Dutch School of Painting Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the northern provinces of the Netherlands, Dutch Baroque artists, appealing to a prosperous merchant class, achieved a heightened sense of realism in portraiture and in landscape and genre painting. The representation of native Dutch themes, domestic interiors, and objects became distinctive features of the Dutch school of art.

Summary of Event

The Dutch Wars of Independence Dutch Wars of Independence (1568-1648) from Spain, also known as the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), witnessed a scission of the former Spanish Netherlands into two separate regions. To the south and east, the Flemish and Walloon provinces of what is now Belgium remained under Spanish rule, and an independent United Provinces (now called Holland, or the Netherlands), emerged in the north, proclaiming Calvinism its official religion. [kw]Dutch School of Painting Flourishes (mid-17th cent.) [kw]Painting Flourishes, Dutch School of (mid-17th cent.) [kw]School of Painting Flourishes, Dutch (mid-17th cent.) Art;Mid-17th cent.: Dutch School of Painting Flourishes[1660] Cultural and intellectual history;Mid-17th cent.: Dutch School of Painting Flourishes[1660] Netherlands;Mid-17th cent.: Dutch School of Painting Flourishes[1660] Painting;Dutch Baroque Art;Baroque Baroque style;Dutch painting

In the early seventeenth century, the Dutch (northern) Netherlands, free from Spanish dominion but plagued by numerous wars, assumed a leading role among European nations in art, scholarship, science, and trade. The thriving Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company , founded in 1602, followed by the creation of the Amsterdam exchange bank in 1609 and the Dutch West India Company Dutch West India Company in 1621, brought tremendous wealth into the country. The expansion of local industry, notably in shipyards, sugar refineries, fishing, and textiles, contributed to the growth of a prosperous merchant class.

The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp (1632) established Rembrandt as a master painter in the competitive world of portraiture in Amsterdam. The work was his first major group portrait, depicting an anatomist and his students.

(Harry N. Abrams)

Along with the nation’s increased wealth and independence came an atmosphere of tolerance and innovation. Lacking support from the Roman Catholic Church and the Habsburg nobility, Dutch artists were compelled to seek new clients and adapt their craft if they were to survive in the evolving marketplace. The nascent Calvinist church, fraught with controversy and iconoclastic zeal, did not offer a suitable alternative. Appealing instead to the republican tastes of wealthy merchants, patricians, aristocrats, guilds, and local government, innovative artists abandoned the flamboyant Baroque style favored by Church and aristocracy in other parts of Europe and offered instead a greater sense of realism in portraiture and in landscape and genre painting.

In the absence of munificent patrons, artists produced noncommissioned art for sale on an open market. This represented a noteworthy evolution in the way art was produced. Paintings tended to be smaller in size, not only to limit the artist’s production expenditures but also to accommodate the average Dutch burgher’s budget and the space available for artistic display in homes. According to Philips Angel’s Lof der schilder-konst (in praise of painting), a speech before the Leiden painters’ guild in 1641 and published the following year, a painter’s primary task was to delight the beholder’s eye. Although academic theory from Carel van Mander’s Mander, Carel van Het schilder-boeck (1604; The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, The (Mander) , 6 vols., 1994-1999) to Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Hoogstraten, Samuel van Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst (Hoogstraten) (1678; introduction to the academy of painting) continued to play an important role in artists’ choice of subjects, composition, and techniques, Angel’s golden rule proved especially well suited to the practical constraints of a buyer’s market. Hence, the producers of noncommissioned art, particularly genre and landscape paintings, strived to delight the eye while appealing to the lifestyle, preoccupations, and moral values of the Dutch middle class.

Jan Vermeer’s well-known, oft-reproduced painting, The Artist and His Studio (1665-1670), is a premier example of Dutch genre painting, with its attention to detail, intense natural light, and its reverence for the common.

(Harry N. Abrams)

The Golden Age of Dutch painting spans roughly three generations of artists, including Frans Hals, Hals, Frans Rembrandt Rembrandt , Jan Vermeer, Vermeer, Jan and Meindert Hobbema Hobbema, Meindert . Among early seventeenth century Dutch painters, Hals stands out both in portraiture and genre painting for his ability to seize the vitality and spontaneity of his subjects. His Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard Company Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard Company (Hals) (1616) and Regents of the St. Elizabeth Hospital at Haarlem Regents of the St. Elizabeth Hospital at Haarlem (Hals) (c. 1641) are examples of the commemorative group portrait common in Dutch painting of the period. Typically, individuals represented in group portraits would each pay a portion of the artist’s fee. Rembrandt, some twenty years younger than Hals, also was a master of portraiture and excelled in the use of light and shadow to create texture and space and to focus attention. In addition to group portraits such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, The (Rembrandt) (1632) and The Night Watch Night Watch, The (Rembrandt) (1642), Rembrandt also produced individual portraits, self-portraits, etchings, drawings, dramatic historical pieces based on biblical and classical themes, and landscapes.

