The Most Iconic Artists of the Dutch Golden Age, from Vermeer to Van Dyck
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:
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
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
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
One of the most venerated artists working in this vein was
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,
George Philip LeBourdais
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