The vanished grandeur of accounting

Jacob Soll:

In Washington’s National Gallery of Art hangs a portrait by Jan Gossaert. Painted around 1530, at the very moment when the Dutch were becoming the undisputed masters of European trade, it shows the merchant Jan Snouck Jacobsz at work at his desk. The painter’s remarkable gift for detail is evident in Jacobsz’s dignified expression, his fine ermine clothes and expensive rings. Rendered just as carefully are his quill pen, account ledger, and receipts.

This is, in short, a portrait of not only wealth and material success, but of accounting. It might seem strange that an artist would lavish such care on the nuts and bolts of something so mundane, like a poet writing couplets about a corporate expense report. But the Jacobsz portrait is far from unique: Accounting paintings were a significant genre in Dutch art. For 200 years, the Dutch not only dominated world trade and portrayed themselves that way, but in hundreds of paintings, they also made sure to include the account books.

This was not simply a wealthy nation crowing about its financial success. The Dutch were the leading merchants of their time, and they saw good accounting as the key to both their wealth and the moral health of their society. To the audience of the time, the paintings carried a clear message: Mastering finance was an achievement requiring both skill and humility.