A Ledger For The Soul

death-and-the-miser

Jacob Soll explores the penchant 16th and 17th century Dutch artists had for portraying accounting in their paintings, claiming that “the tradition of accounting in art shows just how much is at stake in ‘good accounting,’ and how much society can gain from seeing it, like the Dutch, not just as a tool but as a cultural principle and a moral position”:

Double-entry accounting made it possible to calculate profit and capital and for managers, investors, and authorities to verify books. But at the time, it also had a moral implication. Keeping one’s books balanced wasn’t simply a matter of law, but an imitation of God, who kept moral accounts of humanity and tallied them in the Books of Life and Death. It was a financial technique whose power lay beyond the accountants, and beyond even the wealthy people who employed them.

Accounting was closely tied to the notion of human audits and spiritual reckonings. Dutch artists began to paint what could be called a warning genre of accounting paintings. In Jan Provost’s “Death and Merchant,” a businessman sits behind his sacks of gold doing his books, but he cannot balance them, for there is a missing entry. He reaches out for payment, not from the man who owes him the money, but from the grim reaper, death himself, the only one who can pay the final debts and balance the books. The message is clear: Humans cannot truly balance their books in the end, for they are accountable to the final auditor.

(Image: Death and Merchant by Jan Provost, via WikiArt)