torch pointing to a book.12 The accompanying text explains that just as our eyes need light to see, reason, too, needs the visual faculties in order to arrive at true knowledge and understanding. Clearly, this kind of enlightening light is entirely absent from Verelst’s classroom.Next to the inkstand on the master’s table lies his ferule, an object that often appears in these schoolroom depictions. Discipline was generally regarded as an important element in a child’s upbringing and every teacher was supplied with a ferule or rod in order to keep his pupils in line.13 In front of the lectern are a few toys: tops, knucklebones and marbles. The spinning top in particular is often found in images of schoolmasters14 and has been linked to an emblem in Roemer Visscher’s Sinnepoppen (1614), where a top is kept spinning with vigorous lashings of the whip.15 The motto reads ‘Soo lang de Roe wanckt’ (‘As long as the rod holds sway’). The top that needs lashing is like human nature – in this case the nature of the child – which needs the scourge of hard work and strong discipline.
The classroom, with its pretty birdcage hanging from the ceiling, is not only a site of mocking; other details illustrate the daily ins and outs of school life. In the background pupils practice writing on a slate. At the right a boy hangs his wooden satchel on the wall,16 while a woman standing in the doorway comforts one of the children. The composition is quite similar to another of Verelst’s schoolroom scenes, dated 1650 (fig. 2).17 The painting, which also bears Verelst’s monogram, ‘p.ve’, includes many of the same elements: the table, the chair and the master’s ferule. At the right we find the same boy hanging up or taking down his schoolbag.18 The painting – which appears not to be mocking at all – confirms the attribution of our, unsigned, work to Verelst. It also offers an indication of a possible date, namely around 1650.
Verelst was probably from Dordrecht, where he entered the Guild of St Luke in 1638.19 From 1643 to circa 1668 he resided in The Hague, eventually leaving the city under financial duress. He may then have ceased painting, as in 1671 we find him mentioned as an apprentice brewer. At the time he was living in Hulst, near Antwerp. Nothing is known of his training, but many and diverse influences can be found in his oeuvre, which consists of still lifes, portraits and genre paintings. He painted peasant interiors in the manner of Adriaen van Ostade, Rembrandt-like history paintings and tronies, and genre scenes reminiscent of Gerrit Dou. This schoolroom scene is an excellent example of the latter.