The seventeenth century is rightly referred to as a Golden Age of Dutch art, as the United Provinces establishes its independence, declared in 1581 and recognized officially in 1648, from Spanish Habsburg rule. Schools of painting arise in cities such as Amsterdam, Delft, Haarlem, Utrecht, and Dordrecht, where a variety of genres are developed and the production of decorative arts flourishes. Civic bodies and wealthy lay citizens, including merchants who make their fortunes in Holland’s vast overseas trade empire, are key patrons. Meanwhile, the Southern Netherlands remains under Catholic Habsburg rule, and church commissions proliferate. The port city of Antwerp is a major cultural and commercial center and home to the two greatest Flemish masters of the age: Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641). The widely traveled Rubens, whose professional life extends beyond visual artistry to political diplomacy, plays a vital role in the spread of Baroque ideals from their fountainhead in Rome to the North.
During the eighteenth century, the Low Countries, exhausted by intermittent wars of the previous century for political independence and trading rights, slips from cultural prominence and wealth. Rival countries England and France meanwhile rise to great political power and economic strength, and are the seat of major intellectual developments that give rise to the Enlightenment and the Neoclassical movement in the arts and architecture. Shortly after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792, the region falls under French occupation. The arts of this time are marked by the influence of French styles: the ornate Rococo and, later, Neoclassicism.
The glassmaking industry is well established in the Low Countries, and thrives throughout the century, with centers at Antwerp, Liège, Amsterdam, and Middelburg. Drinking vessels such as berkemeyers—glasses with a thick stem and wide funnel-shaped bowl—androemers—glasses with a hollow stem studded with protruding knob-shaped decorations known asprunts—are widely popular; the most elaborate of these are ornamented with gilt or diamond-point engraving of exquisite detail. Anna Roemers Visscher (1583–1651), a member of the poet Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft’s literary circle called the Muiderkring, is one of the finest glass calligraphers of the period: her vessels are inscribed with poetic text, often in several languages, and bear delicately rendered botanicals, insects, and other decorative motifs.
Still-life painting flourishes in the Low Countries as an independent genre. Widely popular are vanitas compositions, in which objects such as skulls, bubbles, and timepieces allude to fleeting time and the ephemeral nature of worldly luxuries. Other still lifes seem to celebrate in opulent detail the very same luxuries: floral pictures painted by Balthasar van der Ast, Jan Bruegel the Elder and Younger, and many others combine in a single arrangement coveted and costly blossoms from many countries, while the “banquet” and “breakfast” still lifes of artists such as Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda allow, in their arrangement of foods, utensils, and drinking vessels, for a display of the painter’s ability to render surface detail and texture with astonishing realism.
Hendrick de Keyser (1565–1621) is appointed architect to the city of Amsterdam, where he raises churches, towers, official buildings, and secular structures such as the Zuiderkerk (1603), Westerkerk (1620), and the residence De Dolfijn (1605). The classical vocabulary with which he articulates his architectural designs is carried with even greater emphasis into his sculptural works. In 1608, he produces one of the first marble portrait busts to be made in the Netherlands. Recalling antique Roman portrait sculpture in its pensive dignity and voluminous drapery enrobing the figure, it elevates its burgher subject, Vincent Coster (1553–1608/10), to a classical majesty.
The Golden Age (1993.333), painted in this year by Utrecht artist Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), exemplifies the Northern Mannerist style—of which Wtewael is a late exponent—in its jewel-like coloring and contorted figures.
