The Thirty Years’ War ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, which granted freedom of religious choice in Europe. While southern Flanders remained under Catholic Spanish control, the northern provinces broke away to form an independent republic called the United Provinces of the Netherlands, or the Dutch Republic. Governed by a prosperous middle class, the Dutch Republic grew prosperous through trade. Amsterdam became one of the world’s largest trading center, and its warehouses stored spices, gold, silk, ivory, sugar, and porcelain. Although the majority of the population was Protestant, other religious faiths were tolerated, which made cities like Antwerp an attractive refuge for Jews who faced persecution in less tolerant Catholic countries.
Most Protestant churches looked like this one, painted by the Dutch artist Pieter Saenredam, who specialized in paintings of church interiors. The Protestant ban on religious images deprived artists of the lucrative church commissions that had been a mainstay of the profession. Artists working in Protestant countries therefore had to seek new kinds of subjects to attract clients.
Because of the Protestant ban on religious images, Dutch artists specialized in painting genre scenes — meaning scenes of everyday life.
“Artists now use the term genre, a French word meaning “type” or “kind,” to describe scenes showing people at work, play, or rest. The seventeenth-century Dutch, who did more than any other nation to popularize such images, did not see them as a single category but spoke of “merry companies,” “picnics,” “bordello scenes,” and the like. Regardless of the term, the intention of genre painting is not who people are, as with portraiture, but rather what they are doing.”
Johannes Vermeer and Dutch Scenes of Daily Life in the 1600s (NGA)
The paintings were generally small in scale — since they were made for middle class homes, rather than grandiose churches and palaces — and bankers and merchants weren’t the only ones buying art! Small shopkeepers, butchers, and tailors also bought pictures to decorate their homes, as can be seen in this painting of a tailor’s workshop. Nor were the pictures “made to order” the way they had been in the past; instead, artists mass-produced pictures that were purchased afterwards by customers (of course, portraits were still done on commission). To facilitate this mass-production approach, artists specialized in particular genres. Typical genre subjects included portraits, landscape, still lives, and scenes of everyday middle class life.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
How did the Dutch become so prosperous? The German sociologist Max Weber attempted to answer this question in a famous series of essays titled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism published in 1930. In this study, Weber observed that Protestants shifted their focus from religious devotion to industrious labor, believing that hard work was a “calling,” and a moral obligation, and that the accumulation of wealth was a sign of god’s favor:
“Calvinists believe in predestination–that God has already determined who is saved and damned. As Calvinism developed, a deep psychological need for clues about whether one was actually saved arose, and Calvinists looked to their success in worldly activity for those clues. Thus, they came to value profit and material success as signs of God’s favor.”
Dutch genre scenes reflect these values in a variety of ways. Scenes of prosperous middle class life celebrated the virtues of industry, while idleness was denounced in satirical pictures that warned against the vices of laziness. Still life paintings celebrated the accumulation of wealth by depicting expensive objects in loving detail – yet Protestant leaders also warned against wasteful spending on mere luxuries. Vanitas symbols, that reminded viewers of the transience of all earthly possessions, drove home the message that such pleasures were only temporary.
The Dutch master Pieter de Hooch specialized in domestic scenes that provide insights into the daily life of the Dutch middle classes. This one depicts two well-dressed women putting a stack of freshly laundered and ironed linens in a cupboard. The home is well furnished (though not overtly “showy”) and impeccably clean (the floor, quite literally gleams!). A well-behaved child plays quietly in the background. Similar to popular 1950s TV shows that pictured the “ideal family” (such as Father Knows Best), domestic scenes such as this served as lessons in the virtues of a clean and well-ordered home.
