17th Century Dutch Painting

PASSING by the seventeenth century Flemings already mentioned, we now turn to the Dutch painters of the same era.

In Holland, art at any earlier date is mainly conspicuous by its absence or when rarely found is a repetition of that common to early Flanders and Germany; but in the seventeenth century this country produced the most remarkable school of painting then known in Europe.

Not only does Holland boast in the person of Rembrandt, an artist who was at least equal to the greatest of his time, but a host of other lights, among whom Franz Hals, Ruisdael, Jan Steen, Brouwer, Adrian van Ostade, Netscher, Metsu, Peter Hoogh, Franz and Willem van Mieris, Paul Potter, Cuyp, Van Goyen, Terburg are a few only out of many whose names may not be always so familiar, but whose works in the Gallery of Amsterdam show them the equals or rivals of these.

The phenomenal development of Dutch art has a historic explanation which has best been given by an American author. The sum of this explanation is that Holland led the world in science, industry, and commerce for the given time and that her art is one reflex of this larger fact.

The character of this art is peculiarly original, in fact absolutely phenomenal, when precedent and tradition are considered. In the early days of the Protestants there was a general prejudice against church paintings and religious art decoration which we no longer share but which was long ascendant. Hence Protestantism led to the abjuring of religious art but elsewhere had found no substitute for it. Painting practically disappeared from Germany as a consequence of this religious prejudice after the death of Holbein and Lucas Cranach. In England it had no flower till the eighteenth century.

In Holland only did the Protestant artist seek in the life about him the subject matter which tradition could no longer supply. The life of the house and farm, of kitchen and parlor, of the village, the city, and the town, of the sailor and the soldier, of the doctor, the tradesman, and the tavern, of the animal and the flower, of the corporation, the guild, and the patrol this was what the Dutch artist carried to his canvas. In his pictures, conscience, honesty, and truth to nature are the ever conspicuous traits.

Among Dutch paintings the “Corporation pictures” claim our first notice. These give the associated portraits of the leaders of the various guilds, officers of the military companies, heads of the hospitals, charitable asylums and the like, and often the portrait figures are full length and united in some activity peculiar to the association.

Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson” at The Hague belongs to a class of pictures representing the associations of the doctors, to which this motive of an anatomical lecture and demonstration was common. One entire room in the Amsterdam Gallery is filled with similar pictures, all illustrating the transcendent genius of Rembrandt, who has caused them to be forgotten.

To a like class of paintings belong Rembrandt’ s “Cloth Merchants” at Amsterdam, and the famous series by Franz Hals at Haarlem. Rembrandt’s ” Night Watch” at Amsterdam is one of hundreds of similar pictures of the patrols and military bands. It represents Captain Franz Banning Cocq’s company of arquebusiers emerging from their guild house.

These instances have value as showing a parallel to the conditions of Italia n art, and a similar relation of popularity and public interest.

In a domestic art for the home and the private dwelling Holland was also an innovator. Earlier paintings had existed for public buildings, churches, and palaces. Domestic art in the modern sense had been previously unknown. In Germany woodcuts had taken its place. In Italy the need of it had not been felt while churches and public buildings were open to the people.

The trivial, anecdotal, and commonplace subjects of the Dutch painters thus become an interesting turning point in the history of civilization. It is rarely, however, that we do not find a point to the story or a permanent interest attaching to the scenes from daily life. In fact these pictures are better than an open book for the study of old Dutch civilization. A large proportion of these paintings are of small dimensions as befitting their trivial and domestic subjects. In these small pictures the methods of execution are refined and painstaking to the point of nicety. In larger pictures, as for instance those of Hals and Rembrandt, the method changes and becomes broad and masterly. In color and design the old Dutch artists can still give points to most modern painters. Their greatest works are still unrivaled.

Here again as in the earlier case of Italian art, we do not concede that native genius is lacking to our own time. We only point to the fact that public national interest and support create an art and essentially determine its character. No one could deny that for the given area and number of people, the production of pictures in seventeenth century Holland was more active, their number greater, their relation to the actual lives of everyday people closer and more genuine, than in any country of our own time. Whoever has conceded this has also con-ceded that an average superiority of old Dutch art to our own was a natural consequence.

On the other hand the range of Dutch subjects belonged to that class which is most popular to-day, the domestic and the anecdotal, the landscape and the scene from real life.

It is interesting to see that as early as the seventeenth century the essential features of the nineteenth century painting were thus anticipated and prefigured.

Many pictures analogous in subjects to those affected by the Dutch were painted by the Flemings of the same period. It is in the matter of religious art that the two schools especially fell asunder. David Teniers the Younger, whose tavern scenes are world-famous, is the most obvious illustration of the close relations often existing between Dutch and Flemish art.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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