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4.2: Dutch Golden Age (1600 - 1672)

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    Located on the Atlantic as one of the major gateways to Europe, the trading routes to Asia, and the new shipping lanes to the new world, the Netherlands controlled much of the import and export business. The Netherlands means lowlands, a country below sea level, developed by controlling the seas yet using the oceans for economic success. By the 17th century, the Spanish freed them from the decades-long rule, building their prosperous prominence with a significant merchant and middle class. The wealth of the people, not just the elite, was responsible for the growth and the burgeoning popularity of artists and their work. Nationalism became the Golden Age in the Netherlands. Art no longer depicted the elaborate Catholic religion and images; instead, artists depicted realism, life, and the styles of the ordinary person as ideal images.

    The art market in the Netherlands was prolific; one could find paintings for sale in all types of stores or taverns. The guilds painstakingly recorded every piece of art and its sale, fining anyone not complying with the laws and ensuring authentic works from the thousands of painters. Art portrayed the new lifestyles of half the population; spotlessly clean houses, luxury items, portraits of the typical person, and food from around the world imported by the vast merchant class. The other half was unlucky, laboring 14 hours a day, risky voyages to the new ports, low wages, child labor, and the poorhouse.

    Interactive Element: Art from the Dutch Golden Age

    Dutch art from the 17th Century comprised small, finely crafted paintings, often depicting the simple things in life. What made Dutch art from this era so particular? What made it a 'Golden Age'?

    Stilleven, or still life painting, became popular in the Netherlands when urbanization increased, emphasizing one's home and everyday life. Different subtypes of paintings grew from the floral arrangements that dominated the first part of the century to vanitas, kitchen arrangements, and hunting trophies. The images in the painting represented horticulture and aspects of life in the Netherlands and had symbolic meanings. Different flowers represented some form or action of God's life, while insects or reptiles depicted the transitory meaning of life. The painters also used chiaroscuro techniques with dark backgrounds and brilliant elements in the foregrounds, applying luminous colors to develop the differences between the light and the darker shadows. Because of the high interest in flowers and gardens, still-life paintings were highly prized. Rachel Ruysch, who painted flowers, sold her paintings for 750 to 1200 guilders, while Rembrandt seldom sold his work for above 500 guilders.[1]

    Definition: Vanitas

    vanitas, (from Latin vanitas, “vanity”), in art, a genre of still-life painting that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent.

    Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2019, October 1). vanitas. Encyclopedia Britannica.

    As early as the 15th century, women were listed on art guild rolls. Women artists received commissions, controlled workshops, and obtained court patronages. Training for women was still limited and was generally through a friend, family member, and occasionally as an apprentice. As found throughout Europe, women could not use nude models and mostly painted domestic scenes or landscapes. Still life was a common theme for women; however, the term 'still life' was not used until 1650. Artists included are:

    · Judith Leyster (1609-1660)

    · Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)

    · Maria van Oosterwijck (1630-1693)

    · Clara Peeters (ca. 1587-after 1636)

    Judith Leyster

    Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was a talented artist who had her workshop (unusual for a female artist), painted her works, and taught others. She was also the first female admitted to the Painters' Guild. Her paintings were made between 1629 and 1635, when she married and had children, reducing her time as an artist. She was known as an exceptional artist in her era but little known to history until modern times. A writer from the Dutch Golden Age said, "There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time and could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster…"[2]

    Some of Leyster's work was attributed to Frans Hals. In 1892, when her distinctive monogram (the initials J L and a star) was discovered below the violinist's shoe on the painting of the Carousing Couple (4.2.1), more of Leyster's work was correctly identified as hers. Over two hundred years, her work was generally not assigned or was believed to be from her husband or Hals. After the original discovery, historians found her unusual monogram in her other works and attributed them to her. She used brushstrokes like Hals, loose and bold, infusing life into her portraits, following the tenebrist style of contrasting light and dark for dramatic effect. The Carousing Couple (4.2.2) portrays two people having fun, enjoying music and wine; he appears engrossed in the music while she views him with adoring eyes. The light-colored faces and shirts begin the focal point in the middle of the portrait; the dark upper half forms the background. Leyster elegantly paints each detail of the clothing, from the lace to the tassels on his pants. The one less realistic image is how the man holds the violin.

