Art in the Northern Netherlands, 1585–1700

views updated


Within a few decades after Antwerp fell to the armies of Philip II in 1585, its population was reduced by half, to around fifty thousand. Because the northern Netherlands now controlled the entrance to the Scheldt River on which Antwerp lay, the city lost toAmsterdam its position as the leading port in northern Europe. Artists were among the thousands of inhabitants who fled to the northern Netherlands as Protestants sought relief from the repressive policies of the Catholic Habsburg rulers, while the ambitious followed the growing economic opportunities offered by the northern provinces. They responded to the tastes of a predominantly Protestant culture (although Catholics still made up as much as half the population) and the growing wealth of a broad middle class that was concentrated in the cities. Established churches no longer commissioned altarpieces while collectors, engaged in commerce (and many interested in the new science), developed a taste for imagery that was more secular and naturalistic than that of the previous century.


The earliest examples of a uniquely northern Netherlandish art may be located in Haarlem in the 1580s. According to his biographer, Karel van Mander (15481606) along with Hendrick Goltzius (15581617) and Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (15621638) founded an academy where they could "study after life," although this also may have referred to studies after other artists. In fact, the first works these artists produced were dramatically mannerist, a style reported to have been inspired by some drawings by Bartholomaus Spranger (15461611) and introduced to the group by Van Mander. Cornelis's monumental Massacre of the Innocents (1592, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem) with its muscular bodies in contorted poses and its dramatic recession toward a view of distant buildings flanked by an open arch, is characteristically mannerist, as are a number of masterful prints by Goltzius. After returningfrom Italyin 1591, Goltzius's work, and that of such pupils and followers as Peter de Grebber, Salomon and Jan de Bray, and Caesar van Everdingen became emphatically classicist. In Utrecht, Joachim Wtewael (15661638) also worked for a time in a mannerist style on both large canvases and small supports, for example the gem-like Mars and Venus Discovered by the Gods on copper (c. 16031604, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

The new Protestant faith had little use for religious imagery. Nevertheless, religious paintings continued to be produced (although on a much smaller scale) for hidden Catholic churches to which municipal authorities turned a blind eye, for private devotion in the home, and even for Protestant collectors. The largest concentration of Catholics, and the center of religious painting in the first half of the century, was in Utrecht. Many of these artists had traveled to Italy and, influenced by Caravaggio, have come to be known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti. These include Gerrit van Honthorst (15901656), known for his dramatic night scenes, Dirck van Baburen (c. 15901624), and Hendrik ter Brugghen (or Terbrugghen, 15881629), who spent ten years in Rome. Ter Brugghen's Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene (1625, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin) combines Caravaggio's large figures and dramatic light effects with a northern tenderness and quiet intimacy. Protestants did not eschew religious paintings altogether, however, although they tended to prefer Old Testament subjects that may have brought to mind similarities between the trials of the Israelites and the citizens of a new republic which, until 1648, was suffering from hostilities with Spain.

While the Dutch are better known for secular subjects and contemporary scenes, they also produced important history paintings. Pastoral subjects, from classical mythology and contemporary plays, were popular with members of the stadtholder's court. Later, a taste for such works was developed by wealthy burghers who increasingly aspired to an aristocratic lifestyle. Perhaps it is no coincidence that two of the most extensive sets of history paintings were commissioned at midcentury, around the time of the truce with Spain. An allegorical biography celebrating the stadtholder Prince Frederik Hendrik (15841647) was commissioned by his widow Amalia von Solms (16021675) for the Oranjezaal, the central room of her palace, the Huis ten Bosch in The Hague, from Jacob van Campen (15951657), the Flemish Protestant artist Jacob Jordaens (15931678), and others. Above all, history paintings on a grand scale were commissioned for town halls. Built between 1648 and 1655, the town hall of Amsterdam was decorated with images from classical mythology, Roman history, and from the Dutch past, including Rembrandt's Oath of the Batavians to Claudius Civilis (16611662, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), though it was removed after only a few months.

While history painting traditionally enjoyed the highest prestige, there was a tremendous demand for portraiture as well in a culture where men and women were amassing fortunes and defining new social roles. Michiel van Mierevelt (15671641) and Gerrit van Honthorst created portraits for members of the stadtholder's court in The Hague in formal poses, surrounded by signs of rank in the tradition established by Anthonis Mor (1516/20c. 1576). With lively brushwork, Frans Hals (c. 1581/851666) in Haarlem depicted his sitters not only in quiet and sober poses, but also informally as in his portrait of the couple Isaac Massa and His Wife Beatrix van der Laen seated beneath a tree in a landscape (c. 1622, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). In Amsterdam, Thomas de Keyser (15961667) invented the genre portrait, showing sitters in the full-length format normally reserved for aristocrats and monarchsbut surrounded by objects of daily life. After he moved to Amsterdam in 1631 or 1632, Rembrandt van Rijn (16061669) transformed portraiture with animated poses and facial expressions that suggest thought and emotion, the best known of which is The Night Watch (1642, Rijks-museum, Amsterdam). Later in the century Gerard Terborch (16171681) created portraits with exquisite attention to detail, particularly of fabrics, on small panels.

