The Netherlands was a world power in the 17th century and so this period is known as the Golden Age. Trade flourished, the military fleet grew and the arts and sciences were examples to the world. The period also had a less glorious aspect; the prosperity was largely a result of the trade in enslaved people. Travel back to the time of explorers, wealthy merchants and Dutch masters.
The foundation of the Dutch East Indies Company (V.O.C.) in 1602 is seen by many as the start of the Golden Age. The V.O.C. had the monopoly on trade with Asia and became the largest trading organisation in the world. Their ships ruled the oceans of the world. Trade in spices in particular generated enormous profits.
The V.O.C. ships ruled the oceans of the world.
The year 1609 is also viewed as the starting point of the Golden Age. In that year, a truce was signed with Spain in the Eighty Years War. Until this time, the Netherlands had been part of the powerful Spanish empire; now it achieved greater independence. After 1648 it even became an independent republic, with freedom of religion and economic and political independence.
Under the influence of these events, the Netherlands, then known as the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, could develop into a world power. Prosperity grew at home thanks to international trade and overseas successes but also thanks to less glorious developments such as colonisation and the slave trade. A large and rich class of merchants arose, which in turn stimulated the development of the sciences, literature and art. Frans Hals painted a lot of these wealthy citizens, like his 'Portrait of a Man'.
The Taste of Private Collectors
In the Republic, an important new market developed for artists. They no longer worked primarily for the church, royalty and rich nobility. The middle class, grown rich thanks to trade, became the most important buyer of art. This had an enormous influence on the way artists worked and their specialisms. A large percentage of the canvases were no longer made on assignment, as had been usual until then. The artist now chose the subject himself and presented the works to the rich middle class directly or via art dealers. Paintings were now to be found in the homes of citizens, and became part of extensive private art collections. Artists specialised in popular subjects: such as still lifes, landscapes, history painting, portraits or genre painting.
Among the various genres in art, some enjoyed greater respect than others. In the 17th century, history painting was at the apex in the hierarchy of subjects from which a painter could choose. History painting featured figures from historical, biblical or mythological stories.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s collection contains various examples of history paintings. One example is ‘Juno Accepts the Eye of Argus from Mercury’ by Hendrick Goltzius, dating from 1615.
Juno Receiving the Eyes of Argus from Mercury (1615)
Jealous Juno charged the hundred eyed Argus to guard over Io, whom her husband Jupiter had seduced and transformed into a cow. But Jupiter commanded Mercury to kill Argus. Mercury soothed Argus into sleep and then cut off his head. The painting shows Mercury giving the hundred eyes to Juno, who sets them in a peacock's tail.
Such historical works could only be produced by the great masters. The painter had, after all, to be able to immerse himself in the story he was depicting, he had to convey emotions and have sufficient knowledge of anatomy in order to paint moving human bodies. As the same time, he also needed various different skills: the painting of a still life, landscape, perspective illustration and more. For an historical work, the artist had to be master of all the various facets of painting. It was not without reason that the historical work was the most admired of all the various genres in the 17th century.
The production of still lifes reached its high point in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Dutch painters were particularly famous for the way they depicted materials: depicting the characteristics of the material of an object, for example, a transparent glass, a reflecting pewter plate or a soft, velvet cloak. One of the great masters of the still lifes was the Haarlem-born painter Willem Claeszoon Heda.
Still Life with Oysters, a Rummer, a Lemon and a Silver Bowl (1634)
Heda paid particular attention to the reflections of the various materials: silver in glass, glass in silver, silver in pewter and pewter in silver. Paintings such as those by him, with more or less simple objects and muted colours, are known as ‘monochrome suppers’.
Such simple still lifes are characteristic for the first part of the 17th century. Later in the century, the sumptious still life earned increasing favour; they were was dominated by valuable objects, a rich use of colour and a full composition. The paintings by Abraham van Beijeren, Willem Kalf and Jan Davidszoon de Heem are good examples of such sumptuous still lifes.
