During the seventeenth century the genius of the Dutch peoples expressed itself more fully than at any other time in their history. In a little more than a hundred years, this small country produced statesmen, soldiers, thinkers, artists, and businessmen whose achievements make one of the most brilliant chapters in the history of western civilization. Uniting against a foreign ruler, they liberated their country and established freedom of worship. Then, beginning in the role of a subordinate province, they gradually asserted their place among the great powers until it was Holland which led the coalition against Louis XIV, the greatest monarch in Europe. Their final triumph came when England, to whose Queen Elizabeth they had offered their country's sovereignty one hundred years before, chose as her king the Dutch general in chief and prime minister, William of Orange.
These heroic times were not easy ones for the average man to live through. On land and at sea his country was almost constantly at war against powerful enemies, and parts of it were frequently occupied by foreign troops. When peace was made with the enemies abroad, the unity of the country was threatened by internal strife between religious factions or the parties who favored centralized government and those who believed in independence for the provinces -- or states rights as we would call them today.
Every phase of life shows an irresistible vitality. In spite of the exhausting military efforts they were obliged to make, the Dutch merchants maintained their position as the link between northern and southern Europe, even trading with the Spaniard, their arch enemy, when conditions at home obliged them to do so. Indeed, they violently resisted all efforts to prevent them from doing this. By means of the East and the West India Companies, they expanded their markets to the furthest corners of the earth, threatening the Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Empires and competing with the English. The economic prosperity thus created was strengthened and consolidated when the financial collapse of Spain ruined the great German and Italian banking houses, leaving Amsterdam the chief money market in Europe.
To understand fully the historical conditions which produced the art of the time, one must not forget that in spite of their austere religion and their admirable organization, the Dutch of the seventeenth century were also periodically subject to extraordinary bursts of violence, sometimes patriotic as when they burnt their houses and opened the dikes to flood their fields rather than hand them over to the invader, and sometimes inexplicably cruel as when the mob . . .