Dutch painters took equal delight in satirical scenes poking fun at people who failed to live by the rules of the Protestant work ethic (the counterpart to popular comedies like The Simpsons and Family Guy). This picture by Jan Steen depicts a household in complete disarray. The lady of the house has fallen asleep, and the household has erupted into chaos. On the left, a child in a high chair has flung its food to the ground, while a dog eats the pie on the table; behind the sleeping matron, another young child smokes a pipe, while a third investigates a cabinet that is normally kept under lock and key. In the center, a young girl (who appears quite tipsy), is seated with a young man, whose leg is crossed flirtatiously over hers. Behind them is a Quaker with a duck on his shoulder (suggesting that the Quaker is a “quacker”), who feebly tries to restore order by reading from the Bible. Meanwhile, the floor is littered with bits of cast off food, which has attracted a pig, who sneaks in through a door on the right. To the Dutch, all of this would have served as a delightful warning against the dangers of “luxury” and excess.
The most popular genre by far was landscape painting. This one by Jacob Van Ruisdael depicts a view of Haarlem, with St. Bavo cathedral in the distance. The horizon is dotted with windmills, and in the foreground linen is being bleached in the sun. With its focus on the cultivated landscape — nature transformed by industry and productive labor — Dutch landscape painting reflects a sense of pride in the nation’s industry and productivity, and the belief that Dutch prosperity was a sign of God’s favor.
As in many of Ruisdael’s landscapes, three quarters of the picture is taken up by sky, and the darkening clouds suggest an approaching storm. This attention to meteorology (the study of atmosphere and weather process) reflects a scientific outlook that contrasts dramatically with Catholic Baroque artists such as Fra Andrea Pozzo, who still imagined the sky as a place for miraculous apparitions!
Still life paintings portraying various objects arranged on a table were also popular. They often include expensive luxury items such as silver, crystal, and exotic items imported from far away lands. Dutch still life paintings reflect the middle class desire for material possessions, yet they often include reminders of the “vanity of earthly possessions” that Protestant ministers warned against. In this painting, the skull is an obvious vanitas symbol — a reminder that all earthly pleasures will some day come to an end. But other reminders of life’s transience include the timepiece, the cracked walnut, and the tipped over glass.
Reflected in the globe is an image of the artist at work (recalling the reflection in the concave mirror of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait), and represents a contradictory desire on the part of the artist to immortalize himself amidst all these symbols alluding to life’s transience!
Rembrandt van Rijn
One of the greatest masters of Dutch Baroque painting was Rembrandt van Rijn, who worked in a range of subjects, and was renowned for etchings and engravings, as much as for his paintings. Rembrandt continued to paint religious subjects, in spite of Protestant attitudes. Yet his approach to religious subjects remained consistent with Protestant values: Luther and Calvin both emphasized the importance of reading the bible, and Rembrandt’s religious subjects reflect his deeply personal interpretation of stories from the Old and New Testaments.
Caravaggio’s tenebrism can be seen in Rembrandt’s dark, night-like scenes; like Caravaggio as well, he used real people as models for his religious subjects. He sometimes portrayed family members (as well as himself) in the guise of religious saints and prophets to express his profound belief that Holiness can be found in each and every individual, and that beauty is something that comes from within.
Rembrandt often used Jewish models for his Old Testament scenes, recognizing that the historical characters of the bible were themselves Jewish and Middle Eastern by birth:
“For Rembrandt, working from a Jewish model would have been a means of returning to a historical truth, of portraying Jesus unadulterated, as the Jew that he was—a form of realism scoffing at tradition.”
