History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 17th century Politics and Culture
Map of Europe showing Netherlands

Dutch Golden AgeClick here for audio

The wealth of the Netherlands (which includes the populous province of Holland) was provided by the merchant trade. By the 17th century, this wealth was astronomical, and merchants controlled the constitutional government. Although the Netherlands itself comprised a small area of land (much of it waterlogged) in northern Europe, the Dutch dominated much of the world's trade. Expanding world-wide, the Dutch controlled global colonies, such as New Amsterdam (later New York). In each colony, the first permanent building was the counting house! Since they had not been born into the aristocracy, the wealthy middle class strove to gain social status by using their wealth to purchase luxury goods and patronize artists.

Rembrandt made his living doing portraits and pictures for the middle class, though he eventually came into disfavor with his patrons. An example is one of his greatest paintings, The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and of Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh, always called The Night Watch. These merchants had banded into a sort of Neighborhood Watch to protect warehouses of goods and keep the peace on the streets at night. They wanted a portrait showing them clearly in this noble role. What they got was this:

Rembrandt's Night Watch

Some faces are not portrayed clearly at all, and some are in the dark. Rembrandt refused to compromise his painting, even for his patrons, so he eventually turned to painting portraits for his own pleasure rather than for money. He died a poor man, but an incredible painter.

Judith Leyster self-portrait, smiling at viewer in front of painting she's working on Judith Leyster was also a Dutch Golden Age painter; this is a self-portrait. She was a pupil of Frans Hals, and sometimes her work has passed as his work in art markets. Indeed, until the 19th century, many of her works sold as Hals paintings, until the cleaning of one of them revealed her signature: a star with initials, a play on her name, which means "lode star" or "guiding light". She specialized in "genre paintings", works portraying daily life and interiors. Genre paintings were very popular during this time.

The art of portraits

In a time of powerful kings, being court painter was the best way for an artist to achieve wealth and status. In England, Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck became court painter the Charles I. He created pictures revealing the character of the king.

Notice the king's beard/moustache. It's now called a "Van Dyck" because of these paintings.

painting of Charles I standing next to his horse, with groom

Las Meninas

Valezquez's Las Meninas (1656) gives us a different kind of portrait, and one of the most discussed pictures in history. This quotation is from British historian Sir Kenneth Clarke:

"Our first feeling is of being there. We are standing just to the right of the King and Queen, whose reflections we can see in the distant mirror, looking down an austere room in the Alcazar (hung with del Mazo's copies of Rubens) and watching a familiar situation. The Infanta Dona Margarita doesn't want to pose. She has been painted by Velasquez ever since she could stand. She is now five years old, and she has had enough. But this is to be something different; an enormous picture, so big that it stands on the floor, in which she is going to appear with her parents; and somehow the Infanta must be persuaded. Her ladies-in-waiting, known by the Portuguese name of meninas, are doing their best to cajole her, and have brought her dwarfs, Maribarbola and Nicolasito, to amuse her. But in fact they alarm her almost as much as they alarm us, and it will be some time before the sitting can take place. So far as we know, the huge official portrait was never painted."

This picture also shows how in the 17th century, the painter himself (here putting himself in as part of the painting) is becoming more important than the patron.

Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian painter, broke away from the traditional genre paintings and painted works of religious and spiritual significance. Scholars have noted that her subject matter may have been influenced by her having been raped by her teacher; it has been suggested that the violence of her work may have been cathartic. (My personal opinion is that, because the rape trial was highly publicized, the reaction may have been to the trial as much as the rape.) I find this interesting, since I've never heard of such a personal view being applied to a male painter, and I don't like the power of her work "explained" in such a way. You decide:

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620): two women holding man down and cutting off his head as blood spurts
Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620)

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630): she is viewed from the side, with the canvas off to the left, leaning toward the viewer and looking intently at her canvas as she paints

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1630)

In the 2003 film Girl With a Pearl Earring, about painter Johannes Vermeer, award-winning cinematographer Eduardo Serra worked hard to get the lighting right to make the whole movie look like a Vermeer painting. You can even see it in the trailer.

Vermeer Milkmaid


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