Specialization in one style of painting was also common among Dutch artists. A host of painters sometimes referred to as the Little Masters specialized in specific types of small-format still life, landscape, or genre painting. Jan Josephszoon van Goyen, Goyen, Jan Josephszoon van Jacob van Ruisdael, Ruisdael, Jacob van and Hobbema garnered international acclaim in landscape artistry, where dunes, windmills, livestock, verdant meadows, river scenes with sails and masts, isolated country roads, and panoramic horizons abound. Adriaen van Ostade Ostade, Adriaen van (1610-1685), dean of the Haarlem painters’ guild of Saint Luke in 1662, painted scenes of peasant life filled with local color. An early master of still life, Ambrosius Bosschaert, the Elder Bosschaert, Ambrosius, the Elder (1573-1621), introduced a vogue of flower painting that remained a favorite Dutch theme until the time of Vincent van Gogh(1853-1890) and beyond. The Dutch expression stilleven, from which the English term “still life” derives, came into use as a genre definition around 1653. Successive generations of artists, from Pieter Claesz van Haarlem Haarlem, Pieter Claesz van (1597/1598-1661) to Willem Kalff Kalff, Willem (1619-1693) and Jan Weenix Weenix, Jan (1640?-1719), attained distinction as still life painters.

“Genre painting,” a term introduced by eighteenth and nineteenth century art historians, refers to scenes of everyday life, depictions of anonymous people engaged in ordinary activities in their natural surroundings. Closely related to portraiture, Dutch genre painting reflects the unique qualities of middle-class and peasant culture in the United Netherlands in the manner of realism, or a credible illusion thereof. Jan Steen Steen, Jan and Pieter de Hooch Hooch, Pieter de stand out as two of the period’s most accomplished painters of Dutch life. Domestic interiors and tavern scenes, featuring regional dress, architectural elements, musical instruments, families at mealtime, mothers and daughters, and music and merriment, were common motifs in their paintings.

Vermeer, a master in the genre, included maps, globes, and Asian tapestries as part of his interior decor, reminding viewers of the preeminent status of the Netherlands as a seafaring and trading nation. Vermeer’s The Astronomer Astronomer, The (Vermeer) (1668) and The Allegory of Painting Allegory of Painting, The (Vermeer) (1666-1667) are two well-known examples of his work in genre painting. Gerrit Dou Dou, Gerrit (1613-1675), a leading member of the Leiden group of fine painters (fijnschilders), produced genre paintings of remarkable detail. By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, genre painting became the most expensive category of painting on the Dutch market.


As art historians readily confirm, the catalog of Dutch artists active during the seventeenth century is quite extensive. Only about one percent of the 17 million paintings thought to have been produced in the northern provinces of the Netherlands between 1600 and 1700 are believed to still exist, yet they are among the most valued pieces in museums throughout the Western world, attracting throngs of admirers each year.

The Little Masters were, above all, intent on creating objects of beauty pleasing to the eye. Also, in the absence of hidden narratives, their paintings typically reveal more than the artists consciously intended. As documents of social history, they are reminders of a period when the middle-class became major consumers of art, a defining moment in European history, when market trends and popular demand dictated an artist’s choice of genre, subject, style, and methods of production.

One of the most endearing features of Dutch landscape and genre paintings lies in their representations of regional themes and motifs that seem to capture the very essence of seventeenth century Dutch society. Partly an illusion, perhaps, but one of enduring artistic charm.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Christopher. Dutch Landscape, the Early Years: Haarlem and Amsterdam, 1590-1650. London: Westerman Press, 1986. Multiple prefaces to this catalog of 118 prints provide detailed discussion of Dutch landscape painting.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Still Life: A History. Translated by Russell Stockman. New York: Abrams, 1999. A comprehensive study of still life painting and its history, from antiquity to seventeenth century Dutch painting and beyond.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franits, Wayne. Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A collection of articles by fourteen specialists covering major research trends.
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    xlink:type="simple">Grijzehout, Frans, and Henk van Veen. The Golden Age of Dutch Painting in Historical Perspective. Translated by Andrew McCormick. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Thirteen chapters by art historians investigate the reception of Dutch Baroque art from its origins to modern trends in research.
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    xlink:type="simple">Muizelaar, Klaske, and Derek Phillips. Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age: Paintings and People in Historical Perspective. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Examines some of the ideological underpinnings of Dutch Golden Age painting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">North, Michael. Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age. Translated by Catherine Hill. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Statistics on the historical, sociological, and economic context of Golden Age artists and art patrons.
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    xlink:type="simple">Riegl, Alois. The Group Portraiture of Holland. Translations by Evelyn M. Kain and David Britt. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1999. A classic collection of writings by the German art historian Alois Riegl (1858-1909), covering three stages of Dutch portraiture, including two in the seventeenth century. Includes an introduction by Wolfgang Kemp.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slive, Seymour. Dutch Painting, 1600-1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. A survey of Dutch painting, with sections devoted to Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and de Hooch, and to portraiture and still life, landscape, marine, and architectural painting.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Giovanna Garzoni; Frans Hals; Rembrandt; Jan Vermeer. Painting;Dutch Baroque Art;Baroque Baroque style;Dutch painting

Categories: History