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Dutch Golden Age

The Dutch Golden Age was a period in Dutch history, roughly equivalent to the 17th Century, in which Dutch trade, science and art were top ranking in the world.

This article focusses on social and cultural history. For political events see also History of the Netherlands and Eighty Years' War (1586-1648).

Sections: Introduction / Social Structure / Culture / Religion / Science / Painting / Architecture / Literature / Sculpture / Music

Names are listed in alphabetical order, not in order of importance. See for more details and more people Dutch Golden Age, List Of People.

Table of contents

Introduction

Several factors have contributed to the flowering of the arts and sciences during this period.

Wealth
During a large part of the 17th century the Dutch, traditionally able seafarers and keen mapmakers, dominated world trade, a position which before to a lesser extent had been occupied by the Portuguese and Spaniards, and which later would be lost to England after a long competition that culminated in several wars (fought mainly at sea).

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) was founded. This company received a Dutch monopoly on Asian trade and would keep this for two centuries. It would become the world's largest commercial enterprise of the 17th century. Spices were imported in bulk and brought huge profits, due to the efforts and risks involved and the insatiable demand (spices masked the taste of not so fresh food). In 1609 the Amsterdam exchange bank was founded, a century before its English counterpart.

The Dutch also dominated trade between European countries. The Low Countries were favorably positioned on a crossing of east-west and north-south trade routes and connected to a large German hinterland through a major river, the Rhine. Dutch traders shipped wine from France and Portugal to the Baltic countries and returned with grain destined for countries round the Mediterranean Sea.

National industries expanded as well. Ship yards and sugar refineries are prime examples. As more and more land was made productive, partially through transforming lakes into polders, local grain production and dairy farming soared.

The flourishing Dutch trade produced a large very wealthy merchant class. The new prosperity brought more attention to and sponsorship for visual arts, literature and science.

Tolerance
The Dutch have been internationally oriented for a very long time. This may at least partially be attributed to their dependence on international commerce and good foreign relations. This national trait may in return have promoted another one, namely tolerance towards minority views and interests.

It can also be said that the Reformation had contributed to this mild attitude towards dissenters. Reformists stressed the importance of each person's individual conscience in determining how to interpret the Bible, rejecting central dogmas and a fixed clerical hierarchy to enforce them.

This almost proverbial Dutch tolerance (rather strong today, in the 17th century up to a limit, see also section religion below) made it easy for foreigners to travel or even emigrate (often as refugees) to the Netherlands. Thus some Dutch cities became to some extent a 'melting pot' as the saying goes.

Selfconsciousness
The outcome of the Dutch Revolt against Spain, better known as the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), that had been fought over religious freedom and economical and political independence, and ended in total independence of the reformist northern provinces (see also Dutch Republic), almost certainly would have boosted national morale. Already in 1609 much of this was accomplished, when a temporary truce was signed with Spain, which would last for 12 years.

Just like in the French Revolution, to name just one other example, political freedom spilled over into other areas, creating an openness to new cultural and scientific ideas as well.

Social Structure

Canal with patrician houses - Leiden

In the Netherlands the social status in the 17th century was largely determined by income. Social classes existed but in a new way. Aristocracy, or nobility, had sold out most of its privileges to cities, where merchants and their money were dominant. The clergy did not have much worldly influence either: the Catholic Church was more or less oppressed since the onset of the Eighty Years War with Spain (1568-1648). The young Protestant church was divided. This was different from neighbouring countries were social status was still largely determined by birth and would remain so till the French Revolution.

This is not to say that aristocrats were without social status. To the contrary, it meant rather that wealthy merchants bought themselves into nobility by becoming landowners and acquiring a coat of arms and a seal. Also aristocrats mixed with members from other classes in order to be able to support themselves as they saw fit. To this end they married their daughters to wealthy merchants, became traders themselves or took up public or military office to earn a salary. Merchants also started to value public office as a means to greater economic power and prestige. Universities became career pathways to such a public office. Rich merchants and aristocrats sent their sons on a so called Grand Tour[?] ('Great journey') through Europe. Often accompanied by a private scholar, preferably a scientist himself, these young people visited universities in several European countries. This intermixing of patricians and aristocrats was most prominent in the second half of the century.

Next to aristocrats and patricians came the affluent middle class, consisting of Protestant ministers, lawyers, physicians, small merchants and industrialists, and clerks of large state institutions.

Lower status was attributed to small shop owners, specialized workers and craftsmen, administrators, and farmers.

Below that stood skilled labourers, house attendants and other service personnel.

A the bottom of the pyramid were 'paupers', what Karl Marx later would call the proletariat: impoverished peasants, many of whom tried their luck in a city as a beggar or day labourer.

