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Painters would often keep one or two pieces around to show off their skill to any prospective clients. Sometimes, they would have a particular painting they kept for this purpose, though this wasn’t a universal practice, as it takes a long time to produce an oil painting. Vermeer’s [*The Art of Painting*](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Painting) is the most famous example of this I can think of instantly; he painted it after being embarrassed when a foreign diplomat sought him out for a visit specially, and he had nothing in his studio.
However, I suspect most of these pieces were painted, as were most works of this time, to be sold to private collectors to decorate their homes. Genre painting of various sorts went in and out of fashion during this period; the Dutch Golden Age generally showed a diversity of subject matter that wasn’t perhaps seen again fully till the 19th century, particularly when it came to secular scenes and scenes of everyday life.