The Art Of The Dutch Republic Essay

, Research Paper

‘Dutch art (is) not …a literal record of social experience, but …a document of beliefs.’ Do what extent to the following sources support this view with regard to the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century? (750 words)

Human expression provides a mechanism by which human behaviour can be studied by the historian, and in aesthetic expression such as art, the historian can study the beliefs which influence human behaviour. Within the alleged ‘Golden Age’ of the Dutch Republic can be found a diverse mixture of paintings, and sources 1-3 show three different genres in particular: landscape, portrait and still life. Provided that the limitations of making generalisations over these paintings are considered, they both support and contradict the above view of Simon Schama, perhaps because of – in his words – ‘the moral ambiguity of good fortune’ (source 4) which seemed to exist tantamount to social experience in the Netherlands.

Source 1 is superficially a ‘literal record of social experience.’ Topographically, it can provide insight into the type of land which existed in the Northern Provinces, and the reliance on agriculture and natural wind power to reclaim land and provide nutrition. However, although Dutch painters conveyed realism in terms of the photographic nature of their work, this did not mean that their paintings were exact representations of specific landmarks. In source 1, the church and the windmill shown could be specific religious symbols, reiterating the views of sources 6 and 7 – fellow Dutch contemporaries – that the ‘hand of God’ and the ‘eternal covenant’ were imperative in the Dutch securing their freedom from Spain. The windmill – as well as conveying a social experience – is a symbol of the God given power of nature, this supported by the panoramic and naturalistic view of the painting, with the majority focusing on the sky. A political belief which can also be represented is the ruined castle, perhaps signifying the fall of the aristocracy and the emergence of the new egalitarian society through the Revolt. It is important to note that such interpretations can differ, and that it is not always possible to make distinctions between ‘belief’ and ‘experience,’ nor to gauge an objective opinion on an individual painting. However, source 1 combines a simple conveyance of economic and social life in the Netherlands with some of the religious and social beliefs which shaped this life, much of which is supported by sources 6 and 7.

Portraiture in particular was a genre that flourished in the social conditions of the Dutch Republic, with many portraits being bought and commissioned by members of the middle class, which is why William Aglionby states in source 5 ‘pictures are very common here … across all ranks of the population.’ Source 2 shows this aspect of social experience, supported by Simon Schama’s view in source 4 that ‘at the center of the Dutch world was a burgher, not a bourgeois.’ It shows that Dutch social experience was particularly reliant on the middle class, and that professionals worked collaboratively in groups. The patron saint of guilds Matthias is conveyed in this painting, showing a religious significance to their work and perhaps this religious significance is the main reason for the moral values that can be found behind this literal exterior. These values are also supported by the third painting, source 3. It can be found that along with the ‘peak of prosperity and greatness’ (source 6) which the Netherlands ‘superior in riches’ (source 5) was experiencing, was an increasing concern that material wealth and riches were transient, and that the futility of life and inevitability of death must be accepted. In source 2, the burghers are dressed in black, to show an impression of Puritan discipline but the material trimmed with expensive lace shows an awareness of the ‘wealth’ they were experiencing simultaneously. The only portrayal of social experience in source 3, is through the fact that it is painted by a woman, showing the tolerant nature of Dutch society, where feminine expression was allowed. Due to the fact that it is a still life, it presents a figurative message and is a type of vanitas painting, reiterating the above moral view. Verisimilitude is shown within the painting due to its detail, in addition to the obligatory reference to transience with the lizards and slugs eating away at the leaves of the flowers. The fact that this moral message existed seems to be a direct cause of the belief that God was at the heart of the Dutch’s victory from ‘the jaws of defeat’ and therefore any wealth existing must be seen in its religious context.

