Dutch Golden Age Painting - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Dutch Golden Age Painting
Dutch Golden Age painting was informed by a number of artistic influences, including the landscapes and village scenes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the work of the anonymous "Master of The Small Landscapes," and the Northern European Renaissance artists (such as Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, and Hieronymus Bosch and Utrecht Caravaggism). However, it was primarily a reflection of the Dutch Golden Age's cultural, economic, and scientific domination of the era.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's paintings of ordinary village life within a panoramic landscape were a primary influence upon Dutch Golden Age art, spurring the popularity of genre works, landscapes, and the overall Dutch emphasis on realistically depicting everyday existence. Breugel's work often employed the "world landscape," a construct that combined spectacular elements of European landscape, viewed from an elevated viewpoint, as seen in his Parable of the Sower (1557). The "idealized composite of the world taken in at a single Olympian glance," as described by art historian Simon Schama, was often employed within a Biblical or historical context.
The Master of The Small Landscapes
The anonymous artist, dubbed "the Master of the Small Landscapes" after his two volumes of The Small Landscapes were published in 1559 and 1561 in Antwerp, had a noted influence on Dutch Golden Age artists with his close-up views of recognizable Dutch locations. The emphasis upon the unique characteristics of Dutch landscape features, villages, and rural life connected with a rising sense of pride in Dutch identity and values. While painters in the Dutch Golden Age were to employ both the panoramic and close-up views, even artists who used the panoramic approach did so to depict actual locations with accurate detail.
Northern European Renaissance
The prints of Albrecht Dürer had a notable impact upon the flowering of printmaking in the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt van Rijn drew upon his techniques and motifs and even reinterpreted Dürer's Life of the Virgin (1503-1505) in his Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple (c. 1639). The practice of including everyday scenes as well as still life in the works of Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck influenced both the development of genre work and still life painting. Dutch artists were known to take an element like the lily in a vase in Campin's Annunciation Triptych (c. 1425) and make it into the sole subject of the painting.
A number of Dutch painters from Utrecht, including Hendrick ter Brugghen, Dirck van Baburen, Matthias Stomer, and Gerrit van Horthorst spent the early 1600s in Rome where they were influenced by Caravaggio's tenebrism technique of manipulating light and dark within a painting to create the illusion of spotlights, as well as his subject matter. Returning to Utrecht, they reinterpreted Caravaggio's genre scenes of musicians, gypsies, or card-players, as seen in Dirck van Baburne's The Lute Player (1622), which influenced Frans Hals and Judith Leyster, among others.
Frans Hals was an early pioneer of Dutch Golden Age painting, both in his portraiture and his genre work. He became famous with his group portrait The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia Company (1616), and was much sought after as a portraitist in the decades following for his realistic individualized treatments. He emphasized a character-capturing moment and the employment of natural light depicted with a visible brushstroke to convey vitality. His work in genre was equally pioneering, as shown in his Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623), depicting a cavalier and his sweetheart in a moment of merriment. He influenced many subsequent Golden Age painters including Adriaen van Ostade, Adriaen Brouwer, and Judith Leyster.
Jan Bruegel the Younger
The Dutch Golden Age pioneered stilleven, or still life. This dominant element of Dutch art developed into a number of subtypes of which floral still life was the most popular. Jan Bruegel the Elder, son of Pieter Bruegel, was an early pioneer of the floral still life, in works like his Flowers in a Wooden Vessel (1606-1607). In it, he depicted an extravagant bouquet in a simple setting, combining rare and common flowers, and displaying the blooms without overlapping to show each flower rendered with scientific accuracy. He often traveled in order to observe and paint rare flowers, his enthusiasm for the subject leading to his being dubbed the "Flower Bruegel." Floral still life was incredibly popular among the Dutch, and their enthusiasm for collecting global botanical specimens was replicated in the commercial markets as seen by the 'tulip craze,' an extravagant period of bidding and speculation upon rare tulip bulbs that sold for exorbitant sums.
The Dutch Golden Age
In 1568 the movement toward Dutch independence began with the religious rebellion of the Protestant Seven Provinces (modern day Netherlands) against the Catholic rule of Hapsburg Spain, which launched the Eighty Years' War. Independence from Spain was formally declared in 1581, though Dutch independence was not recognized by the Spanish government until 1648 at the end of the war. Religion played a leading role in the conflict, and both the Dutch Reformed church and a rising sense of Dutch nationalism informed the Golden Age. Art too took on independent directions, developing an emphasis on secular subjects, depicted not with Catholic grandeur, but emphasizing ordinary human life and realistic treatments.
