In the nineteenth century, barn services were a frequent phenomenon in the Dutch countryside. Taking place in either the barn or another part of a farm building, the painter Hendrik Valkenburg (1826–96) harboured a longstanding wish to paint one.
It is likely that the group we see gathered in Edifying Hour in the Achterhoek is listening to a practitioner, who, walking a separate path from the official Protestant church, had a strict focus on—and an exemplary knowledge of—the Word (Kootte 2019). The practitioner is the Christian embodiment of the first verses of Proverbs 4, demanding attention for his teachings: ‘Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching’ (vv.1–2).
Traditional settings for worship (framed by solemn but grand church architecture) have been replaced here by what seems to be the kitchen area in a modest farm house, with hay on the floor and smells that can only be imagined. Several elderly and young mothers are seated, while other participants in this service are standing at the back or leaning on the furnace. Instead of a psalm board (frequently hung at the front of a church to display the psalms that would be sung or recited by the congregation), a similarly shaped wooden board with a display of spoons hangs on the wall, underscoring the homely character of the scene.
One of this work’s concerns is the honouring of tradition, and a very particular idea of what this tradition entails is evident here. For this particular religious congregation, it means valuing the fundamental role of Scripture in their lives.
It may seem remarkable, then, that the painting won a gold medal in that showcase of progress, the World Exhibition of 1883 in Amsterdam. At such exhibitions, participating nations tended to display their most state-of-the-art technology and their most innovative art and design. At the Amsterdam World Exhibition, The Netherlands presented amongst other things this prize-winning painting, and it was immediately sold to a collector.
Whereas elsewhere in Europe, and particularly in France, the Impressionist style of painting was trending, this work embodies a wholehearted appreciation of a distinctly traditional approach to Protestantism. In the context of an international occasion of nationalist display, the Dutch publicly self-identified with a God-fearing, instruction-taking group of people—like the addressees of Proverbs 4.
Kootte, Tanja. 2019. ‘Een Stichtelijk Uurtje, 6 January 2019’, www.artway.eu [accessed 24 January 2020]
4Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight;
2for I give you good precepts:
do not forsake my teaching.
3When I was a son with my father,
tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,
4he taught me, and said to me,
“Let your heart hold fast my words;
keep my commandments, and live;
5do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
Get wisdom; get insight.
6Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
7The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever you get, get insight.
8Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her.
9She will place on your head a fair garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”
10Hear, my son, and accept my words,
that the years of your life may be many.
11I have taught you the way of wisdom;
I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
12When you walk, your step will not be hampered;
and if you run, you will not stumble.
13Keep hold of instruction, do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life.
14Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of evil men.
15Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
16For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;
they are robbed of sleep unless they have made some one stumble.
17For they eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence.
18But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
19The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know over what they stumble.
20My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
21Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
22For they are life to him who finds them,
and healing to all his flesh.
23Keep your heart with all vigilance;
for from it flow the springs of life.
24Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
25Let your eyes look directly forward,
and your gaze be straight before you.
26Take heed to the path of your feet,
then all your ways will be sure.
27Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.