The Dutch Art of Painting in the 17th Century

General History of Art during the 17th Century

by Jan Melkert

In history there are periods in which economic, scientific and cultural developments coincidence. They are the cause of an unmatched flowering period. The 17th century in the Netherlands was such a period.

We focus on the situation in the cultural sphere. When you realise, that the total number of works of art, made in the Netherlands during the 17th century, is estimated on more than two million pieces of art works (paintings as well as prints), you can only look with admiration to this century.

In the Dutch history this 17th century has received the epithet, the “Golden “ century.

In spite of the fact that the epithet “golden” has to be restricted to the first 60/70 years of that century, there is undoubtedly an incredible grow of welfare. It is also astonishing, that these economic flow happened in a relatively small country(territory) and that these provinces (gewesten) could grow to such an economic power. In another aspect these Netherlands were unique: namely the fact these provinces were an united republic and not a monarchy, as was the case in other countries.

And when we look to the arts, we can only recognize in admiration, that such a small region gave birth to such a big number of famous painters. Only to mention the most famous: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Govert Flinck, etc.etc. The fact that the Netherlands were a republic without a central authority/government like a monarch in a monarchy, had no negative influence on the state of arts. For in history the central royal court always played the role of a place of a stimulation. The nobility at the court was important, as they gave the orders for the paintings and furniture etc.

But in the Netherlands the role of a rich class of nobles was fulfilled by the so called “regenten”. This was a class of rich merchants and later a class of political elite in the cities of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. This region in the north/western part of the Netherlands with the trade activities, with the shipping activities, was the dynamic centre of financial/economic devolepments.

A negative element for the arts was the fact that the protestant religion preached a lifestyle of modesty. And the ideology of Protestantism had led to the vanishing of religion sculpture and paintings in their churches. So artists could not expect orders from the protestant clergy.

In the 17th century Dutch (but also in other European countries) painters specialized in categories. So there were the following themes/categories:

  1. Biblical themes
  2. Mythological/historical themes
  3. landscapes/ winter landscapes
  4. still lives / vanities paintings
  5. portraits of the rich economic/political elite
  6. portraits of the city guards (schutterstukken)
  7. marine paintings

Is it possible to characterise 17th century Dutch painting in a few words? Yes: We could use the word REALISM.

Another element of the 17th century was architecture; Based on the classical/Renaissance building principles there was an intensive building activity, which can still be admired in Amsterdam and other cities. The so called “herenhuizen” along the famous canals, the Amsterdam City Hall, built in the years from 1648 (nowadays the royal palace), the building of a number of churches are the witnesses of the cultural flowering of the “Golden” century of the Netherlands.


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