The Little Street (1657) by Dutch
realist virtuoso artist Jan Vermeer,
the greatest painter of the realism
movement in 17th century Holland.
Dutch Realist Genre Painting (c.1600-1700)
Man Writing a Letter (1662-5)
by Gabriel Metsu, painter of
high quality intimate interiors.
The extraordinary flourishing of Dutch Realist painting during the 17th century occurred as a result of several factors. To begin with, there was the 1520 schism in the Church between Catholic Rome and the Protestant religious movement of Northern Europe. This led to the emergence of a new style of Protestant Reformation art, and an abrupt decline in ecclesiastical patronage of large scale religious painting in Protestant countries like Holland.
The Roman Catholic authorities responded with their Baroque Counter Reformation, designed to restore primacy to monumental religious art (and in the process to regain their lost prestige), but political events were in the saddle. The Catholic Spanish Empire began to lose its grip in the Netherlands, whose determination for independence was buttressed by growing trade and prosperity.
WORLD'S TOP GENRE
For an explanation of the different
categories of fine, decorative and
applied arts, see: TYPES OF ART.
The upshot, in Holland at any rate, was a new group of customers for a new type of art. The customers were the newly emerging members of the Dutch Protestant middle classes - property owners, factory owners, merchants, master craftsmen and other respectable burghers of affluent cities like Amsterdam, Leiden, Haarlem and Delft.
What they wanted (and got) was small-scale portable artwork of an overtly secular and bourgeois nature which reflected their growing status and reputation.
God-fearing they may have been, but if they were paying, they wanted their money's worth. This demand for a new type of easel-art was more than satisfied by painters well used to the painterly tradition of Jan Van Eyck, with its emphasis on high lustre oil painting, precise naturalism and painstaking draughtsmanship.
All this gathered pace from the beginning of the 17th century onwards, in the guise of a new style of art we now know as Dutch Realism, although the style actually flourished for only a few decades between roughly 1648, when Holland became an independent Republic, and 1672 which saw the French invasion of the country and the ensuing collapse of the Dutch economy.
The New Patron For Dutch Realist Painters
Who exactly was this new Dutch art patron? Typically, he was a city dweller and a man of affairs. Military service and the complications of growing overseas commerce had sharpened his wits and given him a rare self confidence. He was a patriot but not interested in anything that did not minister to his dignity and comfort. Above all, he was justly proud of his house and home. He displays a curious blend of thrift and lavishness. No costume is too smart or costly for his body, no food or wine too dear for his stomach. He is socially minded and an inveterate joiner of trade and merchant guilds, chambers of rhetoric and charities. He marries prudently and takes a keen pride in the neatness with which his city house is kept. To decorate it he is ready to lavish money on ceramics and pictures, as well the finest cloth for his wife and children. Such a man asks of the painter just one service; portraiture of himself and in a broad sense of his belongings and family. This means first: he wants to be painted himself in all his manly bravery; he is also willing to pay for his portrait in the groups and corporations to which he belongs. Next he wants his women to be portrayed and also his children. He likes the tranquility of his home and welcomes pictures of the rooms in which his women occupy themselves. He cares a great deal for his city and his street and will pay for good painting on these themes. He loves feasting and merriment and will commission portrayals of his own family celebrating by themselves or with friends at an appropriate tavern. He is proud of his kitchen and tableware and so is an excellent client for the still-life painter. In landscape, his taste is limited. He prefers to see pictures of his own country house with or without his cattle. In addition he enjoys studies of the quiet or angry sea and of the fates of boats and ships.
The new Dutch taste in art - principally
portraits and genre-painting - changed both the character of patronage
and that of genre painting itself. The picture must be the sort to attract
the average prosperous person, not too big to fit into a modest house,
and must offer possibilities of profitable resale. In short, the economic
conditions confronting the painter in Amsterdam in Rembrandt's time were
very much those which the painter still faces in New York, London, or
Paris. What tended to make a picture salable (in the eyes of Dutch patrons)
was fidelity to natural appearances as grasped by the average eye, and
overtly fine and careful workmanship. A Rembrandt who only exceptionally
met either condition of popularity, inevitably died in poverty.
Within these strict limitations, for about
forty years, between 1630 and 1670, the little Dutch masters produced
thousands of small paintings whose apparently simple, but really very
complicated perfection is the despair of modern artists. One may see the
formula already settling the composition of the best corporation groups
of Frans Hals and Rembrandt, worked out admirably in simple
arrangements by a Gabriel Metsu and Gerard Terborch, and
developed with the most elaborate felicity by Jan Vermeer of Delft.