Rembrandt’s approach to religious subjects was very different from his Catholic contemporaries, as can be seen in this comparison. Although Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross was based directly on this earlier version by Rubens, the differences between the two works is telling: while Rubens’ work is operatic, full of grand gestures and magnificently costumed figures, Rembrandt’s version seems to shun all grandeur, in order to focus more intensely on the tender human emotions of the scene. As Gardner’s Art Through the Ages observes:
“Rembrandt’s images are not the opulent, overwhelming art of Baroque Italy. Rather, his art is that of a committed Calvinist who desired to interpret biblical narratives in human (as opposed to lofty theological) terms. The spiritual stillness of Rembrandt’s religious art is that of inward-turning contemplation, far from the choirs and trumpets and the heavenly tumult of Bernini or Pozzo . . . .”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 310
The Psychology of Light
If Rembrandt’s pictures are “quiet,” they are no less psychologically intense — and one of his primary means of conveying emotion and psychology is through his use of light. In Rembrandt’s pictures, the lighting carries all of the emotional intensity:
“Rembrandt found that by manipulating the direction, intensity, distance, and surface texture of light and shadow, he could render the most subtle nuances of character and mood . . .”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 303
We can see Rembrandt’s use of lighting to communicate psychology and emotion in this etching, representing Christ amongst the sick. Like Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt was a master of the print medium. This particular etching sold for the record sum of 100 guilders, so it was nicknamed “The Hundred Guilder Print.”
The image reflects Rembrandt’s deeply humanist interpretation of the story of Christ’s life. In this scene Christ appears quiet, gentle, and serene, rather than heroic and grand. The figures that surround him are the outcasts of society — the sick, the blind, the lame, and the young — all of them studied from life. Christ gestures for the people to gather near him, as beams of light surround him, bringing brightness from the gloom, and hope and salvation to the afflicted. Rembrandt uses lighting to amplify the human tenderness of the scene, and to highlight the message of Christ’s love for all of humanity, regardless of wealth.
Rembrandt and Printmaking (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Rembrandt’s main source of income came from portraits. In fact, he became one of the most sought after portraitists in Holland, probably because he knew exactly what his Dutch patrons wanted. Calvinist ministers exhorted their congregation to beware of the vanity of worldly possessions, and the Dutch deliberately dressed in subdued colors in order to avoid the flashy finery that was common in other countries. But the Dutch also wanted to celebrate their wealth, and in his portraits Rembrandt knew how to make his sitters look “rich” while still appearing “modest.” As Simon Schama says, he knew how to let them “show off without showing off.”
The most prestigious portrait commissions came from Dutch militia companies who regularly commissioned group portraits to commemorate their annual banquets. Traditionally, these portraits were very stiff and formal — much like a 5th grade class photo — but Frans Hals, who specialized in this genre, introduced a new liveliness by depicting members in a candid moment of merrymaking. Several of the sitters look out at the viewer, making us feel as if we have just joined the party. This kind of “viewer participation” links Hals with artists of the Catholic Baroque, even if the goals are very different.
Rembrandt took this approach to the group portrait one step further by showing his militia company in action, as they form ranks to greet the arrival of the Queen of France.
Watch the following video and listen to Simon Schama’s discussion of Rembrandt’s portraits, and the failure of his Night Watch:
The patron’s of Rembrandt’s Night Watch did not like the work, and they refused to pay him. We can only speculate as to their reasons, but the set back was just one of many that Rembrandt suffered at this time: in 1642 his wife Saskia died, and in 1656 he was declared bankrupt (Rembrandt was a notorious spendthrift, and had great difficulties managing his money). It was at this point that his religious subjects became more introspective and contemplative (as Simon Schama says, “he turned down the volume of the world and switched to an inner, quiet radiance”), but his painting style also changed dramatically.
Compared to his earlier work, this painting of a woman wading in a stream is remarkably sketchy, and loosely painted. Rembrandt used a variety of techniques, such as scumbling, impasto, and sgrafitto. To his contemporaries, the style seemed sloppy and unfinished, but Rembrandt understood that this sketchy way painting gave his subjects an immediacy that could not be achieved with a more highly detailed and realistic style. As Gardner’s Art Through the Ages explains, the artist was in fact attempting to achieve an even more naturalistic rendering of the fugitive effects of light:
“This technique is closer to reality because the eyes perceive light and dark not as static but as always subtly changing.”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 309
Rembrandt painted many self-portraits throughout his life, and they provide an intimate insight into the soul of the artist and the man. Like Leonardo, Rembrandt strove to express intangible nuances of mood and psychology:
“None of his portraits is an observed document of a person’s appearance. Each is a questioning of what it is to exist. Each tries to get at the invisible mind, soul, character – whatever you call the inner person, Rembrandt paints it.”