    Man and woman sitting at table drinking and the man is playing a violinFigure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Carousing Couple (1630, oil on panel, 68 x 54 cm) Public Domain

    Self Portrait (4.2.3) portrays Leyster sitting in front of her easel, appearing to turn and face the viewer, seeming to smile as she knows who she sees. Her white collar helps reflect the light, bringing the face into focus, although most historians do not think she wore dressier clothing when she painted. She used blue on the musician's dress she is painting, bringing the person out of the grayer background. She holds her palette and brushes in her hands, her brush parallel to the musician's bow on the painting.

    Self portrait of the artist painting
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Self Portrait (ca 1630, oil on canvas, 74.6 x 65.1 cm) Public Domain

    Leyster generally painted portraits of musicians, children, and domestic scenes. The Young Flute Player (4.2.4) demonstrates her interest in music and children. The boy's face, looking at some bright and unknown light, is overly white on the right side compared to the deep shadows on the other side. Although Leyster used many tones of brown and gray, each element, the chair, his clothing, and the instruments, all are well defined and visible.

    Young boy playing a flute with a violin hanging in the background
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Young Flute Player (1630s, oil on canvas, 73 x 62 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Judith Leyster

    Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1633, oil on canvas, 74.6 x 65.1 cm / 29-3/8 x 25-5/8 inches, located in the National Gallery of Art.

    Rachel Ruysch

    Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) specialized in painting flowers for almost seventy years. Her father was a scientist, and early in her life, she learned how to accurately record nature, flowers, and woodlands helping to draw specimens from his collections. She was an apprentice painter at fifteen and painted for clients by age eighteen. She had ten children yet was a prolific painter famous for her flower still life, producing over 250 paintings. Flowers on a Tree Trunk (4.2.5), painted with oil on canvas, contrast the dark undergrowth with the dried stump, moss, stones, and tiny insects with the bright flowers, the half-dead elements, and the vibrant living blooms. The light reflects off the white flowers focusing on the precision and beauty of the flowers. The light also reflects on the side of the rock, bringing the eye down to the tiny life forms in the painting.

    Bright colored flowers on a tree limb against a dark background
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Flowers on a Tree Trunk (early 1700s, oil on canvas, 93 x 74 cm) Public Domain

    Ruysch lived a long life, dying at eight-six. Her career was documented from age fifteen until about eighty-three because she signed all her works. Ruysch was exceptionally detailed in her work and used light, dark, and color interactions to define each element in her paintings. The background is very dark, as seen in most of her works in Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, etc. (4.2.6). The individual petals of each flower were visible and brought to life with color and light. Ruysch used asymmetrical formations allowing the flowers to sag and appear asymmetrical. She always integrated insects with flowers. The close-up (4.2.7) shows the large white flower with a ladybug on the petal, a spider about to climb on the petal, and a very tiny bug nestled in the bottom of a petal. Ruysch incorporated nature into her paintings.

    Assorted colorful flowers in a brown vase against a dark wall
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (oil on canvas, 1680s, 107.9 x 83.8 cm) (Public domain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Close-up (Public domain)

    Maria van Oosterwijck

    Maria van Oosterwijck (1630-1693) was born into an extended family of artists. She went to Antwerp to study with one of the well-known flower artists. Van Oosterwijck lived in many Dutch cities, successfully selling her work. She never married and was able to support herself as a painter. Van Oosterwijck painted floral still life using real flowers. Flower Still Life (4.2.8) was painted with oil on canvas. Tulips were a highly prized flower in the Netherlands, a relatively new introduction, and van Oosterwijck used two highly patterned and rare tulips as the focal points of her painting. One of the blossoms already started to fall apart, representing the temporary status of human life. The tiny insects also testify to the transitory positions of energy. Van Oosterwijck centered the white flower with the dragonfly, surrounded by vibrant dark pink flowers. An unusual contrast was the color of the two small orange flowers forming a line to the small orange butterfly in the background giving the painting movement. The eye also travels from the white-centered flowers, bouncing through the other flowers and flowing into the small, bell-shaped flowers.