Because of the importance of wealth (or the lack of it) in defining someone's social status, divisions between classes were less sharply defined then elsewhere. After all fortune might change. Calvinism, where humility is preached as an important virtue, also had a lot to do with it. These tendencies have proved remarkably persistent. Modern Dutch society, though much more secularized, is still by many considered remarkably egalitarian.

Culture

The Low Countries witnessed a cultural development that stood out from neighbouring countries. With some exceptions (notably Dutch playwright Joost van der Vondel[?]) baroque did not gain much influence. Its exuberance did not fit the austerity of the largely Calvinistic population.

The major force behind new developments was formed by the citizenry, notably in the western provinces: first and foremost in Holland, to a lesser extent Zeeland and Utrecht. Where rich aristocrats often became patrons of art in other countries, because of their comparative absence in the Netherlands this role was played by wealthy merchants and other patricians.

Centers of cultural activity were town militia (Dutch: schutterij) and chambers of rhetoric (Dutch rederijkerskamer). The former were created for town defence and policing, but also served as a meeting-place for the well-to-do, who were proud to play a prominent part and paid a fair sum to see this preserved for posterity by means of a group portrait. The latter were associations on a city level, that fostered literary activities, like poetry, drama and discussions, often through contests. Cities took pride in their existence and promoted them.

Religion

Westerkerk (Western Church) - Amsterdam
built by Hendrick de Keyser (1565-1621)

Calvinism was the predominant belief in the Low Countries. This does not imply that unity existed. The opposite seems true. In the beginning of the century bitter controversies between strict Calvinists and more permissive Protestants split the country. The latter (known as Remonstrants) denied predestination and championed freedom of conscience; while their more dogmatic adversaries (known as Contra-Remonstrants) gained a major victory at the Synod of Dordrecht[?]. In the end the sheer number of reformist branches may well have worked as an antidote to intolerance.

Also humanism, of which Desiderius Erasmus was an important advocate, if not the founding father, had gained a firm foothold and was partially responsible for a climate of tolerance.

This tolerance was not so easy to uphold towards catholics, since religion played an important part in the Eighty Years War of independence against Spain (political and economic freedom were other important motives). Hostile inclinations could however be overcome by money. Thus catholics could buy the privilege to held ceremonies in a conventicle (a house doubling inconspicuously as a church), but public offices were out of the question. The same applied to Anabaptists and Jews.

All in all levels of tolerance were sufficiently high to attract religious refugees from other countries, notable Jewish merchants from Portugal who brought a lot of wealth with them. Also the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France in 1685 made a lot of French Huguenots and Jews emigrate to the Dutch Republic, many of whom were scientists. Still tolerance had its limits, as philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) would find out.

See also Dutch Golden Age, List Of People

Science

Due to its climate of intellectual tolerance the Dutch Republic attracted scientists and other thinkers from all over Europe. Especially the renowned University of Leiden (established in 1575 by the Dutch stadholder as a token of gratitude for Leiden's fierce resistance against Spain during the Eighty Years War) became a gathering place for these people. For instance French philosopher RenÚ Descartes lived in Leiden from 1628 till 1649.

Dutch lawyers were famous for their knowledge of international law of the sea and commercial law. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) laid the foundations for international law. He invented the concept of the Free seas or Mare liberum, which was fiercely contested by England, Holland's main rival for domination of world trade. He also formulated laws with regard to conflicts between nations in his book De iure belli ac pacis (On laws of war and peace).

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) was a famous mathematician, physicist and astronomer. He invented the pendulum clock, which was a major step forward towards exact timekeeping. Among his contributions in astronomy was his explanation of Saturn's planetary rings. He also contributed to the field of optics. The most famous Dutch scientist in the area of optics is certainly Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who invented or greatly improved the microscope (opinions differ) and was the first to methodically study microscopic life, thus laying the foundations for the field of cell biology.

Famous Dutch hydraulic engineers were Simon Stevin (1548-1620) who was also a mathematician and Jan Leeghwater[?] (1575-1650). Especially Leeghwater (whose name means Void of water) gained important victories in Holland's eternal battle against the sea. Leeghwater added a lot of land to the republic by converting several large lakes into polders, pumping all water out with windmills.

Again due to the Dutch climate of tolerance, book publishers flourished. Many books about religion, philosophy and science that might have been deemed controversial abroad were printed in the Netherlands and secretly exported to other countries. Thus during the 17th Century the Dutch Republic became more and more Europe's publishing house.