Haarlem is one of the most important cities in the Low Countries, a commercial and cultural center, home to a lively printmaking industry as well as a large community of artists, many of them Flemish settlers who bring the artistic traditions of the Southern Netherlands north to Holland. It is here that landscape painting undergoes a significant development, evolving from the fantastic compositions of the sixteenth century—in which the landscape, though often prominent, usually serves as the setting for a biblical or mythological narrative—to a more naturalistic depiction of nature, in which the landscape itself is more often the subject. Landscape artists active in Haarlem include Salomon van Ruysdael (ca. 1600–1603–1670)—who produces tonal pieces in keeping with a style tending toward monochrome that proliferates in the 1620s–50s—and his more famous nephew, Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29–1682), who brings ambitious composition and an often monumental quality to his canvases, as seen in Wheat Fields (14.40.623). Landscape production thrives in other centers as well. Aelbert Cuyp (1620–1691), active in Dordrecht and producing his mature works at mid-century, is one of the greatest painters in this genre, infusing his landscapes, townscapes, equestrian portraits, cattle pieces, and other compositions with a majesty in part effected by lighting techniques influenced by the Italian Baroque.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) returns to his native Antwerp after travels in Spain and Italy, where he absorbs the profound influence of classical and Renaissance masterpieces and secures the patronage of the clergy and ruling houses of Mantua, Genoa, and Rome. From this year he serves as official painter to archdukes Albert and Isabella in Brussels, but continues to dwell in Antwerp as one of its most influential citizens. Around this time he produces several of his greatest monumental religious works, including The Raising of the Cross (1610–11; now Antwerp Cathedral) and The Descent from the Cross (1612–14; Antwerp Cathedral). Rubens’s urbanity and imagination, matchless versatility and prolific output, personal vitality and, above all, a vitality of technique make him the greatest Flemish artist of the period and one of the most important European artists of the age. Through his deep knowledge of Italian painting, combined with extensive travels as a political emissary, he is a major contributor to the dissemination of Italian Baroque style in the North.
Peter Paul Rubens purchases a sixteenth-century building in Antwerp for use as a residence and studio and, over the next decade, remodels it to his own design. To the existing structure he adds a wing in the style of Italian palazzi, and chooses a decorative program based on classical themes (known and largely reconstructed from prints of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). The splendid portico in particular, with its Stoic inscriptions and crowning sculptures of Hermes and Athena—who together represent the union of trade and the arts—expresses Rubens’s humanist ideology. In a city dominated by Gothic structures, the Rubens House is an outstanding monument of the Baroque and a testament to the artist’s erudition as well as his gift for uniting past and present.
Thirty years after the assassination of William the Silent (1533–1584), founder of the Dutch state, Hendrick de Keyser receives the ambitious commission that results in his sculptural masterwork: a tomb for the prince at his heretofore unassuming resting place in the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft. The splendid monument of black and white marble, dinant stone, and bronze bears two lifesize images of the prince: one rests in state under an architectural canopy, presided over by the winged figure of Fame, while the other, at the front of the monument, sits, scepter in hand, as in life. Female figures representing Liberty, Faith, Fortitude, and Justice stand in niches topped by obelisks. The tomb—remarkable in the deft adoption of a classical vocabulary and expressive handling of garment drapery that are the hallmarks of de Keyser’s style—is completed in 1621, the year of the master’s death.
British nobleman Thomas Howard, second earl of Arundel, discovers Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), a precociously gifted young painter, at work in the studio of Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp, and shortly thereafter brings him to London. Van Dyck’s stay, though brief, wins him great acclaim among the English nobility. The artist then travels to Italy and France before returning in 1627 to Antwerp, where he works until late 1631. He settles permanently in England in the following year, with a short return to Flanders in 1634–35. Religious works—such as the early altarpiece Saint Augustine in Ecstasy (1628) for the Church of Saint Augustine in Antwerp—are well represented in van Dyck’s oeuvre; however, it is as a portraitist of consummate skill, sensitivity, and unrivaled refinement that he is chiefly famed. Also a gifted etcher, he compiles a series of prints, called the Iconography, depicting his most illustrious contemporaries.
In Utrecht, a group of painters led by Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629), Dirck van Baburen (1590/95–1624), and Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) work in a style influenced by Caravaggio (1571–1610), whose paintings they encounter during travel and study in Rome. Known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti, these painters produce works that reflect the innovations of the Roman master in their use of strong contrasts of light and dark, genre and history themes, and compositions of few figures in a cropped or half-length format.
Painter Frans Hals (1582/83–1666) is at the height of his success as a portraitist, executing single and double portraits as well as large canvases of civic guard companies. Hals’s works of these years and earlier employ a vivid palette and loose brushwork to suggest the play of bright light on surfaces; later works are even looser in execution, while the palette becomes more sober. In his paintings, the artist deemphasizes setting and focuses instead on the figure, giving even the characters of a nonspecific genre scene a portraitlike quality (see Young Man and Woman in an Inn, 14.40.602).