Jonathan Jones, “Self Portrait at the Age of 63, Rembrandt,” The Guardian
To communicate the intangible psychology of the “invisible mind,” Rembrandt used lighting effects that create subtle nuances of character and mood, and he applied his paint in a loose “painterly” style that sacrificed detail in favor of expression. The character and personality that comes through from his self portraits is so convincing that we feel like we are in the presence of the man himself. As Jonathan Jones put it: “This is not like looking at a painting. It is like meeting Rembrandt. You have no idea what to say to him, and fear what he is about to say to you.”
In Rembrandt’s self-portraits we witness the culmination of Renaissance Humanism and its awakening self-awareness — for here we encounter an individual in the modern sense of the term.
Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659 (Khan Academy)
The other great Dutch painter was Jan Vermeer, who made his living as an innkeeper and art dealer. He painted only a small handful of paintings during his lifetime, most of them interior scenes like this one, with a single figure in an interior, lit by light from a window on the left. The atmosphere is tranquil and serene, as if time was standing still:
“Vermeer’s paintings are always lit by even daylight, quite unlike the dark and light contrast in Rembrandt’s work. Vermeer’s light is not meant to give a dramatic effect. Rather it helps establish a tranquil atmosphere.”
Tiny Points of Light
How do you paint “highlights” on something that is already light in color? Vermeer achieved the brilliant light in this painting by applying tiny flecks of white on the milkmaid’s yellow bodice, the edges of the jug and bowl, and the bread. Up close, it might look like a bad case of dandruff, but from a normal viewing distance the white flecks produce the appearance of brilliant light.
It is widely believed that Vermeer used a camera obscura as an aid to his paintings. A camera obscura is a box (or room) with a pinhole that creates an aperture. Objects outside the box are projected on the interior wall and inverted. This theory is supported by the “circles of confusion” that appear in Vermeer’s pictures. They are like the blurry parts of a picture that are slightly out of focus.
Jan Vermeer and the Camera Obscura (National Gallery of Art)
Learn more: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/verm_4.shtm
Tim’s Vermeer — a new movie about a computer graphic artist who has been investigating Vermeer’s use of technology to create his pictures
Vermeer’s scientific study of the properties of light can also be seen in this picture of a young woman paused at an open window. The atmosphere is tranquil, and the pale clear light that floods the room evokes the soft warmth of the early morning sun. The brightness of the picture can be attributed to the way Vermeer painted shadows. He discovered that shadows are not colorless, but actually reflect the color of objects around them. The shadows on the woman’s white veil are not gray and dull, but are tinged with purple and blue, reflected from the blue sky out the window. Similarly the pitcher picks up the blue of the garment hanging over the back of the chair, and the tray picks up the myriad colors of the carpet covering the table.
As we have seen, light was a central element in Baroque art. Bernini used it for dramatic effect in his work, and Caravaggio used it to suggest the mysterious presence of God. Rembrandt manipulated light to communicate nuances of psychology, mood, and emotion, but Vermeer used light very differently: he studied light like a scientist, and applied it like a poet!
Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance (Khan Academy
Genre Painting in Northern Europe, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Dutch Still Lifes and Landscape of the 1600s (NGA)
Rembrandt’s Self Portraits
Rembrandt Van Rijn, Heilbrunn timeline of Art History
Rembrandt Van Rijn Prints, Timeline of Art History
Johannes Vermeer, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Johannes Vermeer and Dutch Scenes of Daily Life in the 1600s (National Gallery of Art)
Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, National Gallery of Art
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