See also Dutch Golden Age, List Of People

Painting

As mentioned before (see section Culture) Dutch artists had quite different customers from their colleagues in other European countries, where church and nobility were major patrons. This had an influence on the themes they depicted and their pictorial style. Also many paintings were not produced for commission and found their way to auctions and art traders. This fostered specialization, by which less than brilliant painters could dedicate themselves to themes of their own choosing and still excel in a particular genre.

Popular genres were

  • historical paintings
  • portraits (both of individual persons and groups)
  • landscapes and cityscapes
  • still lifes
  • scenes of everyday life, also called genre paintings

Combinations of these categories occurred. Allegories, in which painted objects conveyed symbolic meaning about the subject, were often applied. For instance, a still life might include a skull, an hourglass and a snuffed out candle, symbols which all emphasized mortality. Also seasons were often indicated by human activities that were typical for that time of the year (skating, sowing, harvesting, etc). Paintings often had a moralistic message hidden under the surface.

Historical paintings
This category comprises not only paintings that depicted real historical events, but also paintings that showed biblical, mythological, literary and allegorical scenes. Large dramatic historical or biblical scenes were less often produced than in other countries, where religious and noble patrons of art often sought to overawe the viewer. Instead Dutch painters, especially in the northern provinces, tried to invoke emotion on the part of the spectator by letting him/her be a bystander on a scene of profound intimacy. As such Rembrandt and Rubens are striking examples of large diffences in style between Dutch painters from the northern Low Countries, the Dutch Republic, and Flanders in the south.

Many of Dutch greatest painters were inspired and influenced, as least during their formative years, by Italian paintings. Copies of Italian masterpieces circulated and suggested certain compositional schemes. Also treatment of light, in which Dutch painters would become absolute masters themselves, could partly be traced back to Italian predecessors, notably Caravaggio. Some Dutch painters also travelled to Italy to make firsthand observations.

(Group) portraits

Rembrandt The Nightwatch (1642)

Portrait painting thrived in the Netherlands in the 17th century. A great many portraits were commissioned by wealthy individuals. Group portraits similarly were often ordered by prominent members of a city's civilian guard, by boards of trustees and regents, and the like.

Especially in the first half of the century portraits were very formal and stiff in composition. Groups were often seated around a table, each person looking at the viewer. A lot of attention was paid to fine details in clothing and where applicable to furniture and other signs of a person's position in society. Later in the century groups became livelier, colours brighter.

Scientists often posed with instruments and objects of their study around them. Physicians sometimes posed together around a corpse, a so called 'Anatomical Lesson', the most famous one being Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague). Boards of trustees preferred an image of austerity and humility, by posing in dark clothes (which by their refinement of course still clearly testified of their prominent place in society), often seated around a table, a serious look on their faces. Families often had themselves portrayed inside their luxurious homes.

Most group portraits of civilian guards (Dutch: schutterstuk) were commissioned in Haarlem and Amsterdam. Here the portrayed favoured an image of might, status or even a joyous spirit. The arrangement around a table would give way in later years to a more dynamic composition, the most prominent example being Rembrandts famous The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq better known as the Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). In Amsterdam most of these paintings would ultimately end up in the possession of the city council. Many of those are now on display in the Amsterdam Historical Museum[?].

Often group portraits were paid for by each portrayed person individually. The amount paid determined each person's place in the picture, either head to toe in full regalia in the foreground or face only in the back of the group. Sometimes all group members payed an equal sum, which was likely to lead to quarrels when some members gained a more prominent place in the picture than others.

Johannes Vermeer Milkmaid 1658-1660

Scenes of every day life
Many genre paintings, which seemingly only depicted everyday life, actually illustrated Dutch proverbs and sayings, or conveyed a moralistic message, the meaning of which is not always easy to decipher nowadays. All walks of life were shown. Today these genre paintings provide many insights into the daily life of 17th century citizens of all classes.

Landscapes and cityscapes
Landscape painting was a major genre in the 17th century. Flemish landscapes (particularly from Antwerp) of the 16th century first served as an example. These had been not particularly realistic, having been painted mostly in the studio, partly from imagination. Soon this trend changed: real Dutch landscapes became prevalent. Drawings were made on site. Horizons were lowered, which made it possible to emphasize the often impressive cloud formations that were (and are) so typical in the climate of the region, and which cast a different light. Favourite topics were the dunes along the western sea coast, rivers with their broad adjoining meadows where cattle grazed, often a silhouette of a city in the distance. Winter landscapes, with frozen canals and creeks, also abounded. Of course the sea was a favourite topic as well (after all the Low Countries depended on the sea for trade, battled with it over new grounds and battled on it with competing nations). Pictures of sea battles told the stories of a Dutch navy at the pinnacle of its glory.