    Flower still life against a dark background with a butterfly and dragon fly
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Flower Still Life (1669, oil on canvas, 37.1 x 46 cm) Public Domain

    At the time, the aristocracy favored floral paintings, and van Oosterwijck sold her work to such notables as Louis XIV of France and Queen Anne of England. Van Oosterwijck used chiaroscuro methods with dark backgrounds and bright, illuminated flowers. Butterflies were also an everyday object found in her paintings. In Still Life with Flowers, Insects, and a Shell (4.2.9), she used white flowers placed randomly from the bottom of the painting and ending at the top with the white butterfly. The vase and leaves of the flowers almost disappear into the dark background. She usually included insects, the tiny bee, and a dragonfly. Van Oosterwijck added a small shell sitting on the table to balance the bottom of the painting and bring a view of the table forward.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Still Life with Flowers, Insects, and a Shell (oil on panel, 1689, 47.4 x 36.5 cm) (Public domain)
    Interactive Element

    Maria van Oosterwijck, Flower Still Life, 1669, oil on canvas.

    Clara Peeters

    Clara Peeters (ca. 1587-after 1636) was baptized in Antwerp in 1594 and married there in 1639. Little is known about her early life as records for some of the times are missing or confusing because Peeters was a common last name. Peeter's first recognized works were small oil paintings completed in 1608. The work was met with great details, indicating an experienced painter probably trained Peeters, although no documentation exists about her training and education. By 1612, she demonstrated her talent and created several highly rendered still life with elaborately decorated objects. Peeters generally placed her still-life arrangements on narrow ledges and against dark backgrounds. She signed thirty-one works with another seventy-six paintings believed to be hers without proper documentation. Peeters was one of the earliest painters specializing in still life and flowers. Her use of fish and game in her paintings started much early than other artists who used the same elements. Peeters liked using reflective and shiny objects to capture how the light fell.

    Peeters was a master of still life, as seen in Still Life with Nuts, Candy, and Flowers (4.2.10). A table forms the base of the painting, the bright, colorful flowers anchoring the side of the light source. Each petal of the different flowers is detailed in a perfectly arranged vase. Peeters repeated red in the painting in the translucence wine glass. The scalloped bowl sits directly in the center, filled with nuts and dried fruit. She used elaborate metal devices to display her ability to illuminate shadows and light, even reflecting the pretzel on the silver plate. Peeters also incorporated reflections of things in the room in her paintings, including herself. "She was one of the first to incorporate a self-portrait into a still life…look closely at the urn."[3]

    A table with a vase of colorful flowers, a white bowl full of nuts, a tea pot, a glass of wine
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Still Life with Nuts, Candy, and Flowers (oil on panel, 1611, 52 x 73 cm) (Public domain)

    Peeters' painting Table with Oranges, Olives, and Pie (4.2.11) used a dark background with a tablecloth as the base of the painting. She set a salt cellar, gilt tazza, pie, jug, olives, and roasted fowl on the table. The objects were all associated with those who were wealthy and educated. She included foods the prosperous classes would eat and have on their tables. Many items were imported, reflecting the merchant classes' trade for luxury objects. Peeters was known for her incredible detail, as demonstrated by the pie. Every indentation in the crust, the exquisite lattice pattern of the top crust, and the perfect color shading show her fantastic ability to paint. The individual olives have the perfect shadowing and reflection of light; the orange slices appear natural. Peeters used metal objects to reflect light; the fowl on the platter, the plate, the knife, and the salt cellar, all detailed with shadow and light, and the translucent wine glass in the center.

    A table with monochromatic colors with pie, hens, olives, rolls, wine, and vases
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Table with Orange, Olives, and Pie (ca. 1611, oil on panel, 55 x 73 cm) (Public domain)
    Interactive Element: Clara Peters

    Clara Peeters produced large numbers of painstakingly rendered still lifes, typically displaying groupings of valuable objects, such as elaborately decorated metal goblets, gold coins, and exotic flowers.

    [1] Retrieved from 3 December 2018.

    [2] Smith, D. (2016). The Paris Review, Daughters of the Guild. Retrieved from

    [3] Retrieved from

    This page titled 4.2: Dutch Golden Age (1600 - 1672) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

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