Not all praise for Dutch artists was verbal.  Edouard Manet’s 1873 Bon Bock (now in Philadelphia) celebrated the art of Frans Hals, such as his Malle Babbe (Berlin), a work that was more literally replicated by Gustave Courbet in 1869 (Hamburg).  In addition, Dutch pictures were also celebrated for their political qualities, as viewed by the nineteenth century: French viewers took these simple depicted burghers to have struggled successfully against monarchy and authoritarian rulers, so their “republican, democratic, and patriotic” qualities were celebrated for being the expression of ordinary citizens.  Once more Thoré-Bürger, an exile in the Low Countries after the unsuccessful 1848 revolutions, led the way in celebrating Hals for his seeming spontaneity as a virtuoso painter but also for his militia group portraits as celebrations of contemporary events and daily life over the alternative subject, deemed the “supposed nobility” of Italian art.  Thoré characterizes Hals’s subjects in terms that are both descriptive as well as political: “rough sailors, bold arquebusiers, informal burgomasters, cheerful working men, the crowd, everyone, in a country of equality.”  Even Vincent Van Gogh, champion of the working man and farming peasant, came to see both Hals and Rembrandt in the same terms, when he wrote in 1888, the year before he died (a Dutchman in France):


"Hammer into your head that master Frans Hals, that painter of all kinds of portraits, of a whole, gallant, live, immortal republic.  Hammer into your head the no less great and universal master painter of portraits of the Dutch republic: Rembrandt, that broad-minded naturalistic man, as healthy as Hals himself.  I am just trying to make you see the great simple thing: the painting of humanity, or rather of a whole republic, by the simple means of portraiture."


The very buyers at the end of the nineteenth century of those marginalized Impressionist canvases as well as the works of Manet and Van Gogh were our own American ancestors.  They found in the forms and the subjects of both Dutch art and French Impressionism a harmony with their own professed values of modern life and democratic principles.  That is the reason why (other than Amsterdam, Haarlem, and The Hague) the best places to see portraits by Rembrandt and Hals or to enjoy Vermeer’s light-filled interiors remain the great American East Coast museums of New York City and Washington (as a recent fall exhibition, “The Age of Rembrandt” in New York, arranged by collectors, reminded us so vividly).


Pioneering art historians have also looked at Dutch art this way.  The fundamental study of Dutch group portraiture by the Viennese scholar Alois Riegl a century ago emphasized the egalitarian positioning of the rows of heads in works by Hals and his pre-decessors.  Riegl sees such pictures as the wellspring of a modern concept of the individual, emancipated and subjective within his surroundings, merely coordinated instead of being subordinated, integrated, or unified.  Riegl stresses the eyes and their dispersed glances as mirrors of the soul and indices of personal independence rather than being subject to larger composition.  He even takes the Northern interest in landscape as the subjective measure of “emancipation of intermediate space” and avoidance of pictorial unification through such totalizing devices as Italian linear perspective.


The great Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga makes a similar argument.  He delights in the relative absence of images showing land war in Dutch art and the unusual importance of painted ships and sailors in the country that basically invented marine pictures as the backbone of the economy as well as national defense.  Huizinga stresses the absence of patronage from an established church and the use of paintings to decorate ordinary private, middle-class dwellings rather than churches, resulting in easel paintings rather than murals (which, he notes, would have suffered in any case from dampness in the Dutch climate).  Moreover, the overall prosperity of the Dutch middle class and the relative cheapness of Dutch pictures sold on the open market meant that conditions were perfect—as many seventeenth-century visiting diarists, especially from England were to note—for pictures to be found in the homes of ordinary bakers and cobblers rather than some upper crust elite.  Huizinga, following Van Gogh, notes that those who had them-selves portrayed also comprised a larger spectrum of society:


"Nor were the patrons to be sought exclusively among the riches and noblest, as a mere glance at commissioned portraits will suffice to show.  Rembrandt and Frans Hals did not merely paint mayors and leading dignitaries but also writing masters, preachers, Jewish physicians, engravers, and goldsmiths." And he goes on to note the ubiquity of pictures in all kind of Dutch urban settings: ". . .in the town hall and other public places, in orphanages and offices, in the houses of patricians and burghers alike—in brief, everywhere except the churches.”  Ironically, both Riegl and Huizinga set Rembrandt apart as untypical of Dutch art and for trying too hard to make pictures and subjects akin to the wider European subjects, especially religion.


Even if we do not join these authors in celebrating Dutch pictures for their seeming simplicity and everyday subjects, we can see many Dutch painters practicing a self-conscious presentation of “Dutchness.”  Some of the emerging Dutch national sense of pride and identity emerges from their choice of landscape settings.  Jacob van Ruisdael’s large canvas (now in Chicago) shows the Castle of Egmond in ruins, which not only evokes the mutability of existence but also points to recent Dutch history.  Seat of the Counts of Egmond, who joined William the Silent in the Dutch Revolt, this castle was occupied by Spanish troops early in the conflict, then destroyed on orders by William the Silent to prevent being used as a garrison by an occupying enemy on Dutch soil.  This ambitious painting, produced in the 1650s, commemorates the recent independence of the nation in 1648 with an image steeped both in recent history and contemporary peace.  In similar fashion, Albert Cuyp’s landscape of the “Valkhof” at Nijmegen on the Rhine features a fortification, the “Falcon Court,” a stronghold that dates back to the time of Charlemagne in the ninth century as well as the legendary Dutch revolutionary—against the Roman Empire—a proto-Dutchman, Claudius Civilis in the first century C.E.  In choosing this historic site, Cuyp emphasizes its solidity and longe-vity as foundations for the newly independent nation; his typical golden glow of sunset as well as his well-fed cows and bustling boat traffic along the river suggest prosperity as well as peace in the present.

