Dutch painters. 8 masters of the Netherlandic Golden Age

Holland. The 17th century country is flourishing unprecedentedly – it is the so-called Golden Age.

At the end of the 16th century, several of the country’s provinces won independence from Spain.

Since then, the Protestant Netherlands chose their own path. And Catholic Flanders (present-day Belgium) went its own way under the Spain’s wing.

In independent Holland, almost no one needed religious painting any more. The Protestant Church disapproved luxurious decorations. However, this circumstance played to secular painting’s advantages.

Every citizen of the new country gave his heart to this art type. The Dutch wanted to see paintings depicting their everyday lives. And painters willingly accommodated their requests.

The surrounding world had never been painted so much before. Common people, common rooms and the most common breakfast of a citizen.

Realism was flourishing. Up to the 20th century, it would be a peer competitor to academicism that portrayed nymphs and Greek goddesses.

These artists are called the minor Dutch. Why? Their paintings were small in size, since they were intended for small houses. Thus, almost all the paintings by Jan Vermeer are no more than half a meter high.

But I prefer another version. In the 17th century’s Netherlands, a great master lived and worked – the Major Dutchman. And all the rest are minor in comparison with him.

Of course, I speak about Rembrandt. Let him be the one we start with.

1. Rembrandt (1606-1669)

Rembrandt. Self-portrait at the Age of 63. 1669. The National Gallery, London

Throughout his life, Rembrandt happened to experience the widest range of emotions. Therefore, there is so much fun and chest-thumping in his early works and so many complex feelings in later ones.

Here, we can see him young and carefree in “The Prodigal Son in the Tavern”. His beloved wife Saskia is sitting on his knees. He is a popular painter. Orders are flowing like water.

Rembrandt The prodigal son in the tavern
Rembrandt. The Prodigal Son in the Tavern. 1635. Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden

However, everything will disappear in short 10 years. Saskia will die from consumption. Popularity will fade away like smoke. A large house containing a unique collection will be repossessed.

But it will be the time when that very Rembrandt appears, who will remain to the end of time. Who will nude his heroes’ feelings and their innermost thoughts.

The figures appear from the colourful depth of “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, illuminated by dim light. This light is only enough to see their emotions.

Great relief, replaced by the feeling of despair and guilt of the son. The father’s all-forgiving love. The audience’s sympathy and surprise.

Rembrandt The Return of the prodigal son
Rembrandt. The Return of the Prodigal Son. 1668. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Renewed Rembrandt couldn’t fit his epoch at all. In the age of outer beauty and naturalism, no one needed his profound paintings.

There was not a single patron in Holland who could appreciate the later works of the master. Therefore, they spread around the world so easily.

Frans Hals (1583-1666)

Hals Self-portrait
Frans Hals. Self-portrait. 1650. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Frans Hals is one of the greatest portrait painters of all time. Therefore, I would also reckon him among the Major Dutchmen.

At that time in Holland, people used to order group portraits. Thus, lots of similar portraits appeared depicting people working together: officers of one civic guard, doctors of one town, keepers of a rest home.

It was Hals, who was the most prominent representative of the genre. After all, most of these portraits looked like a deck of cards. People are just sitting around a table and looking with the same expression on their faces. Hals made it in a different way.

Look at his group portrait “Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard”.

Hals “Banquet of the officers of the st George civic guard”
Frans Hals. Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard. 1627. The Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands

Here, you won’t find a single repeating pose or facial expression. At the same time, there is no chaos. There are lots of characters, but no one looks like being an outsider thanks to a surprisingly correct figure arrangement.

When painting single portraits, Hals surpassed many artists as well. His models look natural. On his paintings, people from the upper-class society miss their artificial grandeur and models from the lower classes don’t look humiliated.

At the same time, his characters are extremely emotional: they smile, laugh, and gesticulate. Just like this Gypsy Girl with a cheeky look, for example.

Hals “The gypsy girl”
Frans Hals. The Gypsy Girl. 1625-1630. The Louvre Museum, Paris

Just like Rembrandt, Hals ended up in poverty. Due to the same reason. His realism was out of tune with his clients’ tastes, who wanted their appearance to be flattered. Hals didn’t recourse to blatant flattery and thus, signed his own sentence – “Oblivion”.

3. Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681)

Ter Borch Self-portrait
Gerard ter Borch. Self-portrait. 1668. The Royal Mauritshuis Gallery, den Haag, the Netherlands

Ter Borch was a master of the genre art. Rich and not very well-off burghers are talking leisurely, ladies are reading letters, and a procuress is watching courtship. Two or three closely spaced figures.

It was this master who shaped the genre art canons, which were later borrowed by Jan Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch and many other minor Dutchmen.

Ter Borch “Glass of lemonade”
Gerard ter Borch. Glass of Lemonade. 1660s. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

“Glass of Lemonade” is one of the famous ter Borch’s works. It shows another excellency of the painter – an incredibly realistic representation of a dress fabric.

Ter Borch has unusual works as well, which proves his eagerness to go beyond his clients’ requirements.

His painting “The Family of the Stone Grinder” depicts lives of the poorest Dutch citizens. We are used to seeing cozy courtyards and clean rooms on the minor Dutchmen’s paintings. But ter Borch dared to show us the seamy side of Holland.

Ter Borch “The family of the stone grinder”
Gerard ter Borch. The Family of the Stone Grinder. 1653-1655. The Berlin State Museums

As you might have guessed, such works were in little demand. And they are rare even for ter Borch.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)

Vermeer “The art of painting”
Jan Vermeer. The Art of Painting. 1666-1667. Art History Museum, Vienna


No one knows for sure, what Jan Vermeer looked like. It is obvious that he depicted himself on the painting “The Art of Painting”. However, we can see his back only.

Therefore, it is surprising that a new fact from the master’s life has recently become known. It’s related to his masterpiece “The Little Street”.

Vermeer “The little street”
Jan Vermeer. The Little Street. 1657. The State Museum, Amsterdam

It turned out that Vermeer spent his childhood on this street. The depicted house belonged to his aunt. She raised her five children in it. Perhaps, she is a woman sitting on the threshold and sewing, and her two children are playing on the pavement. Vermeer lived in the house across the street.

However, more often he painted these houses’ interior and their dwellers. His paintings’ plots seem to be extremely simple. Here, we see a pretty lady – a well-off citizen – checking how her balance works.

Vermeer woman holding a balance
Jan Vermeer. Woman Holding a Balance. 1662-1663. The National Gallery of Art, Washington

So why Vermeer stood out from thousands of other minor Dutchmen?

He was an unrivalled master of light. On the painting “Woman Holding a Balance”, light gently enveils the heroine’s face, fabric and walls, making the pictured look mysteriously spiritual.

Moreover, the compositions of Vermeer’s pictures are carefully balanced. You won’t find any excessive details. If you remove any of them, a picture will “fall to pieces” and the magic will fade away.

It wasn’t easy for Vermeer. Such an amazing quality required meticulous work. He could complete only 2-3 paintings per year. As a result, he wasn’t able to provide for his family. At the same time, Vermeer worked as an art dealer selling works of other painters.

5. Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684)

De Hooch Self-portrait
Pieter de Hooch. Self-portrait. 1648-1649. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hooch is often compared with Vermeer. They worked during one and the same time; there was even a period when they created in the same town. And they both preferred genre art.

On Hooch’s paintings, we can also see one or two figures in cozy Dutch courtyards or rooms.
Open doors and windows make space of his paintings look multi-layered and absorbing.

And the figures are extremely harmoniously painted in this space. For example, on his painting “Courtyard of a House in Delft”.

De Hooch “Courtyard of a house in Delft”
Pieter de Hooch. Courtyard of a House in Delft. 1658. The national Gallery, London

Up to the 20th century, Hooch was highly valued. On the contrary, inconsiderable number of works by his rival Vermeer was hardly noticed.

But everything changed in the 20th century. The glory of Hooch had set. However, it is difficult to ignore his achievements in painting. Hardly any of painters could combine environment and people so skilfully.

De Hooch “Card Players in a sunlight room
Pieter de Hooch. Card Players in a Sunlit Room. 1658 г. The Royal Collection, London

You should pay attention to the fact that in a modest house, shown on the painting “Card Players”, there is a picture in an expensive frame.

It demonstrates once again that painting was extremely popular among common Dutch people. Every house was decorated with paintings: both a rich burgher’ home, and a modest citizen’s one, and even a peasant’s dwelling.

