Dutch Golden Age painting represents an astounding period of artistic creation and cultural progress in the Netherlands. Lasting for most of the seventeenth century, it has since spawned some of the most famous art reproductions on canvas.
Given this period's complexity and sheer abundance of artistic innovation, the Dutch Golden Age captures the public imagination. Famous Dutch artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer have subsequently defined the era.
For this brief introduction, we have answered some of the most commonly asked questions about Dutch Golden Age art.
The Dutch Golden Age was an epoch of immense prosperity and cultural progress for the Dutch Republic. Characterized by social upheaval, widespread European wars, and national pride, it was an intriguing era producing some incredible artistic masterpieces.
Funding much of this was the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the Dutch East India Company), founded in 1602. Created to protect trade in the Indian Ocean and assist the war of independence against Spain, it became the largest company in the world.
Trading primarily in spices, silks, coffee, and sugar, the company ushered in the age of modern capitalism and industrialization. Unfortunately, it also significantly supported, prolonged, and profited from the slave trade.
With the influx of wealth (especially around large cities and harbor towns), Dutch arts, sciences, and military prowess flourished. Embodied by famous Dutch paintings by Rembrandt, Hals, Steen, and Vermeer, these artists and their unique creations came to define the era.
The recurrence of secular subject matter distinguishes the Dutch Golden Age art.
The country broke Catholic and monarchist cultural traditions, meaning artistic creation had to reinvent itself. Indeed, the so-called “Beeldenstorm” erupted in 1566, marking a surge of anti-Catholic iconoclasm that finally resulted in the Dutch revolt against Spanish control.
Dutch art of the seventeenth century also responded to the concurrent trends in Baroque painting. The Dutch golden age painting also evidenced exemplary realism, associated with richness, dramatic contrasts between light and dark, and narrative tension.
Despite the links with Baroque painting, Dutch Golden Age art lacked the classical idealization and splendor marking the movement. Instead, it often depicted intensely realistic (and occasionally unglamorous) insights into contemporary life and people.
Dutch golden age painting often referenced secular, everyday life. Indeed, Dutch Calvinism (the most popular branch of Christian Protestantism) forbade religious paintings inside Churches. Nevertheless, religious topics still featured in private homes, which meant some biblical narratives continued in Dutch art.
Due to the shift away from the religious subject matter, there was no defining genre of Dutch painting. Instead, Dutch Golden Age artists worked across landscapes, cityscapes, still life, animal, flower, and maritime paintings.
Despite this, today, Dutch Golden Age artists are best known for their outstanding portraiture (often showing large groups, most notably in the case of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch) and deeply atmospheric still life paintings. Landscape paintings were also popular, depicting Holland’s iconic flat fields and agricultural economy.
During this period, people subscribed to the “hierarchy of genres” within the painting. This theory prescribed various levels of prestige to different subjects. History painting sat firmly at the top of the hierarchy, commanding the highest prices and most extensive commissions.
However, history painting was challenging to sell due to the associated high prices. Indeed, Rembrandt often struggled to sell his significant historical works. As a result, many artists produced portraits, urban scenes, and genre paintings that were more easily marketable.
In descending order of prestige, the six styles of Dutch Golden Age paintings were:
Dutch Golden Age art frequently focuses on the “lower” categories of landscapes, still life, and animal paintings. Despite this, genre scenes and portraits were also incredibly popular.
The Dutch Golden Age spans a period of approximately one hundred years. Contemporary foreigners commented on the astounding number of paintings created during this time.
Large art fairs were familiar sights in Dutch society, and more than 1.3 million Dutch paintings appeared between 1640 and 1660.
The sheer volume of artworks kept prices low for most artists. Despite this, leading painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Claesz, and Frans Hals often had wealthy patrons, enabling them to earn a decent, unpredictable living from their art.
Even so, some of the greatest names in art today (including Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals) frequently struggled financially. As a result, many died incredibly poor, worked other jobs, or abandoned art in old age.
Amongst even great Dutch Golden Age painters, one name particularly stands out. That is Rembrandt van Rijn. While Rembrandt endured some periods of artistic struggle, he was well-respected during his lifetime.
Rembrandt’s early paintings include works such as Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes (1634) and Hendrickje Bathing in a River (1654). These paintings demonstrate his considerable skill and dramatic character early in his career.
Rembrandt’s most famous painting is arguably The Night Watch (1642); however, currently hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam alongside The Jewish Bride (1667).
Many Rembrandt paintings hang in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The museum holds over 400 of the artist’s oil paintings and drawings in a dedicated room, demonstrating Rembrandt’s global importance.
Vermeer was active and created artwork during the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Some of the most famous Jan Vermeer paintings, including Girl with Pearl Earring (1665), The Milkmaid (1658), and Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1664), appeared just after the mid-century boom of Dutch painting.
Johannes Vermeer oil paintings specialized in domestic interior scenes and cityscapes, often depicting humble middle-class life and everyday scenes.
Moderately successful during his lifetime, Vermeer sadly died in debt (dying in 1675). In addition, the economic downturn of 1672 (known as “the year of disaster”) damaged the art market, meaning he could not sell his work. Today, however, Vermeer reproductions remain some of the most sought-after artistic creations ever produced.
As well as Rembrandt and Vermeer, other artists of the Dutch Golden Age include Pieter Claesz, Frans Hals, Jan Davidsz de Heem, and Peter Paul Rubens. Female painters, including Judith Leyster, Rachel Ruysch, and Clara Peeters, were also working at the time.
Despite their low position on the “hierarchy of painting,” Pieter Claesz still life paintings were highly esteemed, and oil paintings such as Still Life with a Skull and Writing Quill (1628) and Still Life with Lemons and Olives (1629) met with critical acclaim.
Pieter Claesz Vanitas (1630) remains one of the most famous images of the Dutch Golden Age. These works allude to the passing of time and mortality by demonstrating the certainty of death alongside the transience of life.
Comparably, Frans Hals paintings also reference the strong Dutch vanitas tradition. His Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull (1615) exemplifies this approach. The man wears dark Calvinist attire. Although unidentified, we know the sitter was sixty years of age and commissioned the work alongside another painting of his wife.
Notwithstanding such unusual double paintings, Frans Hals is best known for his Laughing Cavalier (1624). Again, he demonstrates his proficiency in character painting; the portrait rivals Rembrandt and Vermeer for painterly skill and enigmatic psychological presentation.
Although a hotly contested topic, the most famous Dutch Golden Age painting is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp 1632 by Rembrandt van Rijn.
This oil painting is one of Rembrandt’s earliest true masterpieces. Indeed, it’s one of the first paintings signed with Rembrandt’s full name instead of his initials, demonstrating the artist’s growing self-confidence.
In their work, the anatomist Nicholaes Tulp explains the working of an arm to a group of doctors. The anatomical interior of the dead man’s arm shocks with its gory detail. Indeed, the expressions on the doctor’s faces are a masterclass in painterly skill and diversity, with each man’s intrigued and surprised face illuminated against the dark gray background.
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