The Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, roughly spanning the 17th century, was a near-miraculous period in which the republic occupied a position of preeminence in commerce, finance, science, and art. After the united Seven Provinces secured independence from King Philip II of Spain following the Thirty Years War, the Dutch Republic became the most prosperous nation in Europe, a melting pot of innovation and influence. Some of the most revered painters in art’s history emerged from this milieu: Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer.
Although the Dutch Golden Age coincided with the Baroque period, the primarily Protestant but tolerant republic produced an aesthetic that diverged from the somber Counter-Reformation tones used in Italy. Moreover, artists developed distinct styles throughout the Lowlands: Rubens and Anthony van Dyck in Spanish-controlled Antwerp, Rembrandt in Amsterdam, Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, and Carel Fabritius in Delft. With the Dutch East India Company catalyzing the first modern stock exchange, there was also a new cadre of corporate financiers with the means to commission artworks.
Peter Paul Rubens was fundamental to this golden age, transforming the look of the Counter-Reformation as well as the style of European painting on the whole. The most versatile talent of the Flemish (or Southern Dutch) Baroque, Rubens traveled widely, deftly blending the gravitas of Italian Renaissance work and the northern predilection for naturalism. Though brilliant in nearly any mode—history painting, mythological scenes, portraits, landscapes—the full scope of Rubens’s talent becomes most vivid in works that orchestrate elements of each around a biblical theme; the Antwerp Cathedral altarpiece and its central panel The Raising of the Cross (1610–11) is one such work.
While entire generations of artists would follow this formidable “Rubeniste” style, Sir Anthony van Dyck remains one of Rubens’s most notable pupils and the second most important Flemish painter after his teacher. Word of van Dyck’s talent spread quickly, compelling King Charles I to invite him to be the official court painter of England in 1632. Van Dyck would work there, feverishly but in luxurious appointments, until the end of his life, producing over 350 pictures in his last 10 years alone.
The subject matter of paintings of this era reflected the period’s unprecedented wealth and the opulent wares that circulated throughout the region. Within the Seven Provinces of the republic, the traditional genre of still life flourished, raising the attentive depiction of objects cast in oblique light to a level of near-exultation. Renowned artists of this style were Pieter Claesz, whose Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) contains the popular motif of the skull as a vanitas symbol of mortality, and Willem Claesz Heda, who offers a feast for the eyes in Still Life with Oysters, a Rummer, a Lemon and a Silver Bowl (1634), as well as subtle reflections of the space in the curvatures of glass. Working slightly later, the prolific female painter Rachel Ruysch made a name through meticulous renderings of flowers—including rare, coveted tulips—and the insects that gnaw them.
While many of these quotidian objects were suspended in silent moments, genre scenes of everyday life could be just as hushed and deliberate. No artist represented this serenity more plainly than Johannes Vermeer. His intense, intimate portrait with tenebrist lighting (the caravaggesque style in which light comes from a single source, creating dramatic shadows), the famed Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) is often praised as the “Dutch Mona Lisa,” but most of the 36 other paintings attributed to him are set in softly lit interiors. Woman Holding a Balance (1664) is a work characterized by the subject’s strong psychological presence, reinforced by the interiority of the space. Like someone lost in a work of art, the figure appears peacefully immersed in a flood of light.
Then again, life in Dutch painting was not always so serene. While Pieter de Hooch, Vermeer’s contemporary in the Delft Guild of St. Luke, was known for painting figures during quiet moments in front open doors, he also produced popular pub and tavern scenes. Leiden-based Jan Steen had an entire subgenre named after his amusing but cautionary depictions of domestic chaos, such as The Dissolute Household (1663–4). “A Jan Steen household” even became its own proverb (een huishouden van Jan Steen) for families indulging in familiar sins, such as sloth, gluttony, and lust.
One of the most venerated artists working in this vein was Frans Hals. Dutch by birth and a lifelong resident of Haarlem, Hals embraced Baroque devices as well as realist details like disheveled hair or relaxed poses. But it was his daring looseness of brushwork that gave portraits like A Militiaman Holding a Berkemeyer, Known as the ‘Merry Drinker’ (ca. 1628–30) and The Laughing Cavalier (1624) unprecedented freshness and authenticity.
In fact, only one artist is regarded as Hals’s equal in group portraiture: Rembrandt van Rijn, the artist whose name has become synonymous with Holland’s Golden Age. His masterpiece, Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (1642), nicknamed Night Watch in the 19th century, testifies to the transformative power of visionary painting by elevating what might have been a simple group portrait to the solemn authority of a history painting. Though the atmosphere of works like A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654), possibly depicting Rembrandt’s lover Hendrickje Stoffels, conjure a bewitching atmosphere of both darkness and golden light, it was the sense of personality the artist left behind through his many virtuosic self-portraits that answer, at least in part, for Rembrandt’s enduring fame.
A master printmaker as well, Rembrandt also created expressive landscapes of the period—often including the requisite dairy cows—as etchings. As far as landscape paintings were concerned, however, Jacob van Ruisdael was a high-water mark. Breaking away from the tonal style of his uncle Solomon and other painters of the previous generation like Jan van Goyen and Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom, van Ruisdael heightened the naturalism of his scenes, as in Landscape with Waterfall (1668). Adroit in many landscape types, from mountains to rivers to seascapes, van Ruisdael produced an enormous oeuvre of around 700 paintings, which provide a picturesque vision of what the Netherlands looked like during its Golden Age.