Dutch Art

Dutch art, the art of the region that is now the Netherlands. As a distinct national style, this art dates from about the turn of the 17th cent., when the country emerged as a political entity and developed a clearly independent culture.

Early History

During the Middle Ages, Netherlandish art was subject to the leveling influence of the Romanesque and Gothic styles that prevailed throughout Europe. In the 15th and 16th cent. the southern, or Flemish, provinces in general led in quantity and refinement of production and set the artistic pace for the entire region (see Flemish art and architecture). Consequently, it is difficult to distinguish a development of national traits in the art of the Dutch provinces before the aesthetic florescence of the 17th cent. Moreover, the iconoclasm that attended religious and political upheavals in the mid-16th cent. destroyed much existing work.

The earliest known Dutch paintings, by such artists as Geertgen tot Sint Jans and Albert van Ouwater, date from the second half of the 15th cent. and are clearly related to the Flemish tradition of the Van Eycks. In the 16th cent. a profusion of Italian Renaissance motifs appeared especially in decorative sculpture, and centers of sculptural production grew up at Dordrecht, Utrecht, and Breda. In painting, enthusiasm for Italian art, combined with a kind of late revival of Gothicism, resulted in a mixture of mannerist and classicist elements in works by such painters as Cornelis Englebrechtsz (1468–1533), Jacob Corneliszoon van Oostsanen (c.1470–1533), Jan Gossart, Jan van Scorel, Maerten van Heemskerck, Hendrik Goltzius, and Cornelis Corneliszoon (1562–1638). At the same time, a continuing native tendency toward sober realism asserted itself in the works of Jan Mostaert, Antonio Moro, and Lucas van Leyden.

The Flowering of Dutch Art: The Seventeenth Century

The current of Italian Renaissance influence persisted well into the 17th cent. and is to be noted especially in the work of the most important sculptor, Hendrik de Keyser, whose style was perpetuated in the work of his sons Willem and Pieter de Keyser. The 12-year truce with Spain (1609–21) introduced a period of unprecedented cultural growth and material prosperity. Calvinist proscription of church art and the absence of extensive state patronage encouraged the development of private easel painting, and a heightened national pride was reflected in the immense popularity of pictures portraying the domestic scene and Dutch burgher activities.

The expressions of jovial burghers were captured in the rapid, vigorous brushstrokes of Frans Hals. Meanwhile, many other artists devoted themselves primarily to treating special types of material portraying contemporary Dutch life. Among these were Thomas de Keyser and Bartholomeus van der Helst, who were primarily portraitists; their works include many of the large group portraits of officers of corporations and guilds—a type of painting peculiar to Dutch culture. Adriaen van Ostade became well known as a painter of peasant scenes.

At Utrecht the 16th-century Italianate tradition persisted in the work of Abraham Bloemaert. The outstanding members of the Utrecht school, notably Gerard van Honthorst, Hendrik Terbrugghen, and Dirck van Baburen, went to Italy and were influenced by Caravaggio in their rendering of large-figured genre groups and isolated half-length figures of musicians and drinkers. With their dramatic rendering of light and shade, these artists, together with the classical and historical painters the Pynas brothers and Pieter Lastman, provided the background for the greatest figure to emerge in the history of Dutch art, Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt's genius was expressed in the whole gamut of subject matter, from portraiture, landscape, and interiors to still life and historical scenes. Unfortunately, his incredible mastery of all types of painting and the graphic arts was reflected only weakly in the art of his numerous pupils, among whom were Nicholaes Maes, Gerard Dou, and the most talented of his disciples, Carel Fabritius.

Toward the middle of the 17th cent. there was increased interest in the rendering of homely domestic scenes and views of urban life, seen in the paintings of Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, and Jan Steen. In the 1660s and 70s taste began to favor effects of wealth, elegance, and refinement. A tranquillity of atmosphere pervaded not only works of lesser artists but also the exquisite paintings of Gerard Ter Borch and Jan Vermeer.

Landscape also became an enormously popular subject, offering full scope to the native tendency toward pictorial realism. The painters depicted their countryside with a sensitivity and unpretentious sincerity that has made the Dutch school of landscape one of the most influential and esteemed of all time. At the beginning of the 17th cent. a mannered, decorative style was carried over from the 16th cent. in the landscapes of Gillis van Coninxloo. A straightforward contemplative realism emerged in work by such artists as Esaias van der Velde and the highly original Hercules Seghers.

