The Dutch Golden Age was a period in Dutch history, roughly spanning the 17th century, in which Dutch trade, science, military, and art were among the most acclaimed in the world. The first half is characterized by the Eighty Years’ War until 1648. The Golden Age went on in peace time during the Dutch Republic until the end of the century.
In 1568, the Seven Provinces that later signed the Union of Utrecht started a rebellion against Philip II of Spain that led to the Eighty Years’ War. Before the Low Countries could be completely reconquered, a war between England and Spain (the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)) broke out, forcing Spanish troops to halt their advances and leaving them in control of the important trading cities of Bruges and Ghent, but without control of Antwerp, which was then arguably the most important port in the world. After a siege, on August 17, 1585 Antwerp fell, and the division of the Northern and Southern Netherlands (mostly modern Belgium) was defined.
The United Provinces (roughly today’s Netherlands) fought on until the Twelve Years’ Truce, which did not end the hostilities. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, brought the Dutch Republic formal recognition and independence from the Spanish crown.
Under the terms of surrender of Antwerp in 1585 the Protestant population (if unwilling to reconvert) were given four years to settle their affairs before leaving the city and Habsburg territory. Similar arrangements were made in other places. Protestants were especially well-represented among the skilled craftsmen and rich merchants of the port cities of Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. More moved to the north between 1585 and 1630 than Catholics moved in the other direction, although there were also many of these. Of those moving north, many settled in Amsterdam, transforming what was a small port into one of the most important ports and commercial centres in the world by 1630.
In addition to the mass migration of natives from the Southern Netherlands, there were also significant influxes of non-native refugees who themselves had previously fled from religious persecution, particularly Sephardi Jews from Portugal and Spain and, later, Huguenots from France. The Pilgrim Fathers also spent time there before going to the “New World.”
Several other factors also contributed to the flowering of trade, industry, the arts and the sciences in the Netherlands during this period. A necessary condition was the supply of cheap energy from windmills and from peat, easily transported by canal to the cities. The invention of the sawmill enabled the construction of a massive fleet of ships for worldwide trading and for defense of the republic’s economic interests by military means.
In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded. It was the first-ever multinational corporation, financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange. This company received a Dutch monopoly on Asian trade and would keep this for two centuries. It became the world’s largest commercial enterprise of the 17th century. Spices were imported in bulk and brought huge profits, due to the efforts and risks involved and seemingly insatiable demand. To finance the growing trade within the region, the Bank of Amsterdam was established in 1609, the precursor to, if not the first true central bank.
These various reasons for the domination of Amsterdam as a trade centre led to a trade monopoly in 1640 by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) with Japan through the trading post on Dejima. The former island in the bay of Nagasaki measured 15,000 square metres- from here the Dutch traded between China and Japan and at the same time paid tribute to the Shogun. Until 1854, the Dutch were Japan’s sole window to the western world. The collection of scientific learning introduced from Europe became known in Japan as Rangaku or Dutch Learning. The Dutch became instrumental in transmitting to Japan some knowledge of the industrial and scientific revolution that was occurring in Europe. The Japanese purchased and translated numerous scientific books from the Dutch, obtained from them Western curiosities and manufactures (such as clocks), and received demonstrations of various Western innovations (such as the demonstrations of electric phenomena, and the flight of a hot air balloon in the early 19th century). In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch were arguably the most economically wealthy and scientifically advanced of all European nations, which put them in a privileged position to transfer Western knowledge to Japan.
Dutch Golden Age Painting
Although Dutch painting of the Golden Age comes in the general European period of Baroque painting, and often shows many of its characteristics, most lacks the idealization and love of splendor typical of much Baroque work, including that of neighboring Flanders. Most work, including that for which the period is best known, reflects the traditions of detailed realism inherited from Early Netherlandish painting.
A distinctive feature of the period is the proliferation of distinct genres of paintings, with the majority of artists producing the bulk of their work within one of these. The full development of this specialization is seen from the late 1620s, and the period from then until the French invasion of 1672 is the core of Golden Age painting.
Compared to earlier European painting there was a small amount of religious painting. Dutch Calvinism forbade religious painting in churches, and though biblical subjects were acceptable in private homes, relatively few were produced. The other traditional classes of history and portrait painting were present, but the period is more notable for a huge variety of other genres, sub-divided into numerous specialized categories, such as scenes of peasant life, landscapes, townscapes, landscapes with animals, maritime paintings, flower paintings and still lifes of various types. The development of many of these types of painting was decisively influenced by 17th-century Dutch artists.
The widely held theory of the “hierarchy of genres” in painting, whereby some types were regarded as more prestigious than others, led many painters to want to produce history painting. However this was the hardest to sell, as even Rembrandt found. Many were forced to produce portraits or genre scenes, which sold much more easily. In descending order of status the categories in the hierarchy were:
- History painting, including allegories and popular religious subjects.
- Portrait painting, including the tronie
- Genre painting (or scenes of everyday life)
- Landscape, including seascapes, battlescenes, cityscapes, and ruins.
- Still life
The Dutch concentrated heavily on the “lower” categories, but by no means rejected the concept of the hierarchy. Most paintings were relatively small – the only common type of really large paintings were group portraits. Painting directly onto walls hardly existed; when a wall-space in a public building needed decorating fitted framed canvas was normally used. For the extra precision possible on a hard surface many painters continued to use wooden panels, some time after the rest of Western Europe had abandoned them; some used copper plates, usually recycling plates from printmaking. In turn the number of surviving Golden Age paintings was reduced by them being overpainted with new works by artists throughout the 18th and 19th century – poor ones were usually cheaper than a new canvas, stretcher and frame.
