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From 1581 to 1672

Main Artistic Contributors: Franz Hals, Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Bartholomeus van der Helst‎, Jan van Goyen, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Pieter de Hooch.
Key Paintings: The Nightwatch, by Rembrandt; The Vanities of Human Life, by Harmen Steenwyck; Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer; The Laughing Cavalier, by Frans Hals.
Mostly Located At: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


1. The Dutch Golden Age: a term applied to the entire 17th century of Dutch history, when a significant economic and societal prosperity, centered around the harbour of Amsterdam, occurred. Derived greatly from the commercial trades, the Dutch witnessed a proliferation of scientific innovations, (proliferation of philosophy, astronomy, physics and the foundation of microbiology) liberal movements, (Holland becomes an independent republic) and the most praised art in the world. A unique accumulation of (…).

Context: this surge of development, prosperity and unprecedented wealth emerged in the Netherlands (a country at the time of approximately two million inhabitants), in the midst of intermittent wars and a shortage of natural resources; prolific in exports and imports, Dutch merchants traded locally especially with the Caribbean and the East Indies; simultaneously, colonies trading fur, gold and tobacco were established in North America, Brazil, and South Africa.

Intellectual Climate and Scientific Expansions: known for its intellectual and religious freedom, Amsterdam attracted thinkers from across Europe; René Descartes, established himself from France, opened the door to science; controversial works on theology, philosophy or science were often printed there and exported to the other European countries; there was a prolific publishing of maps and musical scores; the Ducth became the technological leader in various fields, with various significant discoveries in astronomy, botany, biology, and physics.

2. The Expansion of Painting: Accompanying the changes in all other fields, there was a proliferation of the discipline of painting and a greater appreciation of art. It is estimated that in 1650, more than 70,000 paintings were created annually; a profoundly prolific artistic production. Art was common and part of everyday life; as society grew wealthier, purchasing art testifying economical abundance became common in varying social classes, from tradesmen to clerks. Avoiding religious paintings, still lifes became the most popular subject, following the Baroque ‘memento mori’, which pointed to the frailty of life by depicting natural and symbolic decaying elements. Still life is mostly characterized by the works of Willem Claesz Heda and Willem Kalf. Other common subjects included mills and the countryside, communicating the pride that the Ducth had of their country. Painters guilds were a central piece of local economy; however, the abundance of art drew the prices down.

General Description/Significance:

What is it: The celebration of everyday life, reflecting the domestic tastes of the Dutch, portraying simple scenes in a modest manner and paying attention to every single detail. The works that define this artistic style were intended for decoration purposes, for their delicate and pleasing qualities, even though most are charged with symbolic content.

The Function of Art: still lifes celebrated abundance and wealth while simultaneously acting as a philosophical reminders for the impermanence of life; portraits immortalized the sitter and celebrated their economical power; but overall, art was a reminder that served to maintain the balance between the worldly and spiritual worlds;

Importance/Contribution: Thanks to the great prosperity of the movement, Dutch residents fanatically collected paintings, which launched a great increase in artistic production, with a groundbreaking mix of techniques and levels of quality.

General Characteristics: In the landscape category, with Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael; Emanuel de Witt notorious for his paintings of architecture; Frans Hals was notorious for portraits; The Dutch painters Gerard Dou and Peter Paul Rubens worked in other settings, responding to aristocratic needs across Europe.

Main Framework/Philosophy:

Ideas: Celebration of everyday life, simplicity, humility, modesty (realism of human life), and celebration of their country’s values and traditions.

Main Concepts and/or Techniques:

Death, Illness, Decay and Mortality: despite the scientific and medical advancement of the era, people continued to suffer from fatal illnesses such as the plague; there was a profound sense of disease and mortality; even Rembrandt lost three of his four children before they became adults; the presence of mortality in day to day life, translates greatly to the choice of subjects especially with the still lifes.

The Still Life: often used symbols of corruption and mortality, and the prolific use of Vanitas paintings symbolise the inevitability of death; it also featured elements of life which were unknown, rare, or expensive, such as exotic fresh flowers, special cheeses, books, and others; the symbol of the lemon, for example, is believed to symbolically represent the bitterness of overindulgence. extravagant bouquet in a simple setting, combining rare and common flowers, and displaying the blooms without overlapping to show each flower rendered with scientific accuracy – reflection of the enthusiasm for collecting global botanical specimens.

The Portrait: A lively market for portraits developed in the Republic from the beginning of the 17th century, due to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the patriciate, but it was also increasingly common for less wealthy people to have a portrait made. Portraits were seen as a status symbol and something with which to survive death. They were usually commissioned, often for special events such as a wedding. At this time, portraiture varied from the traditional Self-portrait (a stand-alone work of art, where the artist to shows who he was), Group portraits (a new phenomenon at the time, initially very formal and sleek in structure, then more lively, bringing the artform to a unique height) and the Tronies (a special form of portrait depicting a model’s head in bust length, often with an expression of grimace, always in front of a neutral background, as an exercise in portraying age, character, decoration or mood.)