In the second quarter of the century the landscapes of Jan van Goyen and Salomon van Ruisdael reveal a greater breadth of space and more dynamic composition. The culmination of these tendencies was reached in the art of Jacob van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp, and Meindert Hobbema and in that of the great specialists in marine views, Jan van de Cappelle, Willem van de Velde, and Ludolf Backhuysen. Certain landscapists emphasized animal painting (e.g., Paul Potter) or concentrated on unusual light effects in sunsets and moonlight scenes (e.g., Aert van der Neer).

Outstanding Dutch still-life painters included Jan Davidszoon de Heem, Willem Claeszoon Heda, and Willem Kalf (1619–93). An outstanding painter of birds and wildlife was Melchior d' Hondecoeter. Also characteristically Dutch as subject matter were architectural interiors. Specialists in this field included Pieter Saenredam and Emanuel de Witte. After the middle of the 17th cent. there was a long period of artistic decline. Even works of the principal artists in the last quarter of the century reveal tendencies toward empty elaboration of effects and pomposity or sentimentality of content.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

During the 18th cent. a strong wave of French influence encouraged renewed interest in historical and mythological painting and a heavy-handed imitation of rococo elegance. Among the more original 18th-century masters were Jacob de Wit (1695–1754) and Cornelis Troost (1697–1750). Not until the middle of the 19th cent. was there a revival of Dutch artistic culture—marked by the creative production of Jozef Israëls, Anton Mauve, Hendrik Mesdag, Johann Jongkind, and the Maris brothers. The outstanding genius of the second half of the century was Vincent van Gogh, one of the most important figures of the postimpressionist school.

The Twentieth Century

During the 20th cent., Dutch painting was strongly influenced by fauvism, cubism, and expressionism. Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg founded the movement known as de Stijl, which radically altered the development of international design. After World War II, Piet Ouberg (1880–1954) influenced a younger generation of artists with his colorful abstract composition. In 1949 the CoBrA (an acronym for Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam) group of avant-garde artists signaled the new tendency toward abstract expressionism. Contemporary Dutch art is best reflected in the works of Jef Diederon, Jan Dibbets, Stanley Brouwn, Jan Roland, and Ger van Elk. In the graphic arts an outstanding 20th-century figure is M. C. Escher.

Sculpture and the Minor Arts

In sharp contrast with the vitality of the Dutch school in painting and the graphic arts is its comparative lack of important sculpture. Outstanding among Dutch minor arts is the silverwork and goldwork of the 16th and 17th cent. There was also extensive production and export of ceramic tiles, of which the finest examples date from the late 16th and 17th cent.


On early Netherlandish painting see studies by E. Panofsky (2 vol., 1953) and M. J. Friedländer (9 vol. in 10, tr. 1967). See also C. van Mander, Dutch and Flemish Painters (tr. 1936); J. Rosenberg et al., Dutch Art and Architecture: 1600 to 1800 (rev. ed. 1972); J. M. Nash, The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer (1972); R. H. Fuchs, Dutch Painting (1978); L. Stone-Ferrier, Dutch Prints of Daily Life (1983); S. Alpers, The Art of Describing Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1984); S. Slive, Dutch Painting 1600–1800 (1995).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Dutch Art: Selected full-text books and articles

A History of Dutch Life and Art By J. J. M. Timmers; Mary F. Hedlund Nelson, 1959
Dutch Drawings and Prints By J. G. van Gelder Harry N. Abrams, 1959
Dutch Drawings: Masterpieces of Five Centuries By Rijksmuseum National Gallery of Art, 1958
The Dutch Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle By Leo van Puyvelde The Phaidon press: The Oxford University Press, 1944
The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806 By Jonathan Israel Clarendon Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. 23 "Art and Architecture, 1590-1648"
Landscape, Portrait, Still-Life: Their Origin and Development By Max J. Friedländer; R. F. C. Hull Schocken Books, 1963
Librarian's tip: Chap. IV "The Golden Age of Landscape in the Seventeenth Century" and Chap. VIII "The Golden Age of Genre"
An Introduction to the Woodcut of the Seventeenth Century By Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt Abaris Books, 1977
Librarian's tip: Chap. II "Masters of the Netherlands: The Christoffel van Sichems" and Chap. III "Masters of the Netherlands: Other Artists"
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