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) leaves his native Leiden and settles, for the remainder of his life, in Amsterdam. Already prolific as a painter, draftsman, and etcher of many subjects, Rembrandt secures his fame in Amsterdam with the dramatic appeal of his portraits and tronies, bust-length figural compositions—usually incorporating elaborate or exotic costume—drawn or painted from life but not intended as portraits. Rembrandt’s greatest aspiration—the depiction of historical scenes—bears abundant fruit in compositions that fuse his gift for narrative with a virtuosic sensitivity as a portraitist. Foremost among these are the group portraits of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague) and the so-called Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), painted at the peak of the artist’s fame. From this point onward, Rembrandt’s works are increasingly pensive and painterly in their execution. The artist’s preoccupation with life drawing may be seen in the many studies and self-portraits he executes throughout his career. In addition to portraits and histories, Rembrandt produces genre scenes and landscapes; his rounded mastery of several media, combined with extraordinary descriptive ability, make him the greatest Dutch artist of his century, a title acknowledged in his own lifetime in the Low Countries and beyond.
After three years of study with Rembrandt, Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) establishes his reputation as a master skilled in small-format pictures of high finish and minute detail. He is the earliest and most influential of a group of Leiden artists known as “fine painters,” or fijnschilders, whose works bear similar characteristics. Dou develops (1640s) the niche format often used by the fijnschilders to achieve a sense of spatial depth and other illusionistic effects: a window or arch frames the figural subject or interior scene and provides a ledge for the arrangement of still-life objects. He also explores the evocative potential of artificial illumination in night scenes lit by candle, lantern, or hearth. Although Dou and his pupils Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–1681) and Pieter Cornelisz. van Slingeland (1640–1691) are the finest practitioners of the genre, several generations of fijnschilders thrive in Leiden through the first half of the eighteenth century.
Judith Leyster (1609–1660), one of the few influential Dutch female painters of this period, executes The Young Flute Player (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). This masterful work, in its half-length format, simplicity of composition, tonality, and illumination, is well informed by the Utrecht Caravaggisti as well as by other masters—particularly Frans Hals—active in Haarlem, the center of Leyster’s activity.
Active in Antwerp, Adriaen Brouwer (1606?–1638) paints The Smokers (32.100.21), a panel in which the artist wittily portrays himself, the artist Jan Davidsz de Heem, and another companion partaking of one of the most popular pastimes of the period. The panel illustrates two of Brouwer’s most important contributions to genre painting in the Low Countries: the introduction of an interior setting to peasant or “low-life” scenes—in which drinking parties, card games, and brawls are carried out, often with a moralizing intent that nonetheless has a humorous aspect—and the exploration of facial expression as a graphic means of conveying extremes of emotion, from the inebriated merriment of revelers in a tavern to the pain of a patient under the surgeon’s knife.
Pieter Post (1608–1669), court architect to the Dutch stadholder Frederick Henry, designs a residence in the Hague for Frederick’s wife, the princess Amalia von Solms. Called the Huis ten Bosch, the house embodies an architectural style known as Dutch classicism. This movement is inspired by Italian models, with particular attention to Andrea Palladio’s theories of proportion, balance, and symmetry. By the end of the century, Dutch classicism reaches such a height of severity that it is called the Austere style: ornament is reduced to a bare minimum in favor of simplified monumentality.
At the cessation of Chinese porcelain export to Europe, local potteries experience a surge of expansion and success. Chief among these are the workshops in Delft; the blue and white tin-glazed earthenware plaques, dishes, and ornamental objects produced in this city often emulate Chinese models in design and ornamental motif, or serve a commemorative function, depicting actual interiors, notable persons, or monuments.
The Dutch Republic is recognized as an independent state at the Peace of Westphalia, the treaty that ends the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). In this year, work is begun on the Stadhuis, or town hall (now Royal Palace), to the design of Jacob van Campen (1595–1657), a major proponent of Dutch classicism. City architect Daniël Stalpaert (1615–1676) sees the building project through to completion in 1665. Sculptural decoration is executed by the Quellinus family of Antwerp.