The Landscape Genre: At the beginning of the 17th century, artists painted what they had observed, often from sketches made on the spot, outdoors. Slowly developing in style, the main aim was to emphasize the greatness of nature (“God’s creation”), which was often accentuated by adding separate elements, such as a heroic tree, a mill or a tower. Landscapes came in different types: the river landscapes were very Dutch, with boats on the water and the silhouette of a city in the background. Dune formations and winter landscapes were popular, as were the typical Dutch pastures with cattle.

Historical/Biblical/Mythological Painting: This genre was considered the highest form of painting in the 17th century. Their aim was to provide a suggestion of mobility, which did not alter the fact that Dutch history art was later accused of merely portraying posing figures. Thematically, Rembrandt and his followers specialized in biblical scenes in particular, often choosing far-fetched subjects, usually depicted strongly anecdotally, with a lot of attention for a psychological defining moment. The Dutch painters concentrated mainly on moving the viewer or portraying a moment of intense intimacy.


It is estimated that between 1600 and 1700 about 5 million paintings were created in the Dutch context alone.

Influenced by:

Artists: Albrecht Dürer, Caravaggio, Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Movements: Baroque, Northern Renaissance, Utrecht Caravaggism

Influences On:

Artists: Eugene Delacroix, J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Gustave Courbet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Emil Nolde, Giorgio Morandi, Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Thomas Eakins, Pablo Picasso, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon.
Movements: Romanticism, Barbizon School, Hudson River School, Realism, Impressionism, Tonalism, Luminism.


– Still Life with a Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells
By Museo del Prado

Painting in the Ducth Golden Age: A Profile of the Seventeenth Century
National Gallery of Art, Washington

-By Robert Eberhardt

-Masterpieces of Dutch and Flemish Painting
by Bernd Lindemann
in Rembrandt to Vermeer. Civil Values in 17th-century Flemish and Dutch Painting
Fondazione Roma, Museo del Corso
November 11, 2008 to February 15, 2009


Floris van Dyck, Still-Life with Fruit, Nuts and Cheese (1613)
Van Dyck’s still-life depicts a richly filled table. The apples, grapes, cheese, bread and nuts represent the five types of taste: sour, sweet, salty, savoury and bitter (respectively). It’s also worth noting the enormous sized cheeses, which tower over the rest of the items spread out (both food and utensils), barely fitting on its own plate. It’s a great example of the still-life genre, which was a fundamental aspect of the Dutch Golden Age Movement.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664)
The artist depicted a young pregnant girl holding a balance. It’s perfectly balanced, as there’s no weight on either side, which, in addition to her peaceful expression, imbues the composition with a sense of calm and serenity. The painting illustrates the day to day lives of the Dutch, typically in an interior scene and narrating their activities.

Clara Peeters, Bodegón (1611)
The work is an example of a female artist’s work, which was extremely rare at the time – showing their liberal nature. Part of a series of still-lifes, the artist rendered a sinister image of dead fowl, a eurasian sparrowhawk and some seashells. Scientific examination of the painting revealed pentimenti along the contours of the ducks left wing, indicating that the bird was originally bigger – a typical adjustment present in Peeters’ works.

Harmen Steenwyck, An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, (ca. 1640)
Harmen Steenwyck’s Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (c. 1640). A fine example of a ‘vanitas’ painting, the artist carefully chose each object – either a symbol of wealth or death – to convey its message with clarity: the ephemerality of life, the emptiness of pleasure, and the inevitability of death. Each object is of Dutch nature, greatly emphasising their culture and the scientific (nautical, philosophical and musical) discoveries.

Brueghel the Elder, Flowers in a Wooden Vessel (ca. 1607)
The colourful bouquet of flowers reflects their enthusiasm for collecting exotic botanical specimens. Set against a simple background, the contrast can also be seen as a critique to overindulgence.

Frans Hals, The Gypsy Girl, (ca. 1630)
A classic example of a tronie, the portrait traditionally depicts the model’s head and bust, with the distinctive expression of grimace. Set in front of a plain background, tronies would serve as practice to realistically show age and expression.

Rembrandt, Nightwatch (1642)

Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, The Windmill of Wijk bij Duurstedde (ca. 1670)
Jacob van Ruisdael’s The Windmill of Wijk bij Duurstede (c. 1670). River landscapes or seascapes with wide floodplains, sometimes with grazing cows and a silhouette of a city in the background were very popular. The horizon was often kept low to create more space for the characteristic Dutch cloudy skies.

Rembrandt, Lucretia (1666)
Rembrandt’s portraits display his masterful chiaroscuro technique, showing inspiration and influence from italian predecessors, like Caravaggio. Portraits would mainly focus on moving the viewer by sharing a scene of profound intimacy.~

Carel Fabritious, Goldfinch (1654)