Antwerp, a major economic hub, like other cities in modern age Belgium had joined in the rebellion against Spain but was conquered by Spanish forces in 1585. The terms of the city's surrender included the provision that any Protestants had to leave the city within two years. As a result, many craftsmen and wealthy merchants went north to Amsterdam, creating an influx of businesses and skilled labor. The Dutch Republic also became home to other refugees, including the Protestant Huguenots from France, Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, and the Pilgrims from Great Britain, and a thriving and tolerant cultural life developed. The Dutch Reformed church emphasized education as part of the individual's study of the Bible, and the University of Leiden became a hub for philosophy, scientific exploration and discovery. Dutch thinkers and scientists led in many fields, including the noted philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the physicist Christiaan Huygens, and the hydraulic engineer Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwate. Other famous intellectuals whose ideas had come under religious scrutiny at home, including the French philosopher René Descartes and the English John Locke, were to find refuge in the intellectual tolerance of the Republic.
World trade was the engine that drove Dutch prosperity, as the Dutch East India Company, the first multinational corporation with shares that established the first stock exchange, was created in 1602. The Dutch traded both in Europe where they bought stockpiles of grain and in Asia where they had a trade monopoly. Spices, Chinese porcelain, Japanese vessels, and rare botanical specimens became part of a prosperous lifestyle. Their wealth also had more tragic sources, derived from colonization in the Americas, and a monopoly upon the slave trade to the Americas.
The middle class and merchant class became the primary consumers of art, as the British writer Peter Munday wrote in 1640, "As for the art of Painting and the affection of the people to Pictures, I think none other go beyond them." Most works were small scale to decorate homes. Some scholars estimate that millions of art works were created in the era, as art also became a way of making a statement. Many people hung their best artworks in the large front rooms of their houses where they met the public or conducted business. While in the early 1600s there was a demand for Biblical scenes, by the mid-1600s the market was dominated by portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and genre works.
Dutch Golden Age Painting: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
A number of noted subtypes were developed under the umbrella of Dutch still life painting, which includes vanitas, floral still life, ontbijtjes ("breakfast pieces")," and Pronkstilleven (an ostentatious display of food and expensive tableware).
Vanitas paintings were still lifes that combined finely crafted items with Christian symbolism to convey a moral message of the transience of earthly life. Vanitas, meaning "vanity," drew upon the Biblical admonition in Ecclesiastes that "all is vanity," and the paintings were a primarily Protestant genre. Leiden, a Dutch city, known for its university that played an important theological role, became an early artistic center for vanitas painting, as seen in Harmen Steenwyck 's Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (c. 1640). The motif became popular throughout the Netherlands, though each city had preferred objects for inclusion, as Amsterdam favored flowers, and The Hague, known as a marketplace, favored the inclusion of food, particularly fish.
Scenes depicting lavish tables were very popular with Dutch patrons, and a number of subgenres developed, showing dinner pieces, late breakfast pieces, and the market scene. Breakfast pieces are some of the most noted artistically, due to their emphasis on composition and the treatment of light. A noted leader of the genre was Willem Claesz Heda, as seen in his Still life with oysters, a rummer, a lemon and a silver bowl (1634). Pieter Claesz was another leading proponent of the style, though his work often emphasized a vanitas theme.
Pronkstilleven, meaning ostentatious still life, began in Antwerp and was quickly taken up by the Dutch Republic. Rare or desired objects obtained by trade were often included, amongst a plethora of objects including expensive dishware, rare and common fruits and flowers, food delicacies, and game, all symbolizing a rich lifestyle. Jan Davidsz de Heem was a leader of the style in Amsterdam as seen in his A Table of Desserts (1640). Willem Kalf also played a role in developing the genre, though his work emphasized small groupings of rare objects, as seen in Pronk Still Life with Holbein Bowl, Nautilus Cup, Glass Goblet and Fruit Dish (1678).