Gerrit Houckgeest (ca. 1600–1661) paints the Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft, with the Tomb of William the Silent (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), his masterpiece and, beyond his own oeuvre, one of the greatest examples of architectural painting. The panel is unprecedented and later unmatched in its spatial fidelity to the subject—achieved by an oblique system of perspective—as well as in its exacting description of interior details. The practice of architectural painting is pioneered in the sensitively handled, light-filled church interiors of Haarlem artist Pieter Saenredam (1597–1665). Other masters of this genre include Hendrick Cornelisz. van Vliet (1611/12–1675) and Emanuel de Witte (ca. 1617–1691/92), a late and exceptionally gifted exponent (see Interior of the Old Church in Delft, 2001.403).
Still-life paintings produced in Amsterdam reflect the city’s status as a financial center and cultural hub. Artists including Willem Kalf (1619–1693) depict objects—many imported luxury goods—of a degree of splendor unseen in earlier still lifes. Around this time, game pieces featuring dead fowl, rabbits, and other hunting trophies, as well as still lifes with live animals rise in popularity, and allude to the comforts of an aristocratic country life. Notable among the painters of game are Frans Snyders (1579–1657) and Jan Fyt (1611–1661).
Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) registers as an independent master in the Delft guild. While most of Vermeer’s early pictures stylistically survey the works of other prominent artists of the period, his mature canvases of domestic interiors, usually inhabited by one or two figures, are characterized by compositional clarity, balance, a studied perspective, and painstakingly achieved naturalistic lighting effects. They are moreover imbued with a sense of stillness, reflective quiet, and even isolation. His works relate in many aspects—subject matter, perspectival concerns, and quality of light—to those of Pieter de Hooch (1629–1684), a close contemporary active until about 1661 in Delft.
Jan Steen (1626–1679) lives in Haarlem, where he produces masterworks of genre painting. Steen’s travels expose him to the prevalent styles and resident masters of various Dutch cities: the meticulously observed and highly finished works of painters from his native Leiden, particularly Frans van Mieris (1635–1681); the spatial and optical innovations of painters active in Delft; and the tradition of “low-life” genre painting practiced in Haarlem and exemplified by the oeuvre of Adriaen van Ostade (1610–1684), possibly Steen’s teacher. In his finest works, Steen brings to genre painting a vibrancy that results partly from the relationships he establishes between the figures depicted through expression and gesture—often sly and laden with innuendo—and partly through profuse detail, including objects that may allude to the subject matter, in either their placement or their traditional association. Steen’s canvases often illustrate moralizing proverbs and depict the dissolution—especially in the form of a chaotic household—that occurs with gluttony, sloth, or intemperate passions. During his years in Haarlem, he also produces the best of his medical scenes, which usually feature a perplexed doctor who pays a housecall to a young woman suffering not from physical illness but lovesickness.
Brussels, the center of tapestry making in the Netherlands, witnesses its greatest flourishing of production in roughly a century. The grand and theatrical designs provided from about 1610 through the first half of the century by master painters of the Baroque, such as Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), give way during these years to a more refined decorative style influenced by the developing French Rococo.
The Liège artist Gerard de Lairesse (1641–1711) paints a monumental series of seven canvases allegorizing princely virtue for the Council Room of the Binnenhof in the Hague. At work in Amsterdam since about 1665, Lairesse establishes a clientele of wealthy elite and the intellectual bourgeoisie who favor his elegant, classicizing compositions, reflective of contemporary French tastes and making a strong departure from the naturalism that has prevailed in Dutch art up to this point.
Jacob de Wit (1695–1754), the foremost Dutch decorative painter of the eighteenth century, completes Moses Choosing the Seventy Elders, one of his masterworks, for the Amsterdam Stadhuis. De Wit works in a florid Rococo style and is well known for his grisailles in imitation of sculptural relief.
The Amsterdam Academy of Drawing is founded, where Jacob Otten-Husly (1738–1796) serves as director. The Academy disseminates the theories of Neoclassicism, informed in great part by contact with France. Otten-Husly’s design for the Felix Meritis building (1787), with its colossal Corinthian columns, arched windows, and crowning pediment, attests to the master’s understanding of this idiom.
Abraham van der Hart (1747–1820), city architect of Amsterdam since 1777, designs the Maagdenhuis, a Catholic home for young women. It embodies a strict Neoclassical style that pervades Dutch architecture in the second half of the eighteenth century.
“Low Countries, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=euwl (October 2003)