Explore | Looking at 17th-Century Dutch Painting

At the dawn of the seventeenth century, the seven northern provinces—Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland, and Groningen—declared independence from the southern Netherlands, which continued to be ruled by Habsburg Spain. Freed from the control of an absolute monarch and the Catholic church, the new Dutch Republic quickly became one of the most powerful countries in Europe. With this newfound prosperity, collectors of all stripes—from wealthy regents and merchants to tailors and bakers—created an unprecedented demand for paintings, which in turn led artists to specialize. Novel types of paintings, such as landscapes and marines, still lifes, and genre paintings (scenes of everyday life) were created alongside the more traditional history subjects and portraits.

Looking at 17th-Century Dutch Painting features much of the range of this artistic production. The appeal of these paintings can be attributed to their relatively small scale (Dutch houses tended to be tall and narrow), the naturalistic style in which they are painted, and the prosaic nature of their subject matter. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these images are painted fictions rather than snapshots of reality. The illusory spontaneity and direct representation of a rustic landscape with strolling figures is a calculated artifice, just as the descriptive specificity and display of objects, cleverly designed to feature their uses and attributes, is a matter of purposeful contrivance. Artists consciously decided to paint in a rough or smooth manner and selected and arranged motifs—often dependent on artistic conventions—to exhibit their own skills and virtuosity. Furthermore, apparently straightforward images would have evoked associations that might not be readily apparent to viewers today. For example, the landscape with strolling figures provided opportunities for armchair travelers to explore familiar terrain but also conjured up associations of pride in the new Dutch nationhood, the ingenuity of the people in reclaiming land from the sea, and the glory of God’s creation. Despite the prosaic nature of these images, a wealth of meaning can be construed.