6. Jan Steen

Steen Self-portrait playing the lute
Jan Steen. Self-portrait Playing the Lute. 1670. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

Perhaps, Jan Steen is the most cheerful minor Dutchman. But he’s fond of moral teaching. He used to depict taverns or poorhouse, where vice lived.

His main characters are revellers and women of easy virtue. He aimed at entertaining the audience and at the same time implicitly warn people against vicious life.

Steen in luxury, look out
Jan Steen. In Luxury, Look Out. 1663. Art History Museum, Vienna

Steen has more calm works as well. For example, “The Morning Toilet”. But even here, the painter surprises viewers with excessively immodest details.

Here, we can see both traces left by a stocking band and a full chamber pot. Moreover, a dog lying on the pillow looks completely inappropriately.

Steen”The morning toilet”
Jan Steen. The Morning Toilet. 1661-1665. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

But despite lack of seriousness, Steen’s colour solutions are extremely professional. In this regard, he had left many of minor Dutchmen behind. Just look, how the red stocking matches the blue jacket and the bright beige rug.

7. Jacob van Ruysdael

Ruysdael portrait
Jacob van Ruysdael. Portrait. 19th century

It’s not for nothing that Ruysdael can be called a revolutionary of landscape painting.

Before him and after him as well, painters created idealized landscapes with the single purpose of making a decoration.
However, Ruysdael depicted the real Dutch nature instead of the abstract one. Every his landscape has its own mood.

Here, we can see a gloomy and depressive “Jewish Cemetery” with a small piece of hope in the form of a rainbow and a spot of the lighter sky.

Ruysdael “The Jewish cemetery”
Jacob van Ruysdael. The Jewish Cemetery. 1657. Detroit Institute of Arts

And here is his famous “Marsh” housed in the Hermitage.

Mighty trees are struggling for survival at a swampy marsh. But not everyone is lucky enough – a birch has withered and there is a dead tree trunk lying.

Ruysdael “The Marsh”
Jacob van Ruysdael. The Marsh. 1660s. The State Hermitage Museum.

Landscape is an allegory of life full of obstacles, when not everyone has a chance to survive. At the same time, the “Marsh” doesn’t smack of horror. The bright sky and lovely water lilies make uneasy feelings softer. Even among these dangers there is a place for beauty.

The public didn’t quite appreciate such realistic landscapes either. Therefore, Italian-style landscapes depicting the abstract nature cost much more.

But this didn’t stop Ruysdael. He kept his character selling his paintings for peanuts. Only the next generations duly appreciated his works. In the 19th century, he already became an idol for many realist landscape painters.

8. Pieter Claesz

Claesz “Vanitas still life with self-portrait”
Pieter Claesz. Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait. 1628. The German National Museum, Nuremberg

In no other country has a still life genre developed to such an extent. It’s not surprising – what can be a better way to decorate a wall above the dining table.

All Dutch still life painters did their best to create so-called tangible paintings, meaning that objects were so realistic that you literally wanted to touch them. To such an extent glass looked like glass, a lemon was sour, and a loaf was golden.

But even in still life genre, every master had his own focused specialization. Thus, Pieter Claesz is famous for his “breakfasts”.

Claesz “Still life with a fish”
Pieter Claesz. Still Life with a Fish. 1646 г. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Minor Dutchman did not aim for originality. Therefore, you can find the same breakfasts by Claesz in other museums. Except for there will be ham or crab instead of fish.

They were not afraid to be similar to other painters as well. As they say, try to find 10 differences when comparing Breakfasts by Pieter Claesz and his painter colleague Willem Head.

Heda “Breakfast with a fish”
Willem Heda. Breakfast with a Fish. 1629. The Royal Mauritshuis Gallery, den Haag, the Netherlands

In conclusion

During the Golden Age, worked 3000 painters in the Netherlands. But you can’t call them all great. Many of them were extremely focused specialists. There were even those who painted only moonlight landscapes or seashore at night.

This limited their self-expression greatly. They were just good craftsmen who had no chance to create masterpieces that would be remembered for centuries.

And only few of them were capable of it. But they often had to be out of tune with their clients’ tastes. Thus, Rembrandt painted in all genres without specializing in anything. Hals had never flattered his customers. And Vermeer preferred quality to quantity.

But that is the reason why we remember them…

Authour: Oksana Kopenkina

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