War, trade, and religion: Factors shaping the Dutch golden Age of painting and its legacy.
By Jack Boreham s1024801
The Dutch Golden Age of painting spanned roughly the entire seventeenth century and was a period in which the artists of the time transformed the style, accessibility and the way the skill of painting was perceived by the rest of Europe. It caused a shift away from the previous notion that art was expensive and reserved only for the wealthy or the Church. The movement is a testament to the strength of the cultural identity of the newly emerging republic. Its distinct characteristics clearly reflect the universal feeling of the national identity, with the move away from Catholicism and the flourishing economic prominence, while also taking influences from the surrounding areas, this is a classically Dutch manifestation in that it’s a nation formed of many surrounding peoples who unified through a set of common national ideals: freedom, religion, and prosperity. We look to identify the combination of factors and influences that helped cultivate such a successful and historically significant period in art. Factors including; the religious identity of the nation, which sparked a whole new perspective on the content of paintings that were being produced. The technical improvements and advances in understanding artistic techniques, as the business boomed artists had to hugely boost their output to accommodate the demand. As well as the social and economic climate that permitted the large consumer market, which instigated a high-volume industry of art, producing a period of massively competitive artistry, giving us arguably some of the finest paintings to ever be produced. The essay aims to analyse to what degree these factors contributed to the success of the period and whether we can identify the main reason which cemented the period as one of such significance in art history.
The birth of the Dutch republic and flourishing of the Golden Age.
The factor that sparked the birth of the Golden Age and subsequently the rich increase in painting, was religion. The Dutch had managed to with some degree of success achieve reformation under the rule of Charles V, Holy roman emperor, in the first half of the 16th century, as noted by Koningsberger ‘They had no quarrel with Charles V, who in the first place was one of them, having been born in Ghent, and who allowed them a high degree of autonomy in their own affairs’ 1 However, when Charles abdicated in 1555 he left the low countries and the 17 provinces to his son Philip II, a nationalist, expansionist and fanatical champion of Catholicism. His first act was to enforce harsh financial demands as well as commanding the suppression of protestant sects including most importantly Calvinism. The direct result of this was the ‘Beeldenstorm’2 in 1566, a series of iconoclastic attacks on Catholic churches and monasteries across the Low Countries, resulting in the obliteration of much of the Catholic influenced art, statues and architecture that had previously occupied the Low Countries. This laid the foundation for change as a hole had been left for a new interpretation of art and painting to take hold and dominate, but not before Philip II waged what would transpire to be a long and brutal war for independence for the people of the Lowlands. This would leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the Dutch who would go on to ban the commission of art in churches, limiting their permitted decoration to only the organ, demonstrating how strongly they resented Catholicism and the ideology that surrounded it.
The aggressive military action of Philip II in his crusade to defend Catholicism led to the migration of religious refugees to the Netherlands from the south and other areas of Europe which Philip was forcing under Spanish control. In particular, after Philip conquered the city of Antwerp (which was renowned at the time for being one of the biggest and most significant ports and economic hubs in Europe) in 1585, he gave the Protestants 4 years to either leave or convert to Catholicism. Approximately only 40 percent of the inhabitants remained after the siege of Antwerp 3, the survivors of the other 60 percent, mainly Protestants, fled north to Holland and more specifically Amsterdam. Amongst them were many wealthy traders and skilled workers, this created a diverse and tolerant society of merchants and tradesmen that would cause Amsterdam to become the new economic center of Europe.
As the city of Amsterdam began to flourish people flooded north to seek political refuge and social stability. This paired with the emphisis that the reformed church placed on education as a part of religious progression developed a culture of intelligence and forward thinking. The Dutch were widely recognised to be at the forefront of science and technology as well as philosophy, with names such as Baruch Spinoza the philosopher and Christiaan Huygens the physicist. The University of Leidenso it only stood to reason that they would soon conquer the arts. the Netherlands became an extremely urban society with 60 percent of the population living in cities, in which the working people held most of the wealth, rather than the landowning classes which was the case in most countries at the time. There still existed and landed aristocracy but it was relatively minor, made up of around a dozen families at the beginning of the seventeenth century4. This idea of wealth being held by the working man was the product of Calvinism, it was the religious ethos that the Dutch man should be self-sufficient, productive in society and frugal in his indulgences. This defined the Dutch society as financially forward thinking and the economic power was widely regarded to be in the hands of the bourgois rather than a stifling monarchy as was the case in the rest of the Euopean powers.
This encouraged economic success throughout the first half of the seventeenth century and caused the cities to grow rapidly. The East India Company (VOC) formed in 1602, an international trade company which would go on to become the largest trade organization in the world5, dominating trade and holding a monopoly on many commodities across the globe including spices and porcelain in Asia and the Slave trade in America, cementing the Netherlands as the epicentre of international commerce. This typified the capitalist nature and the growth mentality of the country, the populations of Amsterdam, Leiden and Haarlem all more than doubled from 1600-16476. This created a quickly expanding middle class of merchants, bankers, and skilled tradesman who could now afford to purchase and hang paintings in their own homes, something previously reserved for the ultra-wealthy and the church. A new type of consumer had been created and with it there had to follow an increased in production.