The artists most noted for floral still life included the females Maria van Oosterwijck, Rachel Ruysch, and Maria Sibylla Meria. Rachel Ruysch was internationally renowned for her floral still lifes that employed asymmetrical compositions and the effects of light to create a sense of energetic movement. She was also very successful, her works bringing higher prices than Rembrandt van Rijn's. Maria van Oosterwijck's floral pieces often evoked allegorical and religious meaning, as in her Vanitas-Still Life (1668), which powerfully combined the two subtypes. Maria Sibylla Meria emphasized a scientific approach to her depictions of botanical and zoological specimens, and is now renowned as an early founder of entomology, being the first to record the actual life cycle of the butterfly and other species.
Landscape in the early 1600s was dominated by "the tonal style," pioneered by Esaias van de Velde. The style, as seen in his View of Zierikzee (1618), emphasized the sky and depicted the landscape with blurred outlines, all bathed in a unifying color and atmosphere. The style was widely adopted, and in particular by his student Jan van Goyen who would go on to create works in the vein such as Dune Landscape (1629).
In the mid 1600's Dutch landscape took on what was called a "classical style," informed and exemplified by the works of Jacob van Ruisdael. While retaining an atmospheric effect, his works emphasized composition, often focused on a "heroic" windmill, tree, or tower, and strong contrasts of dark and light, as seen in his Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede. At the same time he employed scientific observation. Van Ruisdael's work was both prolific and varied, as he painted not only Dutch landscapes and seascapes but Nordic forest scenes and mountains. He was also a noted teacher, as his student Meindert Hobbema became a renowned landscape artist.
Landscapes were so popular that many subgenres developed, including general subgenres like the moonlight scene, the village scene, the farm scene, and woodland scenes as well as site-specific genres such as Haerlempjes, landscapes that included a view of Haarlem, which had previously been spelled Haerlem. Jacob von Ruisdael's Haarlem with the Bleaching Fields (c. 1670-1675) was a noted example of the genre.
The most important subtypes, as they influenced later art movements and artists, were cityscapes, landscapes with animals in the foreground, and Italianate landscapes. Dutch cityscapes often emphasized views of urban life, as shown in Pieter de Hooch's The Courtyard of a House in Delft (1658). Jan Vermeer's few cityscapes included both a more panoramic view of the skyline, as seen in his The View of Delft (c.1660-1661), and his view of a city street, in The Little Street (c. 1658).
Jan Both was the leader in Italianate landscapes who was influenced by Claude Lorrain with whom he studied in Rome. Both painters produced views of idealized Italian landscapes, often containing classical ruins bathed in golden light. The style, exemplified in Both's Italian Landscape with a view of a harbor (1640-1652) was particularly favored by patrician patrons, and engravings reproducing Italianate landscapes were among the most popular of the day.
A number of artists specialized in painting landscapes with domestic animals, usually cows and horses, prominently featured in the foreground. Aelbert Cuyp was a noted master of the genre, as seen in his Cows in a River (c. 1650). Landscapes for Dutch patrons were often connected to a sense of national pride, and included elements symbolizing various Dutch values. For instance, the cow was seen as symbolizing the prosperity and the virtues of Dutch rural life. Similarly, Rembrandt's dramatic focus on a windmill in The Mill (1645-1648) evoked an identifying symbol of the Netherlands.
Drawing upon the Northern European tradition of printmaking, the noted printmakers of the Dutch Golden Age were Hercules Segers, Jacob van Ruisdael, and, towering above almost all printmakers of the era, Rembrandt. As renowned for his etchings as for his masterful paintings, Rembrandt was both innovative and prolific. He treated the plate like a canvas, leaving ink on the plate to vary different impressions of the same etching. He also innovatively reworked plates by scraping away etched areas and then redrawing with drypoint. His subjects were as widely varied as his paintings, including Biblical scenes, landscapes, portraits like Jan Lutma (1656), genre scenes like Goldsmith (1655), and nudes including his Reclining Female Nude (1658).
Innovative in both his imaginary landscapes and his pioneering printing techniques, Hercules Segers has been described by contemporary art historian Nadine Orenstein, as "one of the most fertile artistic minds of his era." He pioneered a three-tone etching process and an early method of intaglio color printing to create what were called "printed paintings." Using different colors of paper, which he painted before printing, then subsequently painting the print itself with watercolor, he created luminous landscapes keyed to the atmosphere and light of the time of day. Rembrandt admired and collected a number of his prints, as seen in his repurposing Seger's print Tobias and the Angel (c. 1633) into his own The Flight into Egypt (1653).
