The 17th century in the Netherlands witnessed the rise of numerous artistic legends, such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, Pieter Claesz, Jacob van Ruisdael and others. This moment in history is referred to as the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands were home to the globe's most powerful traders and military. It was an era of prosperity in which the per capita income of the Dutch people was the highest in the world. Newfound and widespread relative wealth created the possibility for a higher quality of life: common people yearned to surround themselves with beautiful things in the privacy of their homes. As a result, the art market in the Netherlands flourished.
The 17th century saw a massive proliferation in art production across a variety of genres. The subject matter was largely secular and included portraits, still lives, genre scenes, and landscapes. It was an important moment art historically, but also represented a major shift in the mechanics of the art market. Prior to this period in history, artwork typically served religious or political purposes and was commissioned by the church, the state, or wealthy members of the aristocracy. Art was often commissioned in situ and at a large scale. It was during the Dutch Golden Age, however, that the standard artist-patron model was turned on its head: for the first time in history, artists produced uncommissioned works for an open art market.
Commissioned private works remained prevalent, but were reserved for the wealthiest of families. Because demand for art was so widespread, the most reputable and sought-after painters, typically portraitists, were expensive and often only hired to commemorate important occasions. The famous portrait painting of the wife of Alexander van der Capellen is a perfect example.
Alongside the enduring tradition of the guilds, the Dutch Golden Age supported the evolution of individual artists' reputations and markets, the most notable being Rembrandt and Vermeer. The guild system was still firmly rooted in this period, though instances of dealer-artist relationships appeared, with the most famous example being Hendrick Uylenburgh who was Rembrandt's advocate and dealer. The lives of the two men became increasingly intertwined over the course of Rembrandt's career: the artist lived at the dealer's house for a period of time in order to work out of his studio and ultimately went on to marry Uylenburgh's niece, Saskia.
Yet, it was not just the big names that were successful. Lesser-known artists working independently or within guilds enjoyed significant opportunities to sell their work through various avenues. In addition to dealer support and guild sales, art markets and fairs became extremely popular in urban centers. The sheer quantity of work available kept pricing relatively affordable, since both supply and demand were high. It has been estimated that, on average, artists needed to produce one or two paintings per week in order to earn a reasonable living.
Not unlike today, artworks were priced based on an artist's fame and technical skill, as well as the size and level of detail depicted within the work itself. Painters of the Dutch Golden Age were highly specialized in regards to their subject matter, and certain themes tended to gain more popularity among particular social strata than others. For example, it is believed that landscape painting was the most accessible and appealing to the middle classes.
Paintings of any subject matter averaged about 15 Dutch guilders each, which was roughly half a month's wage for unskilled workers. Another fascinating statistic: scholars have estimated the poorest families of Dutch society averaged about 10 paintings per household, while wealthy households averaged over 50 works of art in their collections.
Much like within today's contemporary art market, some collectors bought speculatively with the intention to resell works. A secondary market arose with secondary dealers, who were often women that bought inexpensive paintings at auctions and estate sales with the intention to resell them for profit at art fairs. The culture of the Low Countries embraced gambling and financial risk-taking, and the art market was certainly influenced by this. The most famous example of gambling culture was the “tulpenmanie” or tulip mania that swept the Netherlands in the early 17th century. The popularity of colorful tulips within the Netherlands drove the bulb future market into a highly speculative bubble that came crashing down in 1637. Before the crash, a pound of bulbs could cost 50% more than a house in Haarlem!
The Dutch Golden Age art market was longer lived than that of the tulip bubble, but it also ultimately crashed in the “disaster year” of 1672. The causes were political as much as economic: feeling threatened by the power the Dutch had amassed across Europe, Louis XIV of France declared war on the Netherlands and went on to invade the region. Many artists left the Low Countries as a result. Even though the Dutch military eventually secured power of their country, its decline as a political and cultural capital could not be reversed.
In spite of the ill-fated end of the era, the Dutch Golden Age of painting set precedent for the modern art market. Secularized and competitive in nature thanks to the numerous outlets to buy and sell, it was an exciting moment in art history, particularly because art was so valued by the public at large. Shifts in production, marketing, and sales originating in this period had long-lasting impact. The art market of the 17th century began to resemble that which we know today.
To learn more and see important works from the Dutch Golden Age of painting, visit our virtual exhibition The Golden Age: 17th-Century Dutch Painting.