Dutch skies are famous throughout the world, largely thanks to the landscapes painted in the Golden Age. One of the most famous landscape artists is Jan van Goyen. He gave the Dutch skies, which in his paintings were often grey and misty, all the room possible by keeping the horizon low. He emphasised the enormous panoramas through the far-off horizon, which can hardly be distinguished from the land.
Another famous landscape artist in the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is Jacob van Ruisdael. The painting 'A Cornfield, in the Background the Zuiderzee' (ca. 1660) shows a typical Dutch landscape with the feeling of a heavily clouded day, where the sun has the chance to break through now and again.
Among the landscape artists, some specialised further and concentrated on seascapes, such as Simon de Vlieger and Jan van de Cappelle. They were masters in capturing threatening skies and reflecting water.
Dutch Skies and Landscapes
'Easy Come, Easy Go' (1661)
In this work the games of chance, the dice, wine, oysters and the precarious Lady Fortune are depicted: with this happy scene, Jan Steen warns us of the temptations and seductions of life and the fury of fate.
Steen and other 17th-century genre painters often produced works with a moralistic meaning. Based on these paintings and prints, art historians have, in the past, tried to ascribe a deeper meaning to virtually every example of genre painting. Recently, people have changed their view: many of the genre paintings seem to be nothing more than a depiction of everyday life without any deeper meaning.
The middle class in the 17th century, grown rich through international trade, liked having portraits made of themselves. One client was Abraham del Court, an Amsterdam-based cloth merchant. He married Maria de Keerssegieter in 1651. Del Court asked Bartholomeus van der Helst to immortalise this union in a double portrait.
Monumental double portrait
Van der Helst was much in demand as portrait artist. He was master in the accurate depiction of faces, but also in the depiction of fabrics and objects. The monumental double portrait, dating from 1654, shows del Court in a black silk suit next to his wife who is dressed in the latest French fashion.
Rembrandt van Rijn
One of the greatest masters of the Golden Age is Rembrandt van Rijn. The collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has three canvases by Rembrandt, which give a good impression of his versatility.
The portrait of Aletta Adriaensdochter, dating from 1639, is characteristic for Rembrandt’s work as portrait artist. He painted her as she would have liked to be seen, stately and rich, and was excellently able to depict characteristic traits.
The Unity in the Country (1637-1645)
In addition to portraits, Rembrandt also worked as a history painter, a genre that was held in particularly high regard. An example of this is ‘The Unity (Agreement) in the Country’, dating from around 1641.
The portrait of his son Titus from 1655 is an example of Rembrandt’s late painting style. In that time, he painted with thick layers of paint and broad brush strokes. The accent is more on the inner frame of mind than on an accurate depiction of facial details.
Curator's Choice: Rembrandt's Titus
Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus from 1655 is a special favourite of Jeroen Giltaij, former curator of the old masters. He explains what makes this painting so special.
The original collection of F.J.O. Boijmans included 124 etchings by Rembrandt. They were destroyed, together with all other graphic work, when the museum burnt down in 1864. A new collection of prints and drawings by Rembrandt has been built up over the years.
When it came to decorating their homes, well-to-do 17th-century Dutch citizens were fascinated by the new, exotic materials and products that the extensive transatlantic trade of the Dutch East India Company brought within reach.
The growing prosperity of the Republic meant that wealthy citizens could afford ever more expensive household effects, where artistic quality came first and in some cases functionality disappeared.
Herman Doomer’s famous 'Tulipcabinet' represents the beginning of the 'museum' phenomenon. This exceptional display cabinet, made from tropical woods like ebony and cedar with ivory and mother-of-pearl inlays, became the repository of a diverse collection of rare natural and man-made objects. Tulips - the dominant motif - were first imported from Turkey in the 17th century and were status symbols at the time.
Curator's Choice: Mienke Simon Thomas demonstrates Herman Doomer's collector’s cabinet
The collector’s cabinet, which is a collection of naturalia and artificialia, is the forerunner of the museum. Mienke Simon Thomas, senior curator of decorative arts and design, shows a beautiful example of a collector’s cabinet from the 17th century by Herman Doomer.