The history of art in the Netherlands is largely dominated by the Dutch Golden Age — it was a period of unprecedented wealth and prosperity in the 17th-century Dutch Republic. Newly freed from the oppression of Spanish Catholic rule, the small European nation flourished in the realms of both commerce and culture. A new explosion of trade led to the rise of a wealthy merchant class, who in turn supported the proliferation of art throughout the region. Read on to learn more about this fascinating era in the history of art, as well as the artists who came after — including a rising new star in the Dutch art world today.
The Dutch Golden Age
The Dutch Golden Age emerged after the Netherlands threw off the chains of oppression of the Spanish King Charles V, who had appropriated the region as part of his vast Spanish empire in 1524. It was not until the conclusion of the Eighty Years' War in 1648 that what are today the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg regained their independence, forming the Dutch Republic. Yet, even in the decades before their formal victory, the Dutch people began to transform their role as a subordinate province into a position as one of Europe's greatest powers.
Thanks to its geographical position midway between the Bay of Biscay and the Baltic, the region became a hub for trade both within Europe and between Europe and the East. Despite Spain’s interference, Dutch merchants were able to successfully maintain their roles as the primary traders in Europe. Thus, when the provinces gained their independence and Spain fell into financial ruin, the Netherlands emerged as the chief financial center in Europe.
All of that wealth meant a flourishing of culture and commerce, and a burgeoning middle class emerged as prime clientele for a new generation of artists. The profusion of art during the Dutch Golden Age is perhaps the greatest indicator of the prosperity era. Even the lower classes were wealthy enough to purchase art, though many collected prints and etchings rather than original works — a far more affordable option.
Art of the Dutch Golden Age developed from a number of stylistic influences, but none more so than the Flemish Baroque and the Northern Renaissance. Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his sons were a primary influence upon art of the age, spurring the popularity of genre scenes and depictions of everyday life. The drama of the Baroque styles of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck in Antwerp also made its way north, though Dutch Golden Age paintings were far less idealized and flamboyant.
Somewhat surprisingly, religious and history paintings fell out of favor in the Dutch Republic during this period, though they flourished elsewhere in Europe. Instead, the Dutch clamored for rich still life paintings, genre scenes of peasants and, of course, portraiture. Newly wealthy merchants were eager to commission portraits — particularly to commemorate life’s significant milestones — and it is estimated that upwards of 1,100,000 portraits were produced during this period. The marriage portrait became a particularly powerful symbol of wealth and status for those who could afford it. Sadly, since many of these famous portrait paintings were painted on two separate panels rather than together, very few matching pairs remain extant today.
Even more tragically, it is estimated that just 1% of the paintings produced during the Dutch Golden Age remain in existence today. By the end of the 17th century, the economy began to steeply decline, drying up commissions and crippling the art market. While it never entirely recovered to become the artistic epicenter it was during the 17th century, the Netherlands has still produced a number of important artists in the centuries since. Keep reading to learn more.
Dutch Painting in the 19th Century
It was not until the mid-19th century when another significant art movement arose in the Netherlands. A group of young artists known as the Hague School rose to prominence between 1860 and 1890, following artistic trends that were emerging in France. They were particularly influenced by the French Barbizon School, a group of painters who embraced the natural landscape and led a movement towards realism in art. The Hague School painters, including Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Jozef Israels, Maris Mauve and Anton Mauve, rebelled against the artistic establishment, creating works that were in marked contrast to the idealized history and genre paintings of the academy artists.
Instead, the Hague School painters moved their easels outdoors, painting en plein air after the French fashion and capturing the light and atmosphere of their native landscape. However, unlike the Barbizon painters, the color palette of the Dutch artists tended towards somber greys, leading some art historians to refer to them as the Gray School. Yet, as their style developed and the newly emerged French Impressionists rose in influence, the palettes of the Hague School painters brightened and became more vibrant. The younger generation subsequently appropriated the looser brushwork of their French counterparts Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, lending later Hague School works a more impressionistic feel.
Vincent van Gogh
In the realm of Dutch painting, perhaps no single artist is more well known than the great Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh initially received his training from Anton Mauve, an important member of the Hague School. The young van Gogh was attracted to the realism of the Hague School, as well as the subdued colors and loose brushstrokes of artists such as Mauve, H.J. Weissenbruch, Jozef Israels and Jacob Maris. However, as he was coming of age, Impressionism was making way for Post-Impressionism in France, introducing more abstract and expressionistic elements into the art of the age. The movement inevitably made its way to the Netherlands, where it had a significant impact on van Gogh.
His early Dutch period, during which he painted in The Hague, Nuenen and Antwerp, was formative for the young artist. During these years, he learned to paint in watercolor and, more importantly, oil, which he purchased with funds from his brother, Theo. The Post-Impressionist master's compositions from 1881 to 1885 are among his earliest triumphs, and together they reveal his innate skill as a painter. His earliest recognized masterpiece De Aardappeleters (The Potato Eaters), now in the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam), was painted in 1885.
Shortly thereafter, in 1886, van Gogh moved to Paris to stay with his brother; he would spend just three years in France, ending with his infamous stay at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in the summer of 1889. Regrettably, his life was cut tragically short by suicide. Though his death ended a brief career devoid of artistic acclaim, van Gogh has since been exalted as one of the premier painters of all time. Today, his famous Dutch paintings are considered among the great masterpieces of modern art.