Of course, such expression of taste in composition is usually and normally
unconscious. But we may be sure when a Pieter de Hooch develops
his cubical or rhomboidal elements in depth, or a Vermeer builds up so
successfully sophisticated a fretwork as we find in the Music Lesson,
and the Love Letter, both artists knew perfectly well what they
One final point to note, is that - regardless of its name - Dutch Realism incorporated numerous strands of complex symbolism in its paintings, adding narrative and morality to its precise naturalism. It was therefore by no means a purely sentimental or decorative form of art.
Art historians sometimes classify Dutch Realism into a number of differing "schools", including the Utrecht School (established c.1610) and the Delft School (c.1650), as well as others like the Haarlem, Leiden or Amsterdam schools. Even so, one should note that the majority of Dutch artists were neither geographically static, nor stylistically committed to a particular treatment.
Since the school of Utrecht was early in the field, rather influential and somewhat exotic, we may get it out of the way briefly. Utrecht was and is exceptional in Holland in being Catholic territory. Both in religion and in art she was in close touch with Italy. Utrecht's continuity with the classical tradition of the Renaissance was maintained by a not very significant painter, Cornelis van Poelenberg (1586-1667). He worked with the Italianate Abraham van Blomaert, later passed three years at Rome where he assiduously studied Elsheimer, Raphael and the antique. The result of these studies was tiny landscapes enlivened by groups of nude nymphs or goddesses. These harmlessly idyllic pictures won immediate popularity in many lands. He worked as far as England. His pictures abound in museums, from Madrid to St Petersburg. At bottom their smoothly finished Arcadian designs are of only slight importance. Symptomatically they are instructive as showing the homesickness for antique beauty that persisted in the Roman Catholic outposts of empire.
Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656)
is a far more substantial figure. He was born in 1590, was studying with
the Italianate painter, Blomaert, in 1610, soon thereafter went to Italy,
where he stayed for ten years. Caravaggio
had just died, but Honthorst carefully studied his pictures, and those
of his numerous imitators. Honthorst, adopting the heavy shadows of the
tenebrists and their simple constructions, carried the "dark manner"
forward in experiments of his own. From his successful handling of night
scenes with sensational artificial light he received the nickname, "Gerard
of the Nights," Gerardo delle Notti. His Nativity, at Florence,
is sufficiently characteristic. His pictures sold readily in Italy and
he returned to Utrecht a celebrity. There he continued to paint, on the
large scale of the Italian picture, genre subjects and excellent portraits.
His pictures had the attraction of novelty and were widely influential.
Without the example of Honthorst one can hardly imagine young Rembrandt
adopting the "dark manner," and this choice of Rembrandt fixed
the character of the greater part of Dutch genre painting.
But unquestionably, the leading painter of the Utrecht school of Dutch realism was Hendrik Terbrugghen (1588-1629). For details of his life and works, see: Hendrik Terbrugghen: Biography.
The earliest and best Dutch painters of scenes from lowly and bourgeois life, were in one way or another associated with the school of Haarlem. Artists like Adriaen Brouwer, Adriaen Ostade and Jan Steen are the outstanding names in this class.
Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38), one of the greatest natural talents of 17th century Dutch Realism painting, specialized in scenes of low-life drunkenness. Rubens and Rembrandt were active collectors of his works. For details of his shortlived career, see Adriaen Brouwer: Biography.
Adriaen Van Ostade (1610-85) specialized in genre scenes of peasants at home or in taverns. His key works include: Rustic Concert (1638), A Peasant Courting an Elderly Woman (1653) and An Alchemist (1661). For details, see Adriaen van Ostade: Biography.
Jan Steen (1626-79), the landlord of a tavern, painted boistrous crowded scenes in homes and inns, often containing overt messages about the vices of idleness, inebriation and promiscuity. Examples of his fine art include: A Young Woman Playing the Harpsichord (1659), Skittle Players Outside an Inn (c.1660) and The Christening Feast (1664). Between them they cover, save for its patrician phase, the whole range of Dutch genre painting. For details of his paintings and style of realism, see: Jan Steen: Biography.
Gerard Terborch (1617-81) - another artist influenced by the Haarlem style, was one of the most acclaimed genre and figurative painters of the Dutch school of Realism, painting with a keen eye and great affection for his subjects. His works include: The Message (1658), and A Lady at Her Toilet (1668). For details, see Gerard Terborch: Biography.
David Teniers the Younger (1610-90), one of the most reliable Old Masters of 17th century Holland, was also an early follower of the Haarlem school. For more about his life and works, see David Teniers the Younger: Biography.
The School of Leiden grew inauspiciously
out of the strenuous and ugly practice of young Rembrandt as continued
by his pupil, Gerard Dou (1613-1675). Such minute modelling with
sensational light effects was proper enough to a young talent finding
itself, and Rembrandt soon abandoned the method. But Rembrandt's move
to Amsterdam about 1630 left his seventeen-year-old pupil with a permanent
technical investment which he never changed in any way.