Genre paintingdepictions of men and women in contemporary interiors, from a broad range of social classes, and engaged in mundane taskshas always been closely associated with seventeenth-century Dutch art. Jan Steen (1625/261679) depicted humorous images of quack doctors, drunken couples, and peasants at play; Adriaen van Ostade (16101685) represented brawling peasants and affecting interiors of peasants at home. In exquisitely worked paintings, the fijnschilders (fine painters) Gerard Dou (16131675) and his student Frans van Mieris (16351681) painted quiet domestic interiors and, later, stylish scenes of men and women engaged in making music. Gerard Terborch's elegant and enigmatic scenes of courtship are the inheritors of this genre. The best known of these genre painters is Jan Vermeer of Delft (16321675) who left only about thirty works. Art historians have long debated how these images were understood: did they have moralizing associations, did they celebrate the artist's skillor both?


Nowhere is the Dutch artist's apparent close record of the world around him as evident as in still-life painting. Nonetheless, while transcribing nature in detail, these images were carefully contrived. Ambrosius Bosschaert's (15731621) exquisite flower paintings are portraits of individual flowersbut arranged in bouquets that could never have existed: many of their flowers bloomed at different times of the year. The popularity of these images, and the high prices that they fetched, went hand in hand with the high value that was placed on new floral types and a new scientific interest in botany. Later in the century, bouquet still lifes by Jan Davidsz. de Heem (16061683) are overabundant, almost a metaphor for a century exhausted by its own rapidly developing wealth.

Vanitas still lifes were popular particularly in the first half of the century. Painted in subdued monochromatic colors, those of Pieter Claesz (1597/981660/61) depict skulls, hourglasses, and smoke drifting from a pipe, all suggesting the transience of life. These images gave way in the second half of the century to pronk still lifes, exuberant showpieces of expensive objects, such as Willem Kalf's (16191693) Still Life with Nautilus Cup and Wan-Li Bowl (1662, Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, Madrid). Here the biblical figure of Jonah being devoured by a whale in the Nautilus cup may caution against the riches of the worldrepresented by the silver and gold support of the cup itselfand at the same time celebrate the painter's skill and the material goods filling Dutch warehouses from the four corners of the world. The virtuoso trompe l'oeil paintings and sophisticated perspective boxes of art theorist and painter Samuel van Hoogstraten (16271678) evidence the mathematical and scientific concerns that lay behind the close visual analysis of the material world.

The Dutch literally created much of their land, and they were among the first artists in Europe to make it the subject of a painting devoid of figures that gave it a narrative. Early winter scenes by Hendrick Averkamp (15851634) show a high horizon and are still populated with figures, people skating and enjoying being out of doors. The next generation of landscape painters, however, took the landscape itself as a subject. Jan van Goyen (15961656) produced monochromatic images, freely and quickly workedeconomic to produce for a rapidly growing market. Salomon van Ruysdael's (c. 16021670) nostalgic ferries on a river show a form of transportation that was quickly passing into history. In the second half of the century, Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/291682) produced images that monumentalize simple cloud formations, trees, windmills, and waterfalls. He created some of the only images of work on the land: the bleaching fields of Haarlem, as well as two versions of the Jewish Cemetery (c. 16551660, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden; and Detroit Institute of Arts) that are profoundly moving. It is not surprising that for a country whose wealth was built in part on maritime trade, seascapes were highly popular, including those by the Sunday painter Jan van de Cappelle (c. 16241679), and the father and son Willem van de Velde I (16111693) and Willem van de Velde II (16331707).

In observing the world around them, Dutch painters developed a unique genre, the church interior painting. The best known of these are Emanuel de Witte (16171692) in Amsterdam and Pieter Saenredam (15971665) in Haarlem. The latter's Interior of the Church of St. Bavo, Haarlem (1648, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), while appearing to record the church exactly, manipulates both the perspective and details of the interior.

While the best-known Netherlandish landscapes picture familiar Dutch topography, one landscape genre was more directly influenced by Italy: scenes with imaginative Italian ruins, Italian harbors, or rolling hills infused with a Dutchman's attention to Italian light in painting, often with small figures from biblical narratives, such as those by Cornelis van Poelenburgh (c. 15861667), Bartholomeus Breenbergh (15991657), and others known as Italianate landscape painters.

See also Amsterdam ; Antwerp ; Art: The Art Market and Collecting ; Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography ; Caravaggio and Caravaggism ; Dutch Republic ; Hals, Frans ; Mannerism ; Rembrandt van Rijn ; Vermeer, Jan .


Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago, 1983.

Briels, J. C. Peintres flamands en Hollande au début du siècle d'or, 15851630. Antwerp, 1987. Also published as Vlaamse schilders in de noordelijke Nederlanden in het begin van de Gouden Eeuw, 15851630. Haarlem, 1987.

Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 15801620. Edited by Ger Luijten et al. Exh. cat. Zwolle, 1993.

Haak, Bob. The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. New York, 1984.

Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York, 1987.

Slive, Seymour. Dutch Painting, 16001800. New Haven, 1995.

Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 15851718. New York, 1996.

. "After Iconography and Iconoclasm: Current Research on Netherlandish Art, 15661700." Art Bulletin 84, no. 2 (2002): 351372.

Ann Jensen Adams

About this article

Art in the Northern Netherlands, 1585–1700

Updated About content Print Article