Modern buildings also received their share of attention from Dutch painters of the city.  The grand new town hall on the Dam Square of Amsterdam quickly became the stock-in-trade of some townscape specialists, particularly Gerrit Berckheyde.  Expanded new canals in burgeoning Amsterdam attracted Jan van der Heyden.  And city views in general, like modern postcards of skylines in American cities, would have had their ready clientele.  Even Rembrandt made a small 1640 etching of Amsterdam’s skyline, and Jacob van Ruisdael painted a number of major sites in the heart of Amsterdam as well as his more frequent distant vistas of Haarlem from across the coastal dunes.  Even the city of Dordrecht had its portraitists, led by Jan van Goyen and Albert Cuyp.


The typical also soon dominated Dutch realist landscapes.  Winter skating scenes on frozen canals were popular subjects for both paintings (Averkamp) and prints (Jan van de Velde).  Collections of prints with views of countryside, e.g. near Haarlem, became collectors’ items, as the title page of one set, issued by publisher Claes Jansz. Visscher in Haarlem proclaims to the armchair traveler: “Let you who enjoy the varied views of country houses and the surprising turns in ever-delightful roads: come, let your eager eye roam these open vistas offered by the sylvan surroundings of Haarlem.”


What all these examples present to us is cooperation by several generations of talented Dutch artists in paintings and in prints to make a new, national program for their independent country.  Sometimes the found biblical or historical precedents for the present, but chiefly they focused on the people and places of the Netherlands—in town and country—which were sources of modern accomplishment and pride.  Calvinist Hol-land could view its successful independence as the sign of being an elect nation, the reward for pious and virtuous behavior.  It is also not difficult for modern Americans to find “family values” of these Calvinists inscribed in the subjects painted by Dutch artists.  While the nineteenth century still regarded such images of women and children and sometimes maidservants in the well-run household as candid snapshots of life as lived in daily reality, modern scholarship has stressed how much such paintings by Pieter de Hooch or Gabriel Metsu were idealized images of how matrons and their offspring ought to keep the order of things intact.  Such images are more properly to be compared to the omnipresent published treatises on proper marriage and the manuals of good conduct, such as the works of Jacob Cats—a perennial best-seller on the level of Doctor Spock in postwar America.  There were instructive pictures, especially by Jan Steen, that taught how not to run a household; indeed, such images of topsy-turvy abuses are still called “a Jan Steen household” by the modern Dutch.  Steen and others sometimes celebrated pious virtues in a Grace before a meal as well as life cycle ritual celebrations in the house, such as the St. Nicholas festivities (still practiced in Holland rather than December 25th).  Whether positive or negative, the Dutch—and their painters—still adhered to their favorite homely proverbs, often pictured, such as Steen’s “As the Old Pipe, so the Young Sing,”  the equivalent of our Franklin-esque homily, “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”


Thus what we are really seeing in Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century is not an unmediated, candid image of life as lived, but rather a calculated and composed presentation—founded in the new realities of Dutch national independence as well as embodying Calvinist values within a wider setting of religious tolerance.  Urban pros-perity and peace brought dangers of attendant temptations and opportunities for frivolity.  In this respect, both the sturdy windmills and the emphasis on the harnessing of natural forces on ships provides an image of industry and virtue as much as it does documentation of Dutch economic foundations.  The well-dressed and sober group portraits of guilds or militias crowds out (most of) the more disturbing records of beggars and vagrants.  In short, just as self-portraits of artists arrange a presentation for us of what they wanted to be remembered for, so too is life or nature selectively arranged in most Dutch paintings, tailored to the values that the nation wanted to show to itself as well as to its foreign visitors and to posterity.  Those values have largely become enshrined in the  years since the seventeenth century as the very character of the Netherlands—note the strong visual resemblance as well as the moral connection between Vermeer’s Maidservant Pouring Milk (Amsterdam) and the commercial logo for “Dutch Cleanser” today.  This pertains as well to the population of the flat, distinctly Dutch farmland vistas with windmills and busy waterways.


If there is indeed something that we can point to as the “Dutchness” of Dutch art, then that something was put there, deliberately, by the very Dutch painters themselves in their self-conscious “Golden Age” of newly-won national independence and celebration of national setting and character.  On the other hand, because of our own later struggles in America for independence and middle-class prosperity, as well as the intervening pictorial revolution waged by the nineteenth-century urban Impressionists in France who rediscovered the art of Holland, we might just have eyes and minds especially attuned to see like them and to appreciate what they created.



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Larry Silver

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The Dutchness of Dutch Art by Larry Silver
© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.