Dutch art became a recognizable style on its own around 1550, and what we know as the Dutch Golden Age of art lasted for one hundred years,
This flourishing period for paintings and architecture began at the same time the independence war against Spain ended. Philip II of Spain also bore the crown of several other kingdoms, like Portugal or England, and this was the time American colonies were yielding gold and silver in quantities never seen before. Nobody bet on the Dutch, but they won the Eight Years’ War.
Baroque, leaded by Rubens and fuelled by Philip’s personal likings, was the mainstream painting style in every European court. Religious figures and royal portraits were common work for painters like Velázquez or Caravaggio.
However, as soon as the Dutch got rid of the Spanish rule, they established a republic, and they began looking for an identity of their own. Breaking sharply with anything related to medieval monarchy and pious Catholicism, they set the base for freedom, which attracted not only artists but also scientists and businesspeople -or bourgeois as they were called back then.
The Dutch Republic soon became a trade hub in this early Renaissance Europe. Owning the mouth of Rhine River and some of the best ports in the centre of the continent surely helped, but it was because the Dutch were open minded people that this small republic thrived into an empire.
Jewish, Muslims and other religious minorities were being expelled from southern Europe and many chose the freedom in Amsterdam or Rotterdam to live. As banking was not forbidden for them as it was for Catholics, the birth of modern finance and stock exchange were born here, turning Amsterdam or Rotterdam into the richest cities in the continent.
So we have freedom for creativity to flow and money to fuel it, but who would be the muses? Dutch painters turned their brush from imagination and royals to the amazing new world that was flourishing around them.
Everyday life scenes depicting almost everybody, from physicians and milkmaids to musicians or farmers, but also maritime and flower landscapes, detailed portraits… the Dutch Golden Age of painting liked every style but religious paintings, which weren’t Calvin’s favorites either.
To better understand why Dutch painting became so popular we need to get into these people’s shoes. With no mass media and very few people being literate, paintings were like YouTube. These paintings spoke directly to people of scenes they could understand and share, building up a national identity like literature would do 300 years later during the Rise of Nationalism in Europe.
While kings only showed their paintings to other kings and noble people, art was “civil” in the Dutch Republic and citizens could enjoy it in the newly built town halls. Canals and storehouses opened the Netherlands for greater commerce and the wealthiest traders began the construction of the famous narrow houses in Amsterdam. Art exhibits and fairs become very popular, attracting buyers from all over the continent. It is estimated that over 1.3 million paintings were created in the Netherlands from 1640 to 1660. So many that prices seemed to have dropped significantly, making them affordable for more people.
From then on, the Dutch have never stopped being amongst the most open-minded people in the world and bringing trade everywhere -Rotterdam was the busiest harbour until Shanghai become #1 in 2002. Everybody feels welcome in such a free nation, and obviously art and architecture keep on thriving as they’ve always done here. There’s a whole new wave of Dutch artists that are decided to make us forget Vermeer and Rembrandt. If you take the challenge, you can find them at nhow Rotterdam, the new icon of Dutch creativity.