Dou prospered, in 1648 was prominent in
founding a painters' guild at Leiden, had many pupils, some of whom, like
Gabriel Metsu and Frans Mieris, attained prominence. His
larger genre pictures were and are popular. Indeed, there is something
rather comforting for a tourist herded through a great gallery to stumble
across an art style that dots all the i's, crosses all the t's, and requires
no great effort to appreciate. Some of the larger pictures, such as the
Young Mother, and the Dropsical Woman, have a minor attractiveness
because of Dou's evident love of his material and his pride in his workmanship.
There is no contemplation behind his pictures, and that is perhaps why
they are liked.
The Dutch Realist
School of Delft
Both Fabritius and Bramer may have had some part in the training of Vermeer, though we have no sure evidence that such is the case. Carel Fabritius (1624-1654) painted a few very sensitive portraits in the style of Rembrandt towards 1645. Notable among them is the bust of an eager and also somewhat melancholy young man, which may well be a self-portrait. He also produced an exquisite painting of a Finch on its House, signed and dated 1654. Out of so slight a motive, Carel Fabritius made an unforgettable masterpiece, simply by recording the play of light on the wall, the textures and tints of the plumage of the tiny bird, its gay and confident bearing.
Any long contact between Carel Fabritius
and Vermeer is improbable, for Fabritius was killed in a powder explosion
in 1654, when Vermeer was only twenty-two years old. The more or less
accepted list of Fabritius' paintings rests less on signatures or documents
than on stylistic attributions, and is far from certain. We gain a sense
of an exquisite gift, without being sure of its concrete expressions.
Bramer was born at Delft in 1596. From his eighteenth year he studied for several years in France and Italy. At Rome, Caravaggio's tenebrism was a novelty, and Bramer yielded temporarily to its spell. He returned to Delft in 1625 and four years later joined the guild. Thus he was a finished painter before Rembrandt had developed his personal style. However, Bramer carefully studied Rembrandt's paintings of the late 1630s and 1640s and from them drew his developed style. This he did with more ability and originality than most of Rembrandt's direct pupils. There is glamour and romance, perhaps too insistently, in such Rembrandtesque Bramers as Salaman and the Queen of Sheba; Simeon in the Temple; the Presentatian in the Temple; the Descent from the Cross. From the evolutionary point of view, Bramer shares with Carel Fabritius the credit of introducing Rembrandt's style in Delft.
Unrecognized in his lifetime, the Delft artist Jan Vermeer (1632-75) is considered the leader of the Delft School and the greatest of all Dutch genre-painters. Although only 35 of his pictures are known, they include masterpieces like: Soldier and a Laughing Girl (c.1658, Frick Collection), The Milkmaid (c.1658, Rijksmuseum), The Little Street (c.1657, Rijksmuseum), Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher (c.1662, Metropolitan Museum NY), Woman Holding a Balance (1662-3, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin), The Music Lesson (Lady and Gentleman at the Virginals) (c.1665, British Royal Art Collection), The Concert (c.1665, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston PA - Stolen), Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665, Mauritshuis), The Art of Painting (c.1666, Kunsthistorisches Museum), The Lacemaker (c.1669, Louvre) and Girl with a Red Hat (c.1666, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). Despite his prodigious talents, Vermeer died in debt at the age of 42. He remained in obscurity until his 'rediscovery' in the 19th century. Jan Vermeer: Biography.
The Delft genre-artist Pieter de Hooch (1629-83) began with scenes of peasants and soldiers, progressed to sunlit courtyards and interiors of the middle class and ended by depicting homes of the haut-bourgeoisie. For details, see: Pieter de Hooch: Biography.
Other Dutch Genre-Painters
Nicolaes Maes (1634-93) from Dordrecht, was known for his early depictions of 'below-stairs' servant life, as well as sleeping women and kitchen utensils. Famous Dutch animalier artists (painters of animals) include the great still life painter Frans Snyders (1579-1657), as well as Paulus Potter (1625-54) from Amsterdam who was noted for his pictures of cows, horses and sheep, as well as his vanitas still lifes. An example of his work is The Young Bull (1647).
Here is a chronological list of major artists associated with Dutch Realism of the 17th century, classified according to their principal type of painting.
Genre Painting & Portraits
Hendrik Avercamp (1585-1634)
Dutch Realist Artists Specialising in Other Genres
Pieter Jansz Saenredam (1597-1665)
For more painters of the Dutch Golden Age, see: Dutch Realist Artists.
For more about the different types
of painting (portraits, landscapes, still-lifes etc) see: Painting