A Worldly Art
The Dutch Republic 1585 - 1718
By Mariet Westermann
States Bible took 20 years to produce. Published in 1637 from original
Greek and Hebrew text. There were some translations before this. See Gerard Dou's portrait
of Rembrandt's mother reading the bible of c.1630.
In 1585 the Spanish army captured Antwerp. In 1579 the Netherlands declare independence
from Philips II. The nobles had been rebellious since 1568. William of Orange (1533-'84)
was murdered in 1584.
The 80 years' war ended in 1648 with the "Peace of Munster" accord. From
1609-1621 there was the "12 year truce". After Peace of Munster Amsterdam and
the States General tried to curb the power of Willem II (1626 -1650). He died of small
pox. His baby son Willem III (1650-1702) was too young to take over, so Johan de Wit, the
highest official in the States General became ruler of the Netherlands. When the English
and French navy jointly attacked the fleet in 1672, de Witt (and his brother) was arrested
and torn apart by an angry mob. Then Willem III was elected Stadholder at the age of 22.
He then married princess Mary and assumed the English throne alongside her in 1689 (39
years old), after Catholic James II had fled the country.
In the mid 1600's the stricter Calvinists controlled the highest public offices, but they
continued to allow diversity of worship. In c.1650 only a third of the population was
Calvinist, while more than a third was Catholic, in part because of the 1629 capture of
some southern Netherlands towns, back from the Spanish. The remaining third belonged to
other Protestants sects (Lutheran, Mennonite, Anabaptists and Jews). Catholics were not
allowed to worship in public, but could do in private houses. Vermeer and Steen were
Catholics, who sold to Protestants.
Seventeenth century painters did not paint outside; only in studios. But they made dozens
of sketches and some watercolors. The portraits were done in the sitter's home as sketches
and worked out later.
Oil painting was invented in 15th Century. Jan van Eyck did meticulous work, without
leaving any brush strokes. Van Eyk got credit inventing it. He was named a
"realist". Italian Renaissance theorists said that the primary purpose of
painting was the imitation of nature in all its aspects. The Dutch painters did not always
idealize people and nature e.g. Jan Steen. In the mid 1650's life-like paintings without
brush strokes were very expensive. Gerard Dou and Frans van Mieris became famous for this
In the mid 1650's two point perspective became popular. They were trying to put the viewer
in the space of the painting. Landscapes were often done without a fixed viewpoint. This
made it look like an objective record, without human intervention. At this time landscapes
were the most widely produced and collected category of paintings and most affordable.
Carrots and cauliflower were new vegetables.
The stock exchange in Amsterdam was the most sophisticated in the world.
Frenzy tulip bulbs in 1630's -from 1600 (1610) till 1637. Between 1607-1640 engineers
drained vast lakes in Holland. Between 1606-1672 Amsterdam rebuilt itself on a plan of
concentric canals. The Republic became very prosperous around 1600 and especially after
the Truce of 1609.
Rembrandt lived from 1606-1669. In 1624 he trained in Amsterdam under Lastman. In 1631 he
moved to Amsterdam permanently. He became well known for portraits (he made good money
doing this) and history paintings. History paintings were the most prestigious and
portraits lowest. Genre paintings were also rated low.
The opening words of Ecclesiasts are: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity (the futility of
earthly goods and its persuit). This text was well known at that time. It became a special
painting genre: vanitas still lifes, to mark the transience of life. The mentality of the
17th century Dutch was that they reveled in their prosperity, yet were anxious about the
moral consequences of wealth. A constellation of beliefs that celebrated Dutch enterprise
but obsessively acknowledges its independence in God's benevolence.
In the 16th century it was generally agreed that only those with a claim to nobility were
worthy of portrayal. Nobility was inherited or given to famous public servants or artists.
In the 17th century it had become accessible to a wider social layer. Portraits were often
done as "pendants", one of the man the other of the woman. Woman's portrait
would hang on the right, the man on the left. This places the woman on the man's left side
(sinister) or lesser side, according to theological and social formulas, which valued the
dexter (right-hand) position more highly.
Dutch historians presented their nation as the new people of Israel, small but selected by
God for moral leadership. They favored legends about Jewish heroes and heroines, such as
Moses and Esther, who saved God's chosen people from destruction.
Eastern Brazil was under Dutch control from 1630-1654. Surinam was a Dutch sugar colony.
It became notorious for its unparalleled abuse of slaves.
Lapis Lazuli pigment (very expensive) gives ultra marine blue color, when ground. It was
imported from China. Most painters used cheaper and less stable blue pigments.
Hunting was reserved for nobility and the high regents, through a system of permits. There
was a good market for hunting imagery, especially in Amsterdam and Haarlem. You could only
hunt deer one day per year (even for the aristocrats).
If men had their mouths open on a painting, they might be eloquent speakers. Women had to
have their mouths closed. Talking for them was associated with gossiping.
Abstract by Willem van Osnabrugge, Ringling Museum Docent. October 1999.
Book is in Ringling Museum Library, ND1452.N43W28 1996