Jan van Ruisdael's landscape etchings were also much admired and had a long lasting influence on later landscape painting. The precise observation of his meticulously rendered locations combined with their luminous effect, as seen in his Forest Marsh with Travellers on a Bank (1640s-1650s) were to have a noted influence on later artists like John Constable and those of the Barbizon School.
While the academy considered historical painting, a category that also included Biblical, mythological, and allegorical subjects, the highest form of painting, the taste and sensibility of the Dutch Golden Age preferred works that depicted ordinary subjects. Nonetheless, masterworks of historical painting were created in the era, most notably by Rembrandt. Originally focusing on history painting, he found success as a portraitist, though his interest in history painting never faded, as seen in his Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) and his Lucretia (1664). The category also allowed for painting the nude, and his works like Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654) are the few nude masterpieces of the era.
The Dutch Golden Age developed the art of genre paintings. This included works depicting musicians, tavern scenes, housewives in quiet interiors, courtship scenes, festive occasions, and brothel scenes, to name just a few. Pieter Bruegel's scenes of village life, often pointing out human folly, influenced the development of what were called kleyne beuzelingen, or little trifles. Frans Hals led this evolution of genre painting, as seen in his Merrymakers at Shrovetide (c. 1616-1617). Judith Leyster, one of only two women to be admitted to the 17th century painters' guild, was also a noted genre painter, specializing in musicians, children at play, and merrymaking couples. Often, genre painting took on a moralizing theme, whether portraying moral turpitude with comic effect, as seen in Jan Steen's The Dissolute Household (c. 1663-1664), or emphasizing virtue, as seen in Pieter de Hooch's Interior with a Young Couple (c. 1662-1665).
Later Developments - After Dutch Golden Age Painting
The Dutch Golden Age began to decline with the start of the Franco-Dutch War, when the French invaded the Netherlands in 1672. To expel the invaders the Dutch broke the dykes, flooding much of the land, and, as a result, the Dutch still refer to 1672 as "The Disaster Year." As the economy crashed, so did the art market, impacting artists including Vermeer who went bankrupt. By the time the war ended in 1678, Dutch power had been severely diminished and the art market never recovered.
Nonetheless, Dutch genre works influenced French painters, including Jean Siméon Chardin, Jean Baptiste Greuze, and Jean Honoré Fragonard, as Rococo style, led by the French, became dominant in the early 1700s. However, in general the works of many Dutch masters, including Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer fell out of favor in the late 17th through 18th centuries. As classical refinement was favored, Hals' brushwork was critiqued as slapdash, and critics took umbrage at the gritty humanism of Rembrandt.
Rembrandt was rediscovered during the Romantic movement in the early 1800s, as the critic William Hazlitt described him as "a man of genius" who "took any object, he cared not what, how mean soever in form, color and expression, and from the light and shade which he threw upon it, it came out gorgeous from his hands." As a result, Rembrandt informed Eugene Delacroix and J.M.W. Turner, by what Turner called his "veil of matchless color." His influence on artists continued throughout the 19th century, affecting Vincent van Gogh, Auguste Rodin, and the American Thomas Eakins, and into the 20th century where he had an impact on the work of Pablo Picasso, Frank Auerbach, and Francis Bacon, and countless others.
Jacob van Ruisdael was rediscovered in the late 1700s by John Constable who owned four of the artist's etchings and copied a number of the artist's works. Subsequently, Van Ruisdael's landscapes were a primary influence upon the Barbizon School and the Hudson River School.
In 1842 the art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger rediscovered Vermeer whom he dubbed "the Sphinx of Delft," along with other Dutch Golden Age painters including Hals and Carel Fabritius. As a result a number of artists including Gustave Courbet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet were influenced by the artist's realistic depiction of ordinary life, and his painting of the effects of light. Hals' rough style had a noted influence on later artists of the Realist movement, including Gustave Courbet and Manet, as well as the Impressionists Monet and Mary Cassatt.
Additionally Dutch still lifes had a noted impact on Western art, as the subject remained popular into the modern era, as seen in the works of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Emil Nolde, Giorgio Morandi, and Henri Matisse's Variation on a Still Life by de Heem (1915). Dutch landscape painting influenced the development of the Barbizon School, the Hudson River School, Tonalism, and Luminism.