Within these three painting sources can be found the existence of realism which was an important feature of Dutch Art. Superficially, all three paintings convey different aspects of social experience, but it is within this portrayal that the ‘document of beliefs’ can establish itself. This leads on to the conclusion that it was the ‘document of beliefs’ which Dutch Art sought to convey, but that this document could only exist with the ‘social experience’ that caused and was shaped by these beliefs. Dutch Art does therefore show both a ‘literal record of social experience’ and within that experience, a ‘document of beliefs.’ Of course only three paintings have been studied, and interpretation of these paintings can differ, but art is a valuable source to the historian in conveying the social attitudes as expressed both laterally and factually, especially when these attitudes are supported by both contemporary and modern written sources, such as sources 4-7. Through all the above sources, it can be seen that there was a ‘Golden Age’ in the Dutch Republic, but that alongside it was an increasingly troubled view of how to react to the ‘prosperity’ which existed, due to the ‘moral ambiguity’ of the role of ‘the hand of God,’ and the unparalleled affluence. The Netherlands was unique as a society, and therefore the golden age perhaps accidental and certainly ephemeral, nevertheless the social experience and beliefs of the Netherlanders, as conveyed in their art, proved to be a prototype for future generations. In Dutch Art, it can be seen that the view of Theophile Thore is correct, that the Dutch have ‘written its history in …art’ and within this history is a constant transition between the literal and the metaphorical, the transient and the enduring, and hence the title of Simon Schama’s influential book ‘The Embarrassment of Riches.’

‘The Revolt and the military strategy and geographical facts by which the northern provinces were enabled to emerge independent and victorious had a profound influence also on the Netherlands’ art.’

How did the Dutch Revolt influence the character of the Dutch Republic and subsequently that of its art in the seventeenth century?

The Northern Provinces established themselves as a leading social and economic power in the seventeenth century, at a time when the majority of its European counterparts were torn apart by the thirty years’ war and politically stagnated by absolutism and monarchical society. Through a series of separate revolts and rebellions, the Dutch emerged victorious against Spanish rule in what became a war of attrition and the resulting ‘golden age’ was shaped by a common denominator which was a concern for liberties. It was the social and political structure of the emerged Netherlands which seemed to set it apart so dramatically from its neighbours and it was this structure which enabled the revolt’s success and paradoxically its republic’s eventual downfall. With the reliance on the Middle Class Bourgeoisie to power the economy, the agricultural resources of the Netherlands could be exploited to their full potential and the Netherlands became a leading centre of commerce. The cultural world of the Republic ensured that art as part of this economy could flourish and thus it can be seen how behind all this wealth and prosperity lay the true heart of the Dutch world, and paramount to this true heart a confused moral message. It is the beliefs shaping Dutch society which make its art so fascinating and these beliefs were allowed to thrive during the revolt and shaped the consequent political and economic world.

Although the Dutch Revolt was made up of many complex and overlapping movements, the beliefs and motives behind these movements gave it a sense of unity as well as accounting for the diversity of the resulting culture. In the words of Professor J.W Smit the revolt was ‘a number of revolts representing the interests and the ideals of various social, economical and ideological groups,’ and therefore these motives must be analysed foremost. The first aspect that should be considered is political motives behind the revolt which influenced the political and social structure of the Northern Provinces, and thus the art which resulted. Although I do see the moral and religious values as the most profound in influencing the art and the republic, it is necessary to analyse the political structure foremost because then it can be understood how the liberty of conscience prevailed as a religious outlook. The revolt originated with the grandees’ campaign against Granvelle and his inner council in 1566, which represented a political motive that the true liberties of the Dutch middle class were being manipulated. Indeed it was the Dutch Middle Class which formed the foundation of its society due to the fact that leadership was maintained throughout the revolt by the patricians at heads of towns. It was hatred of the tyrannical rule of Spain, symbolised by Alva’s council of troubles which temporarily united the bourgeois. As a result of this, there was a great deal of local autonomy in the way that the provinces were ruled and a democratic structure prevailed, which seemed far from the centrally controlled absolute monarchies of other European countries. In terms of art, the fact that political power and patronage rested in the hands of the landowning classes ensured that the types of paintings commissioned would reflect not large dynastic values and aristocratic allegory but the values and beliefs of the middle class, and thus a certain verisimilitude which was not present previously. This realism stems from the humanitarian political outlook of the revolt, which ensured that paintings would attempt to represent truth. Pictures were often smaller in size, and a domestic necessity to be displayed in the houses of most Dutch classes, as a reminder of their political successes achieved and the egalitarian nature of their society. To exemplify these types of painting see figures. It seems that the revolt acted as a catalyst in allowing what were seen as traditional Dutch rights of political freedom to be truly articulated, and once the Dutch felt that this freedom was established, there could be an unleashing of unparalleled economic prosperity, mostly from the mercantile elite who took advantage of the trading opportunities produced as an outcome of the revolt.