Architecture also fascinated the Dutch, churches in particular. Buildings were reproduced faithfully, either their exterior or interior. During the century insights into the proper rendering of perspective grew and were enthusiastically applied.

Still lifes
Still lifes were a great opportunity to show one's aptitude in painting textures and surfaces in great detail and with realistic light effects. Food of all kinds laid out on a table, silver cutlery, intricate patterns and subtle folds in table clothing, flowers, it all formed a challenge for finepainters. Painters from Leiden particularly excelled in the genre.

The most famous Dutch painters of the 17th century were: Ferdinand Bol[?], Albert Cuyp, Gerdard Dou[?], Carel Fabritius[?], Govert Flinck[?], Jan van Goyen, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch[?], Pieter Pieterszoon Lastman[?], Jan Lievens[?], Nicolaes Maes[?], Adriaen van Ostade[?], Paulus Potter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Pieter Saenredam[?], Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer

For more details and many more painters see Dutch Golden Age, List Of People

Architecture

Waag (Weigh House) - Gouda - 1667
Built by Pieter Post (1608-1669)

Dutch architecture was taken to a new height in the Golden Age. Due to the thriving economy cities expanded greatly. New town halls, weighhouses and storehouses were built. Merchants that had gained a fortune ordered a new house built along one of the many new canals that were dug out in and around many cities (for defense and transport purposes), a house with an ornamented fašade that befitted their new status. In the countryside new country houses were built, though not in large numbers.

Early in the 17th century late Gothic elements still prevailed, combined with Renaissance motives. After a few decades French classicism gained prominence: vertical elements were stressed, less ornamentation was used, natural stone was preferred above bricks. In the last decades of the century this trend towards sobriety intensified. From around 1670 the most prominent features of a housefront were its entrance, with pillars on each side and possibly a balcony above it, but no further decoration.

Starting at 1595 Reformed churches were commissioned, many of which are still landmarks today.

The most famous Dutch architects of the 17th century were: Jacob van Campen[?], Lieven de Key[?], Hendrick de Keyser[?]

For more details and names see Dutch Golden Age, List Of People

Literature

In the 17th century the center of literary activity shifted from the southern Netherlands to the northern part of the country. This was at least partly caused by the northward migration of artists and intellectuals, who took refuge from the Spanish oppression during the Eighty Years War, especially after the fall of Antwerp in 1585.

Renaissance influences were soon found in lyrical poetry and drama. Classical dramas were written, with unity of place, of time and of action, as prescribed by Aristotle. Stories were based on Dutch history and the Bible. The most famous drama was Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, written by Joost van der Vondel[?] in 1637. For centuries this piece, commonly known as The Gijsbrecht, was played in Amsterdam each year on New Year's Day, a tradition that only ended in 1968. The story is situated around 1300 and tells about the dangers that constitute a major threat to Amsterdam's existence after the death of count Floris V[?].

Baroque influences would soon show up in Dutch literature, much more so than in the other arts. Late in the century literary achievements became more rare, when writers started to imitate predecessors and to formalize literary styles.

The most famous Dutch men of letters of the 17th century were: Gerbrand Adriaenszoon Bredero[?], Jacob Cats[?], Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft[?], Joost van der Vondel[?]

For more details and names see Dutch Golden Age, List Of People

Sculpture

Dutch 17th century achievements in sculpture are valued less than in painting and architecture. Also fewer statues were created than in neighbouring countries. One reason for this was their complete absence in the interiors of protestant churches; after all objection to Roman Catholic veneration of statues had been one of the factors that led to the Reformation. Another was the comparatively small class of nobles. Sculptures were commissioned for government buildings, private buildings (often adorning housefronts) and exteriors of churches. There was a clientele for grave monuments and portrait busts were in demand.

Dutch sculptors of the 17th century were: Hendrick de Keyser[?], Artus Quellinus sr.

For more details see Dutch Golden Age, List Of People

Music

Family music-making was a favorite pastime in the 17th century. Common instruments were the lute, the harpsichord, viola da gamba and the flute. Many songbooks were published. Influences from abroad (England, France, Italy) dominated Dutch music. From mid-17th century onwards lyrical dramas[?], ballets and operas, mostly from French and Italian origin were performed at the Amsterdamse Schouwburg[?] (opened 1638).

The most famous Dutch composers of the 17th century were: Constantijn Huygens, Jan P. Sweelinck[?].

For more details and names see Dutch Golden Age, List Of People


Note
Many Dutchmen from this period had a middle name ending on szoon, which means son of. It is also commonly written as sz., for instance Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.



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