The Dutch Golden Age was a period in the history of the Netherlands in which Dutch trade, science, military, and art were among the most acclaimed in the world. Roughly spanning the 17th century, the first section was characterized by the Thirty Years’ War, a war fought across central Europe between 1618 and 1648 that resulted in one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. In 1648, the Netherlands also gained independence, which allowed the Golden Age to flourish until the end of the century.
The northern Netherlandish provinces that made up the new Republic had traditionally been less important artistic centers than cities further south. The upheavals and shifts in population during the war and the sharp break with the old monarchist and Catholic cultural traditions meant that Dutch art had to reinvent itself entirely. Gone were the paintings of religious subjects and instead a new market for all kinds of secular subjects emerged.
The characteristics of Dutch Golden Age art is often likened to the general European period of Baroque painting, which is most associated with grandeur, richness, drama, movement, and tension. However Dutch Golden Age works don’t usually depict the same extravagant splendor, rather their paintings are characterized by detailed realism. Due to the shift in subject matter, the variety of genres was huge and were divided into specialized categories such as landscapes, townscapes, landscapes with animals, flower paintings, maritime paintings, and still lifes of various types.
Here we discover the artists who were a part of this resurgence in Dutch painting and contributed to defining a huge moment in art history.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669)
Rembrandt is probably one of the most well-known artists to come out of the Dutch Golden Age. A prolific draughtsman, painter, and printmaker, he is still considered to be one of the greatest visual artists of his time. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Rembrandt’s work depicts a wide range of styles and subject matter, from portraits and self-portraits to landscapes, historical scenes, mythological themes, and animal studies.
Rembrandt’s self-portraits are some of his most talked about works and the artist painted more self-portraits than any other artist of the 17th century, with about 90 in total. Using them as a way to study his face, they eventually became signifiers for his mood at the time of painting. Unusually, Rembrandt did not follow the advice that was given to young painters, namely to travel to Italy to study Italian art first hand. Instead he felt that he could learn everything he needed to from the art available in his native country. Despite this, it’s said he was considerably influenced by the work of the Italian masters and Netherlandish artists who had studied in Italy, like Pieter Lastman, the Utrecht Caravaggists, and Flemish Baroque Peter Paul Rubens.
Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675)
Johannes Vermeeris one of the great Dutch masters, though only about 35 paintings by him are known. Vermeer's earliest works of the 1650s include religious and mythological subjects as well as genre scenes. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, and frequently used very expensive pigments. As a result though, Vermeer didn’t produce the same output as his peers so his moderate success never made him wealthy. So much so that when he died he left his wife and children in debt. His subjects offer a cross-section of 17th century Dutch society, ranging from the portrayal of a simple milkmaid at work, to the luxury and splendor of rich notables and merchantmen in their roomy houses.
Frans Hals (1582 – 1666)
Frans Hals the Elder was known for his loose painterly brushwork and he helped introduce this lively style of painting into the Dutch Golden Age. Hals often incorporated the citizens of Haarlem into his paintings, creating genre scenes as well as group portraits of families and members of the civic guard.
Due to Hals’ unique style, the artist was for a long time regarded as a competent but limited painter whose consistent neglect of any subjects other than portraits gave him no place in the history of significant art. It was not until the 19th century that interest in his work was revived. He influenced Édouard Manet with his free style and Vincent van Gogh with his subtle range of colors. In modern times he has been appreciated for the serious and excellent realist painter that he was.
Jan Steen (1626 – 1679)
Jan Steen is famous for his witty moralizing scenes of domestic life and use of vibrant color. He is also well known for his mastery of light and attention to detail, most notably in Persian rugs and other textiles. Steen was prolific, producing about 800 paintings, of which roughly 350 have survived. His work was valued much by contemporaries and as a result he was reasonably well paid for his work. He did not have many students – only Richard Brakenburgh is recorded – but his work proved a source of inspiration for many painters.
He is still highly regarded today and in the Netherlands, the popular expression a "Jan Steen household" has become a part of the Dutch language to describe the kind of lively, untidy home depicted in so many of the artist’s paintings.
Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)
Rachel Ruysch was the best documented women painter of the Dutch Golden Age, partly due to a long and successful career that spanned six decades. A still-life painter from the Northern Netherlands, Ruysch specialized in flowers, and she paid extensive attention to all the details in her work. The background of Ruysch's paintings are usually dark, which was the fashion for flower painting in the second half of the 17th century. Her asymmetrical compositions with drooping flowers and wild stems created paintings that seemed to possess a great energy about them.
Ruysch's skill lay in the minute observation of each flower in an extremely naturalistic way, composed into an elaborate arrangement that would be very difficult to achieve in nature. In the 17th century the Dutch were very interested in flowers and gardening, so paintings that highlighted the beauty of nature were highly valued. This helped to build and maintain Ruysch's clientele throughout her career.
Judith Leyster (1609 – 1660)
Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster was quickly recognized as a rare talent in her native Haarlem. By just age 24 she had been admitted to the city’s prestigious painters guild. But due to years of misattribution, her name remained largely unknown until the late 19th century. Leyster painted genre works, portraits, and still lifes, and often painted energetic scenes with one or two figures engaged in fun everyday activities like music, dance, and games.
Once she married Jan Miense Molenaer, Leyter’s solo career was put on hold to look after the five children the couple had over the years. Though many believe the artist created a few paintings after her marriage and collaborated with her husband on works, but was never credited.