The revolt directly allowed the firm economic basis of the republic to be established, and it is for this reason that contemporaries viewed Dutch society as experiencing a golden age. There are two main events of the revolt which allowed Amsterdam to be viewed as an entrepot of European trade: firstly the blockade of Antwerp in the 1580s which propelled the necessity for an economic consensus to be considered and secondly the influx of fleeing immigrants from the southern provinces which partially fuelled this consensus, providing skilled workers. Another vitally important factor was the geography of the Netherlands, with the long coastline and the fact that the ‘great bog of Europe’ had to become self-sustaining through trade. The same water which formed an impregnable barrier against the Spanish began to fuel an extremely prosperous fishing trade, and soon the pre-eminence of trade began to spill into the commercial art market, the economic character of the republic forming the mechanism by which Dutch artists could make their living, and express their values and ideas. The economy was the persona by which the Netherlands became established, but it seemed that behind these economic values and the affluence experienced lay the typical attitude of moral ambivalence, typified in vanitas paintings, and for this reason, I believe that it was moral values which shaped the republic and its art in the most profound way.

Therefore it is now necessary to analyse the religious motives behind the revolt, as it seems that Calvinist fervour provided the impetus for many of the leading provinces to emerge independent. Religion – despite the view of some modern studies of the Dutch Republic – was a vitally important part of every day family and social life for the republicans. Perhaps this was only due to the fact that religion was so inextricably linked within all political and economic values already stated possessed by the revolting classes, but nevertheless, the iconoclastic riots in 1566, provoked by Phillip II’s intolerant religious policy showed a distinct hatred of popery due to its absolutist connotations. The fact that the Spanish Inquisition was thwarting the fundamental human rights which the patriotic Netherlanders sought to preserve emphasises the above view that the revolt was a war of liberties, and the resulting culture a liberal one in terms of religion. The Netherlands became an intellectual hothouse of new ideas and those of philosophers such as Spinoza and Descartes circulated. It seemed that with the breakdown of central authority, controlled by monarchy and to an extent clergy, came the reliance on the self. With this attitude came a freedom to question previous beliefs which still shaped most other European societies. The war of liberties had engendered a liberal conscience for all, and the questioning of fundamental religious relationships led naturally to similar political and social questionings. This accounts for the diversity of the revolt, its resulting diverse republic, and the diversion in art away from religious iconography and towards a portrayal of the self. Within this portrayal of the self, the great Dutch paradox seemed to form, for the liberty had become self-destructive, as their economic and social creation became perfunctory, and formed an entrapment which was contradictory to all their moral values. This ‘embarrassment of riches’ was paradigmatic of the Dutch, who morally knew not what they wanted, yet wanted what they knew not of.

It can be seen that Dutch Art was the forum of expression by which many of the ideological, social and economic characteristics possessed by the republic were expressed, but also that in some respects the revolt did not always influence the republic, as many characteristics of the republic, such as its geographically advantageous features for trading and the strong spirit of libertinism within its culture existed before the revolt. It is also important to note that generalisations have been made throughout this essay, focusing primarily on only two of the northern provinces, Holland and Zeeland. It has been shown by historical studies how the prosperity experienced by these provinces was negated by the poverty in others, and thus – perhaps even due to the diversity of the revolt – the Dutch culture was one of multiplicity. Humanist philosophy seemed to lie at the heart of the republic and its art and therefore the Dutch merchant would see his civic responsibility as precedent to any economic one, and it is perhaps for this reason that it is only possible to speculate about the true meaning of the golden age as the extent of its diversity makes it a complex historical discussion. What can be concluded about the art is that the ‘lens of moral sensibility’ – in the words of Simon Schama – seemed to influence the gaze of most artists and for this reason, the view of throughout this essay is focusing on the ‘document of beliefs’ within Dutch Art as opposed to the view of more socio-economic historians such as Michael North. It was the moralising heart of the republic which ensured its economic success, its tolerant attitude towards religion, the rise of the bourgeoisie and, paradoxically, the republic’s eventual downfall.


Art and commerce in the Dutch Golden Age – Michael North

The Embarrassment of Riches – Simon Schama

Dutch Painting – Christopher Brown


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