There was very little Dutch sculpture during the period; it is mostly found in tomb monuments and attached to public buildings, and small sculptures for houses are a noticeable gap, their place taken by silverware and ceramics. Painted delftware tiles were very cheap and common, if rarely of really high quality, but silver, especially in the auricular style, led Europe. With this exception, the best artistic efforts were concentrated on painting and printmaking.
Foreigners remarked on the enormous quantities of art produced, and the large fairs where many paintings were sold – it has been roughly estimated that over 1.3 million Dutch pictures were painted in the 20 years after 1640 alone. The volume of production meant that prices were fairly low, except for the best known artists; as in most subsequent periods there was a steep price gradient for more fashionable artists. Those without a strong contemporary reputation or fallen out of fashion, including many now considered among the greatest of the period, such as Vermeer, Frans Hals and Rembrandt in his last years, had considerable problems earning a living, and died poor; many artists had other jobs, or abandoned art entirely.
In particular the French invasion of 1672 (the Rampjaar, or “year of disaster”), brought a severe depression to the art market, which never quite returned to earlier heights. The distribution of pictures was very wide: “yea many tymes, blacksmithes, cobblers etts., will have some picture or other by their Forge and in their stalle. Such is the generall Notion, enclination and delight that these Countrie Native have to Painting” reported an English traveller in 1640. There were for virtually the first time many professional art dealers, several also significant artists, like Vermeer and his father, Jan van Goyen and Willem Kalf. Rembrandt’s dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh and his son Gerrit were among the most important. Landscapes were the easiest uncommissioned works to sell, and their painters were the “common footmen in the Army of Art” according to Samuel van Hoogstraten.
The technical quality of Dutch artists was generally very high, still mostly following the old medieval system of training by apprenticeship with a master; typically workshops were smaller than in Flanders or Italy, with only one or two apprentices at a time, the number often being restricted by guild regulations. The turmoil of the early years of the Republic, with displaced artists from the South moving north and the loss of traditional markets in the court and church, led to a resurgence of artists guilds, often still called the Guild of Saint Luke; in many cases these involved the artists extricating themselves from medieval groupings where they shared a guild with several other trades, such as housepainting.
Several new guilds were established in the period: Amsterdam in 1579, Haarlem in 1590, and Gouda, Rotterdam, Utrecht and Delft between 1609 and 1611. The Leiden authorities distrusted guilds and did not allow one until 1648.
Later in the century it began to become clear to all involved that the old idea of a guild controlling both training and sales no long worked well, and gradually the guilds were replaced with academies, often only concerned with the training of artists. The Hague, with the court, was an early example, where artists split into two groups in 1656 with the founding of the Confrerie Pictura. With the obvious exception of portraits, many more Dutch paintings were done “speculatively” without a specific commission than was then the case in other countries – one of many ways in which the Dutch art market showed the future.
There were many dynasties of artists, and many married the daughters of their masters or other artists. Many artists came from well-off families, who paid fees for their apprenticeships, and they often married into property. Rembrandt and Jan Steen were both enrolled at the University of Leiden for a while. Several cities had distinct styles and specialities by subject, but Amsterdam was the largest artistic centre, because of its great wealth.
Dutch artists were strikingly less concerned about artistic theory than those of many nations, and less given to discussing their art; it appears that there was also much less interest in artistic theory in general intellectual circles and among the wider public than was by then common in Italy. As nearly all commissions and sales were private, and between bourgeois individuals whose accounts have not been preserved, these are also less well documented than elsewhere. But Dutch art was a source of national pride, and the major biographers are crucial sources of information. These are Karel van Mander (Het Schilderboeck, 1604), who essentially covers the previous century, and Arnold Houbraken (De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen – “The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters“, 1718–21). Both followed, and indeed exceeded, Vasari in including a great number of short lives of artists – over 500 in Houbraken’s case – and both are considered generally accurate on factual matters. The German artist Joachim von Sandrart (1606–1688) had worked for periods in Holland, and his Deutsche Akademie in the same format covers many Dutch artists he knew. Houbraken’s master, and Rembrandt’s pupil, was Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678), whose Zichtbare wereld and Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst (1678) contain more critical than biographical information, and are among the most important treatises on painting of the period. Like other Dutch works on the theory of art, they expound many commonplaces of Renaissance theory and do not entirely reflect contemporary Dutch art, still often concentrating on history painting.
This category comprises not only paintings that depicted historical events of the past, but also paintings that showed biblical, mythological, literary and allegorical scenes. Recent historical events essentially fell out of the category, and were treated in a realist fashion, as the appropriate combination of portraits with marine, townscape or landscape subjects. Large dramatic historical or Biblical scenes were produced less frequently than in other countries, as there was no local market for church art, and few large aristocratic Baroque houses to fill. More than that, the Protestant population of major cities had been exposed to some remarkably hypocritical uses of Mannerist allegory in unsuccessful Habsburg propaganda during the Dutch Revolt, which had produced a strong reaction towards realism and a distrust of grandiose visual rhetoric. History painting was now a “minority art”, although to an extent this was redressed by a relatively keen interest in print versions of history subjects.
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