The marine painter Hendrik Dubbels is full of surprises. His oeuvre, published in Ulrike Middendorf's 1989 doctoral dissertation, displays such a diversity of style that Middendorf came to the plausible con- clusion that in addition to pursuing an independent career Dubbels worked with such marine artists as Simon de Vlieger, Willem van de Velde, Jan van de Cappelle, Ludolf Bakhuizen and Abraham Storck. These collaborations appear to have been dictated by financial need rather than artistic subservience, for on several occasions Dubbels found himself seriously short of cash.
Unfortunately, our knowledge of daily practice in seventeenth-century artists' studios is still rather scant. Painters belonged to the Guild of St Luke, which had strict regulations governing the profession. There were few if any art academies in the modern sense, and pupils trained with a master-painter. They gene- rally entered his studio around the age of 14, where they were initiated in the rules of art. They had to pay tuition fees, and the guild stipulated that the master had to give them a sound training and not just use them as errand boys. The advantage here, of course, was that a sound training ensured that the apprenti- ces produced good work, which upheld the reputation of the profession. A master was not usually allo- wed to have more than two apprentices at any one time, but occasionally this rule was waived in return for a contribution to the guild funds. After two years, providing a pupil showed talent, he could be pro- moted to assistant. When an assistant was sufficiently advanced he could submit his "master's piece" to the guild. Only recognised masters had the right to sign their works and set up a studio of their own.
There was a huge market for paintings in Holland in the seventeenth century. There were no royal pat- rons, so artists worked instead for the more prosperous sectors of society. Prices were low, which is why painters often had a second source of income. Jan Steen, for example, ran an inn and a brewery, and Meindert Hobbema was an inspector of wines. Studios, too, often doubled as art galleries, selling not only their own output but also readily saleable pictures by other artists. Although special commissions and works by highly-rated artists could fetch hundreds, if not thousands of guilders, prices for an average painting ranged from a 1 or 2 to 20 or 30 guilders. For that kind of money there was no point in sitting around, brush in hand, waiting for inspiration to strike. Most artists needed other sources of income to put food on the table.
It is not known when Dubbels registered as a master with the guild, but it was probably in the early 1640s. His first dated painting is from 1641. His earliest pictures were executed entirely in the style of Jan Porcellis's monochrome grey seascapes. Later, around 1650, his work betrays the unmistakable influence of Simon de Vlieger, the leading marine painter of the day, who was able to command high prices. De Vlieger's studio must have been a real breeding ground for new talent. Graduates included Willem van de Velde the Younger and Jan van de Cappelle. Dubbels probably worked as De Vlieger's assistant for sever- al years, judging by the number of paintings from the 1650s which are either copies after the great mas- ter's work or display his influence. The status of an assistant who was also a registered master is not enti- rely clear. Did he have the right to sign and sell one painting a year, like an apprentice, or did he have to place his talents entirely at his employer's disposal?