Muizelaar and Phillips start by giving us some fascinating glimpses of the material culture of the Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, in the 17th century. The focus of the latter two thirds of the book is "the role of paintings in the lives of wealthy Amsterdam families, particularly those in which human figures feature prominently". Indeed, they rely heavily on inventories produced by one man, Jan Pietersz Zomer, one of the first in the emerging 17th century profession of art dealer.
The authors remind us that the picture which these paintings present - the fair of face, the cultured, sunny skies - are idealised, or exaggerated - drunken low-lifes, tavern scenes, the evils of tobacco and gambling - just as in today's scenic and humorous postcards. I wanted to know more: what do the (more true-to-life) drawings and prints tell us? the lyrics of popular songs?
What of sources from other cities? Amsterdam was one of the largest and richest mercantile cities in the world: what about industrial Delft? the university town of Leiden? the aristocrats of the Hague? and what about the country folk ("boeren", farmers as well as peasants)? On the vexed question of gender roles, why were the four officially-appointed valuers ("schatsters") in Amsterdam all women? what do the records of their guild tell us?
And crucially, I wanted to know how Amsterdammers from all walks of life dealt with the contradictions between what these paintings show and tell, and their heart-felt religion, which the clerics of the Protestant conversion ("de Alteratie" which formed Amsterdam) preached from the pulpit and the pamphlet. The extensive bibliography signposts some paths for further searching.