The Dutch Golden Age: A New Renaissance

The 16th Century saw the opening of one of the longest continuous wars in human history, the Dutch 80 Year War, which was a revolt against Spanish Control over the Low Countries. It was toward the end of this interminable war that the Dutch Golden Age of Painting began and because of the influence of Dutch painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer the art world began its next important period. The Dutch Golden Age began during the Middle of the Baroque period. The reasons for the Dutch dominance in art during this period are many. The break with the traditional conservative and very Catholic Spanish control, especially since the Spanish Inquisition was still going on in some locations, led to a complete restructuring of Dutch society and Dutch art was one of the first areas to feel the changes. There are a number of easy scholarships that allow students to study the period in depth.

Dutch art of the period is considered Baroque but in reality many of the aspects of the Baroque style, such as the love of splendor and idealization, are missing, making this style part of the Baroque period but separate from it, being fascinated more with realism that with pomp and grandeur. This mini-period lasted from about 1628 until the French invaded the Low Lands in 1672 and it was during this period that the concept of “genres”.

The Calvinists took over the religious aspects of Dutch life during this period and, unlike the Vatican, banned religious painting inside the Churches. While religious paintings were permitted in homes the fact was the most people could not afford them and very few religious paintings were produced during this period, the artists preferring to concentrate on scenes from real life, landscapes, peasant life, animals, flowers, and maritime paintings. This was also the period when the “Hierarchy of Genres”, which held that some styles were better than others and this drove painters to want to produce work that would last through the ages. Keep in mind that the greats like Da Vinci, who only painted for money to finance is inventions, and Michelangelo, who painted out of piety, were not concerned as much about money and fame in art as they were about mechanics and religion.

With one notable exception, The Young Bull (Paulus Potter 1647), which was huge ( Nearly 10 foot wide) most paintings of the period were relatively small, and the only really large paintings were usually family group portraits. Wall painting had been common for literally thousands, of not tens of thousands of years, but during this period the practice essentially ended in Europe. Walls were decorated with hanging paintings, which were painted on either canvas or wooden panels and some artists even painted over many surviving Golden Age paintings with new subjects, a practice which began because new frames and canvases were expensive. There was also very little sculpture done during this period and was usually only commissioned for tomb monuments or for decoration of public buildings or areas.