Dutch Golden Age Painting

Started: 1600
Ended: 1672
I can't paint the way they want me to paint and they know that too. Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can't do it. I just can't do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.

Summary of Dutch Golden Age Painting

The Dutch Golden Age is one of the finest examples of independence breeding cultural pride. During the 17th century, driven by new freedom from Spanish Catholic rule, the Dutch Republic experienced a surge in economic and cultural prominence. An influx of trade boosted commerce, leading to the rise of a large middle and merchant class in the market for the proliferation of art that had cropped up in response to the burgeoning celebration of Dutch life and identity. Painting flowered as artists focused on everyday scenes of ordinary life, expressed through a growing cadre of genre works, all indicative of the thriving creative period.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Overview of Dutch Golden Age Painting

Dutch Golden Age painting was informed by a number of artistic influences, including the landscapes and village scenes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the work of the anonymous "Master of The Small Landscapes," and the Northern European Renaissance artists (such as Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, and Hieronymus Bosch and Utrecht Caravaggism). However, it was primarily a reflection of the Dutch Golden Age's cultural, economic, and scientific domination of the era.

Key Artists

Do Not Miss

Important Art and Artists of Dutch Golden Age Painting

The Lute Player (1623)

Artist: Frans Hals

This genre piece depicts a lute player, his body turned toward the viewer, while he saucily looks to his left. The lute's intricately carved sound hole centers the lower half of the canvas, while the diagonal created by its neck extending out of the cropped frame conveys a sense of movement. The player seems to be in mid-movement, his right hand strumming the strings, his left fingering a chord on the neck, as he cocks his head sideways, smiling. The red and black pattern of his jester's costume, marked by prominent yellow buttons, adds to the festive and entertaining air, while the clear light lends to the sense of immediacy.

Frans Hals' painting technique, dubbed the "rough style," was innovative, as he used quick loose brushwork to create energetic movement. His work transformed the genre that was introduced by Dirck van Buburen, as his figures moved realistically, caught in the midst of action. As art critic Roberta Smith wrote, "Mostly through cropping and enlargement, these works elevate genre painting into a form of clear-eyed portraiture...and in their sense of motion they sometimes presage the modern snapshot."

Other Dutch painters of the era, including David Bailly and Jan Steen, as well as the 19th century Adrian de Lelie, copied this work or incorporated aspects of it. Hals' rough style had a noted influence on later artists of the Realist movement, including Courbet and Manet, and of the Impressionist movement, including Monet and Mary Cassatt. Robert Henri, part of the American group, the Eight, went to Haarlem to study Hals' work whose influence is apparent in Henri's Dutch Girl in White (1907).

Self-Portrait (c. 1630)

Artist: Judith Leyster

This self-portrait shows the artist at her easel, turning in mid-stroke, with brush in hand to face the viewer. The diagonal of her torso as she turns, the play of light suggesting movement in her lace collar and her sleeve, and her facial expression, lips open as if beginning to smile, create a sense of lively immediacy. On the easel to the right, an animated musician dressed in blue, is playing a violin and singing along. The painting within a painting further emphasizes Leyster's self-presentation as a masterful painter of genre works. Here she innovatively compares the arts of music and painting in the echoing diagonals of the musician's bow and the painter's brush, while her use of cropping makes the painting seem almost as spontaneous as a snapshot.

Leyster's treatment here is a noted innovation of self-portraiture as, in effect, she is marketing her brand, as the musician depicted here is copied from her most popular work The Happy Couple (1630). At the same time, X-rays have shown that painting on the easel was originally a girl's portrait, probably a self-portrait, and as art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote, "the literal self-effacement tells a melancholy tale, but the painting is a joy and, retroactively, a feminist icon." The artist's brush points at the musician's crotch, a bawdy allusion common to the time. Beneath Leyster's vibrant surfaces, Schjeldahl notes, "social and sexual anxieties tingle with fire-alarm immediacy."

In the years following her death, Leyster's work disappeared, as her works were attributed to Frans Hals, or to her husband, the painter Jan Miense Molenaer. In 1893 the Louvre purchased The Happy Couple (1630), believing it to be a work of Hals, only to discover Leyster's signature and trademark, a star symbol playing upon the meaning of her last name "lodestar." Though the work had been much praised by critics when attributed to Hals, subsequently they demoted the work for its "weakness." Feminist art scholars, such as Linda Nochlin, and artists like the Guerrilla Girls, beginning in the 1970s, launched a revival of interest in Leyster's work.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (c.1632)

Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn

This iconic painting shows Dr. Tulp providing an anatomy lesson, as the forceps in his right hand lift a tendon from the partially dissected arm of a man who had been executed for armed robbery earlier that morning. Tulp looks toward the seven men gathered around the corpse as his left hand gestures to explain an anatomical point. The men, their white collars and fine clothes indicating their wealth, look in various directions. The three closest to the center lean forward as if watching Tulp's hands, while the two in the back look out toward the viewer. The two on the far left, depicted in profile, face toward Tulp but seem to be looking beyond him, outside the picture frame. A sense of dynamic movement and psychological complexity results, as no one returns Tulp's gaze or looks directly at the pale corpse. The umbra mortis, or shadow of death, fills the center of the canvas. The man's body, his genitals covered with a piece of white linen, evokes the iconography of Christ's death, though here, the body is forgotten, at the same time his dissected arm grimly conveys death's reality.

In this work, Rembrandt innovatively transformed group portraiture by dramatically focusing on the event in mid-action, rather than merely presenting a posed scene. As a result the work becomes a mise-en-scene, a kind of graphic documentary, and a masterful portrait.

The Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons commissioned the group portrait, Rembrandt's first important one in the city. The men attended the Guild's annual public dissection in 1632 at which Dr. Tulp, the City Anatomist, presided. In 17th century Holland, anatomical lessons were noted social events, accompanied by music, conversation, and food and wine, taking place in theater lecture rooms, and attended by those who could afford the entrance fee. The well-dressed appearance of these men, their white collars and fine gowns, testify to their social importance, and yet, they are presented as if both sensationalized and distracted, their humanity overshadowing their status.

Manet painted a copy of this painting in 1856 after studying it on a trip to the Netherlands, and the American realist Thomas Eakins was also influenced by it in painting his The Gross Clinic (1875). The executed man Kindt has also taken on a kind of later cultural life, referred to in W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1999) and in Nina Siegal's The Anatomy Lesson (2014), which tells his story.

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