Theses Doctoral

Plaster Casts in the Life and Art of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painters

Lores-Chavez, Isabella

In the early modern Dutch Republic, plaster casts offered artists a way to overcome limitations of space and time, to reach places distant and ancient, and to present themselves anew. This dissertation constitutes the first comprehensive account of the impact plaster casts had on the artistic practice, intellectual endeavors, and social status of seventeenth-century Dutch artists.

Though plaster casts appear in archival documents, in theoretical texts, and most of all in paintings across genres, they have been marginalized in the history of Dutch art, too often explained away as mere studio props or didactic tools. I inquire, instead, into the consequences of Dutch painters’ conscious choice to depict plaster casts after ancient and modern sculpture, at the same time they staked their claims as practitioners of a noble art. Plaster casts linked Dutch painters to antiquity, to the Renaissance, to discerning contemporary collectors, and to one another. These modest objects, full of semantic potential, were incorporated into myriad compositions in which they became signifiers of an artist’s ambitions, humanistic aspirations, and technical virtuosity.

Through novel interpretations of paintings in which plaster casts have been taken for granted, I argue that plaster casts lie at the heart of the self-awareness and artistic self-promotion manifested in the seemingly quotidian paintings of the new seventeenth-century genres. This dissertation also sets out to recognize the variety of laborers involved in the production and circulation of the actual plaster casts, though their specific identities remain largely obscured or lost in the historical record. Their absence from the corpus of images of trades and professions emerges in stark contrast to the privileged self-fashioning of Dutch painters, for whom plaster casts functioned as a means to distinguish themselves from other artisans.

I take the pictorialized encounter between plaster casts and artists as an opportunity to discern the particularities of that interaction and to explore the liveliness that plaster casts introduced into both the experience of studying casts and the compositions artists populated with them. With an invigorated focus on plaster itself as a material with a protean character and multi-purpose applications, this dissertation contributes to the discourse on Dutch painters’ naer het leven practice through an overdue analysis of the sculptural copies and other bodies in plaster that kept them company.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Freedberg, David A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 20, 2022