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: A Bowl by Jacob Boelen


Marvin D. Schwartz



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The newest addition to the Bell Collection is a New York drinking bowl of particular importance.1 Made by Jacob Boelen in about 1690, the bowl is disarmingly simple in design and characteristic of the best New York craftsmanship of the time.Nothing is known of the early history of this piece. It turned up recently on the antiques market but had not been recorded in the catalogs of early American silver that have been appearing since the beginning of this century. It is precisely like several known pieces by contemporaries of Jacob Boelen and fits into a group of about twenty-five recorded examples so that there was no problem of identification for connoisseurs of American silver.2The new acquisition, only 1 1/2" high and 4 1/8" in diameter, has been called a winetaster's bowl which implies a grander beginning than would have been possible in 17th-century New York.3 Undoubtedly it did function as a bowl for drinking, but the documentation uncovered so far offers no clues to suggest if there had been some special ritual associated with the group originally. The bowl is obviously a small version of the design with details modified to suit the new scale. Decoration on the larger bowls is more elaborate. A favorite motif for the repoussé ornament within the six panels into which the bowl is divided is a variety of tulip. The handles are cast caryatids in scrolls rather than the simpler spiral twisted design on the small examples.Large or small, the two-handled panelled bowl is a form that seems to be unique to the New York area.4 It is a variant of a type that was made in the Netherlands and elsewhere on the continent, but there are decorative elements that make it easy to distinguish the New York examples from those made in the Old World. The examples that are closest have different kinds of handles and are divided into panels more emphatically. The repoussé ornamentation, on the other hand, is readily associated with the Dutch tradition. It is applied to relatively thin-gauged metal that was often used by Dutch craftsmen, and the motifs can be found in work by Dutch silversmiths. Although caution is required in generalizations of this sort because English silversmiths in the 16th and 17th centuries were influenced by colleagues from The Netherlands, by the end of the 17th century the English tradition involved exploiting the qualities of silver by using it in designs that were simple and classical in metal that was relatively thick. The Dutch influence is seen in early New England silver to a very minor degree, and then only in objects modelled on English prototypes. In New York the influence was more profound and more consistent.The New York style is shown very well in the work of the maker of the bowl under discussion, Jacob Boelen. He was an able craftsman who worked between about 1680 and the year of his death, 1729. Boelen had been brought to New Amsterdam as a child in 1659 so that he received his training in the New World. In reviewing the twenty or so recorded examples of Boelen's work it becomes clear that English and Dutch models serve as the poles between which a majority of what he did could be placed.5 He did several beakers used for communion in local churches. These duplicate typical Dutch beakers, probably because the churches preferred keeping to the design of the beakers that had been brought from The Netherlands. The sides flare out towards the mouth, and around the base there is cast of stamped ornament. Engraved decoration on the sides consists of an architectural framework with oval enclosures for symbolic figures. At the other extreme, and completely English in inspiration, is the spout cup in the Metropolitan Museum collection. The simple globular body and its cylindrical neck as well as the restrained cover with its classical finial reflect English influence even though the conservatism of the handle makes it apparent that it may not have been the London fashion at the moment it was made. (Cornelius Kerstede's tea kettle made for Anne Van Cortlandt—now in the Metropolitan Museum—is more fashionable but not more English in spirit.) At its most distinctive New York silver combines English and Dutch influences, with popular English shapes being adapted to the taste of New Yorkers by embellished with ornament that is Dutch. A great example of this is to be seen in a teapot made by Boelen for the Philipse family (also in the Metropolitan Museum) which is in a shape favored by London craftsmen, but the diamond band stamped around the base, the wavy band at the base, and the gadrooning on the cover as well as the thinness of the metal are all concessions to New York taste. Tankards also demonstrate the combination. The basic shape is English and based on 17th-century examples, but New York craftsmen tended to add details that would be unusual anywhere else. The base of a New York tankard is emphasized by a band of decoration. Either the stamped pattern, cut leaf, or wavy lines are used with a heavy molding separately or in combination around the base, and cast ornament is added to the handle. Boelen also followed the local practice of employing the cocoon-shaped thumbpiece to achieve a distinctive New York type of tankard. The two-handled bowls, however, are more of a problem than other forms encountered. The curving sides of the larger examples are placed on a cylindrical foot so that the form seems to be based on the simple Oriental punch bowl and rendered in a novel way with familiar Dutch elements of decoration. Although not the first time a ceramic form has inspired a silver shape, the panelling and the decoration seem too important to be simple tricks to pretty up an exotic form, so that it is possible that there were intermediary influences which have now disappeared. Craftsmen's skills involved the knowing interpretation of familiar designs rather than the working out of new ideas.The combination of exotic details in the shape and ornament with classical elements in the handles and frames of the panels is in the spirit of the Baroque style which was in fashion in the 17th century, and one other aspect of that style may help to explain why Boelen simplified the tulip design of the larger examples into an almost geometric tree motif. Baroque design tends to be monumental, and the parts of a piece, whether a chair, a bowl, or a building, are put together architectonically. The artist builds up a piece by adding each of the elements. This is in contrast, for example, to later styles where the approach is organic and one part seems to merge with another as in the case of any living thing. In scaling down the panelled bowl, it retains its basic monumentality when the design is simplified and the relationship between the ornament and the piece itself is the same in both sized. The twisted spiral handles are a simpler Baroque solution to the design for handles, and the tree is an easier way of scaling down the design than making it a miniature tulip, which was done in another instance by Boelen.Jacob Boelen's bowl is a provocative work in that it represents an approach to design that is important but neglected in current studies. It is a handsome addition to any collection and particularly useful in the context of the Bell collection which includes so many characteristic New York examples.Marvin D. Schwartz combines curatorial and editorial tasks. He has just completed fourteen years as Curator of Decorative Arts at the Brooklyn Museum and contributes a weekly article on antiques to the New York Times.Endnotes
  1. 67.9 The James S. Bell Memorial Fund. Silver, 1 1/2" x 4 1/8". It bears on the bottom the mark of its maker, the initials IB (J's were never used), slightly worn by age.
  2. Twenty examples are mentioned in the articles by John Pearce in Antiques Magazine (October, 1961), p. 341, and (October, 1966), p. 524.
  3. The possible use of the bowl as a marriage cup was suggested by Miss Avery when she sought new plausible explanations of the form. See C. Louise Avery, Early American Silver (New York, 1930), p. 136.
  4. Ibid., Pearce's article of 1961 also stresses the Dutch sources of inspiration very logically.
  5. New York silversmiths and their work are covered particularly well in the catalogs of three exhibitions: C. Louise Avery, Early New York Silver (The Metropolitan Museum, Dec. 8, 1931 to Jan. 31, 1932); V. Isabelle Miller, New York Silversmiths of the Seventeenth Century (Museum of the City of New York, Dec. 5, 1962 to Feb. 1, 1963); Kathryn C. Bahler, Colonial Silversmiths, Masters and Apprentices (Boston: The Museum of Fine Arts, 1956).
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Jacob Boelen. American (1680-1729). Shallow Drinking Bowl, ca. 1690. Silver, 1 1/2" x 4 1/8". The James S. Bell Memorial Fund, 67.9.
  2. Hallmark appearing on the bottom of the Boelen bowl.
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Source: Marvin D. Schwartz, "A Bowl by Jacob Boelen," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 56 (1967): 11-15.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009