The Dutch Golden Age – reality & illusion

The art of painting flourished in the Netherlands in the 17th century, and masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer or Hals continue to fascinate us. The people look so real and as we peer into their houses, look out across their streets and landscapes, we feel like we could step inside the painting and walk around this world. But on what is this sense of realism based? In this article, Dr Sophie Oosterwijk, Dutch native and art historian who leads our High Art in the Low Countries tour, takes you behind the surface of reality and illusion in the Golden Age.

Even before you have ever visited Holland, you feel you know the place. After all, paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and their contemporaries from the seventeenth century – the Dutch Golden Age – are found all over the world. They have provided the inspiration for films as well as novels in recent years, such as Tulip Fever or The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. In fact, many years ago a lady in the audience asked me after one of my lectures in England: ‘I have just read a book called Girl with a Pearl Earring. Can you please tell me: is there such a painting?’ I assured her there was and recommended a visit to the Mauritshuis in The Hague where she could admire Vermeer’s masterpiece for real.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665), Mauritshuis, The Hague

Other Dutch paintings have likewise acquired iconic status: Fabritius’s Goldfinch, Vermeer’s View of Delft (pictured top – note that Vermeer actually took artistic liberties with the topography), Steen’s so-called Burgomaster of Delft (thanks to its appearance of the cover of Simon Schama’s best-selling study The Embarrassment of Riches) or the many self-portraits that Rembrandt produced during his lifetime. Estimates vary, but it has been claimed that between 1640 and 1659 alone – a mere twenty years – between 1.3 and 1.4 million paintings were created within this small country that numbered only some 2 million inhabitants at the time. This means that several million paintings must have been produced here during the whole of the seventeenth century, and yet perhaps only 1% survives.[i] Even so, this tiny percentage still leaves a staggering number that are proudly displayed by museums and collectors everywhere – and also a source of pride and delight for myself, a Dutch native and art historian.

Carel Fabritius, The Gold Finch (1654), Mauritshuis, The Hague
Jan Steen, Adolf and Catharina Croeser, a.k.a. ‘The Burgomaster of Delft and his Daughter’ (1655), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The artist shows the sitters outside on the Oude Delft canal with the leaning tower of the Oude Kerk in the background for topographical veracity

What has astonished viewers since the seventeenth century is the degree of realism that Dutch painters managed to achieve in their work. As the French art critic Eugène Fromentin famously put it in 1876: ‘We live in the picture, we walk about in it, we look into its depths, we are tempted to raise our heads to look at its sky’. He saw in Dutch art ‘an affection for the true, a love for the real’, and concluded that ‘Dutch painting was not and could not be anything but the portrait of Holland, its external image, faithful, exact, complete, life-like, without any adornment.’[ii]

Johannes Vermeer, The Little Street in Delft (c.1658), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Whether this view is faithful and exact can no longer be ascertained as the house no longer exists in this state

The astonishing thing is that this plethora of painting was produced during a time of war and colonial expansion. The small Dutch Republic emerged victorious out of the Eighty Years’ War for independence with Spain that is said to have begun in 1568 although an earlier battle was already fought (and lost by the rebels) in 1567. There was an important twelve-year truce between 1609 and 1621 by which time Holland itself – which is strictly just a coastal province in the west of the country – was free from the threat of war, which continued along the borders, however. For example, the city of Breda in Brabant was held by the Dutch leader William ‘the Silent’ of Orange until 1567 when it was confiscated by the king of Spain. It was then held again by William until reconquered by Spain in 1581, once again captured by the rebels in 1590, besieged by Spanish troops and forced to surrender in 1625 – the subject of the magisterial, if topographically unconvincing painting Las Lanzas of 1634-35 by Diego Velázquez in the Prado. And it was finally reconquered by the Dutch stadholder and military commander Frederick Henry in 1637 when the paint on Velázquez’s masterpiece must have been still fresh and barely dry. Peace was not signed until 1648 but soon after conflict began with England in the Anglo-Dutch wars that would continue far into the eighteenth century.

Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom, The Return of the Second Expedition to the East Indies, 19 July 1599 (1599), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Despite these troubles the Dutch Republic managed to build a colonial empire. In 1595, Dutch ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia to return safely back in Amsterdam two years later. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) was founded, a government-directed megacorporation that was followed in 1621 by the Dutch West India Company (W.I.C.). The V.O.C. also imported large quantities of grain and wood from the Baltic states and Poland, but it is best known for its trade with the Far East. In 1640 the V.O.C. gained a monopoly in trade with Japan that would last until 1854. Despite the dangers en route, including pirates and enemy ships, Dutch ships were able to bring back costly spices, porcelain and other luxury goods that made their way into Dutch houses – and into painting.[iii]

Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Silver Jug and a Porcelain Bowl (c.1655-60), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Thanks to the wealth thus generated by exploration and trade, the Golden Age became an unprecedented period of artistic production and rivalry: Dutch painters experimented or specialised in genres as diverse as portraiture, landscape, still life, genre and history painting, but also church interiors and animal painting. Sizes could range from small panels such as Jan Steen’s delicately painted Girl Eating Oysters to Rembrandt’s huge Night Watch (although that was not even his largest work), and techniques varied likewise, from the flamboyant loose brush strokes used by Hals to the meticulously executed, near-photographic panels by Rembrandt’s first pupil, the Leiden-based painter Gerrit Dou.

Rembrandt, The Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, a.k.a. The Night Watch (1642), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Each genre of painting itself covered a myriad of sub-categories: single portraits (bust, half-length, three-quarters or full-length), marital portraits, family groups as well as professional group portraits – civic guards, anatomy lessons, regents of the various charitable institutions, and so on. Landscapes could likewise vary from winter landscapes (a speciality of the painter Hendrick Avercamp), townscapes, river scenes, marine painting and Italianate landscapes, whereas history painting included biblical scenes but also mythology, history and allegory. As for still life, some painters focused in just one subject, such as flowers or even fish.

Pieter de Hooch, Interior with two Women beside a Linen Cupboard (1563), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Yet what may stick in the mind of visitors most is genre painting by artists such as Pieter de Hooch: often seemingly realistic domestic scenes that purport to offer the modern viewer a picture of life in the Dutch Republic. The term ‘Baroque’ does not seem to sit well with such stilled interiors as de Hooch’s Linen Cupboard in the Rijksmuseum. This work shows a scene of domestic virtue: an older woman and her younger companion busy placing a freshly-ironed pile of linen into a cupboard. Both are richly dressed so that it is unclear whether they are meant to be mother and daughter or, with artistic licence, a mistress and her servant or housekeeper. Nearby a young child is playing kolf, the precursor of golf. The figures are placed in a richly appointed room with a red-and-white tiled floor, an interior window and a staircase in the background. Behind them two open doors show us a hallway with black and white tiles on the floor, and a glimpse of the street outside and the facade of a house across the canal. Everything seems clean, tidy, safe and tranquil. With the sunshine outside it feels like a balmy summer’s day. In fact, the picture is so perfect that one might easily forget that the canals in Dutch cities such as Amsterdam, Delft and Leiden were not just pretty. The brutal reality is that they also served as open sewers and would emit an unbearable stench in summer, so that it would have been sensible to keep windows and doors firmly shut.

Otherwise, the scene seems very convincing, especially the perspective with the view across the marble floors into the space outside, known as a ‘doorkijkje’. Yet how realistic were these tiled floors really? They make perfect sense in a warm climate, but not in northern Europe during the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ when a particularly cold interval started around 1650. Art historian Willemijn Fock has demonstrated that marble floors were not as common in Dutch houses as paintings of the Golden Age seem to suggest.[iv] In fact, their apparent ubiquity may have been largely an artistic illusion instead of reality.



[ii] For these quotes from Fromentin’s The Masters of Past Time, see Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing. Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983), introduction.

[iii] For example, see Julie Berger Hochstrasser, Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age (2007); Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat. The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2008).

[iv] C. Willemijn Fock, ‘Semblance or Reality? The Domestic Interior in Seveneenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting’, in Mariët Westermann (ed.), Art & Home. Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt, exhibition catalogue (2001).

Dr Sophie Oosterwijk

Dr Sophie Oosterwijk is a Dutch art historian who has lived and worked in the UK for over 20 years. She specialises in Medieval, Flemish and Dutch art and has led and designed tours to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Spain and the United Kingdom since 1994. Sophie holds an MA and PhD in English literature from Leiden University, an MA in Medieval Studies from the University of York, and a PhD in Art History from the University of Leicester. She has taught at the universities of Leicester, Manchester and St Andrews, and is a regular guest lecturer in Continuing Education for the University of Cambridge.


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