Although the birth of a capitalist society accounts for the influx of wealth and the potential for people to purchase art, it does not explain why there was such voracious demand for the paintings. Especially as comparably at the time, France, a much bigger country had a far smaller art market and far fewer painters than the Netherlands even though the arts had been actively encouraged by Louis XIV. One explanation for the Dutch desire for paintings is related to the population’s national pride and affection for their land and home. “A considerable proportion of inhabitants of Dutch towns had more than sufficient income to provide for their fundamental needs. Many chose to spend their surplus on furnishing for their homes, including pictures. This lead to a great demand for paintings at low prices. Since these paintings were to be hung in rooms of ordinary Dutch houses, most of them were small.”7 This was a new kind of patronage. Painting was no longer primarily limited to the reaches of church or aristocracy but was accessible to everyone, even in rural Zeeland, farmers in the eight- eenth century owned on average between five and ten paintings8. It was a change that would shape Dutch art.
This new consumer market caused an explosion in the number of artists and the number of paintings being produced throughout the seventeenth century. Between 1600 and 1635 the number of painters in Haarlem increased by almost double and then doubled again by 1650. In the Hague the figures soared from 75 by the end of 1610, to 200 during the 20s and it is thought that there were to be as many as 300 painters active during the 30s.9 It has been estimated that by 1650 there were as an artist for each 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants. During the Dutch Golden Age of painting it is widely thought that between five and ten million pieces were painted. Theses figures clearly represent the scale of the output as well as the national feeling toward the consumption of art, which I think was key in leaving such a lasting mark on history.
A change in subjects and their influences.
The subject matter of painting in the Dutch Golden Age was extremely distinctive and moved in a new direction as a result of the consolidation of Calvinism, previously the main patrons of art had been churches and wealthy individuals, and as a result the majority of Dutch Golden Age paintings did not share the same grandeur and drama as their Flemmish contemporaries, who were still painting heavily religiously themed works surrounding the Counter reformation10. The Dutch however favoured more secular subjects, in keeping with their Calvinist values and putting more emphasis on every day life and eathly subjects such as the world around them. The works produced are commonly definined by five typical types of painting which were supposedly ordered with regard to their prestigiousness, these were, in descending order of status:
1. History paitings, depicting Biblical and historical scenes.
2. Portrait painting, including the tronie. ( A popular type of portrait which expressed movement and expression of the scene at the moment of painting.)
3. Genre painting, these depicted snapshots of daily life
4. Landscape painting, including seascapes and cityscapes were hugely popular.
5. Still life painting, usually collections of everday objects, particularly flowers
As there was paiting permitted to be commissioned
The methods and techniques used during in dutch golden age painting were a combination of northern European influences that were initially exhibited in the Northern reneissance throughout the 15th and 16th century, pioneered by several notable early netherlandish painters, most significantly Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Durer.
• The move away from the traditional subject matter of the bible and historical events created a market never seen before
• The influences of early netherlandish painters with new realism techniques and
Decline and legacy.
Just as the dawn the of the Golden Age instigated the period of artistic prominence and facilitated its expansive growth, its demise also coincided with the collapse of the art market. This was a result of the outbreak of the Franco-Dutch war in 1672, in which France invaded the Netherlands in an attempt to regain economic dominance. The Dutch retreated breaking the dykes and flooding much of the land, already under harsh trade interference from the English this caused the Dutch economy to collapse and is widely known as the ‘Rampjaar’ or disaster year. As the economy fell through the art industry could no longer be supported and famous artists who had enjoyed successful careers such as Vermeer now found themselves bankrupt.
Identifying one sole reason for the longevity and significance of the Dutch Golden Age of painting is extremely difficult, as has been outlined throughout the essay it is a rich and complex combination of factors that created such a uniquely enormous and popular art market. It could definitely be said that the climate of war and economic boom were the key factor as the sheer magnitude of the amount of art being created, bought and sold as a result of the Dutch Golden
1 Hans Koningsburger: The World of Vermeer: 1632-1675, New York, 1967, pp. 29
4 The national gallery of art: Painting in the dutch golden age – a profile of the seventeenth century, p.28
6 Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic (Oxford, 1995), pp. 328, 332.
7 Madlyn Mille Kahr, Dutch painting in the Seventeenth Century, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco and London, 1978, p. 10
8 Ibid. Public and private spaces: works of art in seventeenth-century Dutch houses, Zwolle 2000. p. 296
9 Prak, Maarten. “Guilds and the Development of the Art Market during the Dutch Golden Age.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, vol. 30, no. 3/4, 2003, pp. 236–251.
Rembrandt vs Vermeer.