A brief history of Dutch art

Girl in red skirt admiring Dutch artwork paintings

Dutch art is phenomenal, and this article covers it all; the visual arts in the Netherlands and the history behind it, and brilliant Dutch artists like Vincent van Gogh who shaped this art scene, making it what it is today.

In this article, we discuss the history of Dutch art, the Dutch Golden Age and Dutch Golden Age artists. Read on to discover more insights into art from this period to remember when next visiting your favourite art gallery.  

What is Dutch art?

Dutch art incorporates the history of visual arts in the Netherlands and everything it entailed. It refers to art produced after the United Provinces separated from Flanders. A specific style was created and paintings were developed in the seventeenth century, although artwork from this period did still adhere to Flemish Baroque painting styles. Artists, architects and sculptors were named “Dutch masters”, compared to earlier artists who were associated as being a part of “Netherlandish” tradition.

The history of Dutch art: The Dutch Golden Age

The Dutch Golden Age, or “de Gouden Eeuw” as it’s called in Dutch was a period of history in the Netherlands from 1588 up until 1672. This was when Dutch art, science, trade, and even the Dutch military were among the most admired in the world.

What was the Dutch Golden Age?

Invented in the 19th century, the Dutch Golden Age was a time which brought people together by creating a collective national identity. Dutch residents wanted to create a sense of fulfilment from their shared legacy, which fit well with the model of the Golden Age. This was a period when prosperity, achievement, and the art were considered at their greatest.

The introduction of new art subjects emerged during this period, leaving traditional paintings focused on religion and religious subjects behind. Instead, the Dutch Golden Age focused on movement instead of still images, grandeur, wealth, and drama. Dutch artists would create landscape artwork, portrait art, paintings of day-to-day life, and landscape illustrations.

Dutch Golden Age artists

The highlight of the Dutch Golden Age is often considered to be the original artwork designed by Dutch artists. But who were they and how did they make their mark during this memorable era?

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night painting with blue and yellow swirls

Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous Dutch artists. He created around 2,100 piece of art during his lifetime, including 860 detailed oil paintings.

Prints and reproductions of some of his most iconic paintings – ‘Sunflowers’ (1888), ‘Van Gogh Self-Portrait’ (1889), and ‘The Starry Night’ (1889) - are still in wide circulation to this day. Van Gogh’s work contributed to the tropes of Dutch art, as the subjects of his designs were portraits (of himself) as well as everyday scenes and subjects. This included rich representations of marvellous landscapes as well as ordinary, everyday subjects, such as daily tasks within the home or vases of flowers.

Some of van Gogh’s other famous illustrations that we recommend checking out include:

  • ‘The Potato Eaters’
  • ‘Irises’
  • ‘Wheatfield with Crowes’
  • ‘Bedroom in Arles’.

Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn painting of nude woman

Rembrandt van Rijn was another remarkable Dutch artist, known for his paintings of historical subjects. This artist was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1606, and later worked as an apprenticeship painter, which propelled his career as an artist.

His painting ‘Night Watch’ (1642) was one of the most famous pieces of art that emerged from the Dutch Golden Age. This was down to the use of tenebrism (light and shadow), and the portrayal of movement which was unique at the time. Before ‘Night Watch’, Dutch artists’ paintings would depict, for example, a military group as a still image without any obvious movement. Whereas, ‘Night Watch’ cleverly showed movement as if the painting was a photograph capturing an image in real-time.

This meant Rembrandt’s use of motion, by capturing the subjects as though they were mid-movement, was ground-breaking. To see the detail of his work(s) up close, visit the National Gallery in London, where you can study some of his most famous pieces.

These are some of Rembrandt’s other iconic paintings:

  • ‘Bathsheba at Her Bath’
  • ‘A Franciscan Friar’
  • ‘An Elderly Man as Saint Paul’
  • ‘Anna and the Blind Tobit’
  • ‘Belshazzar's Feast’.

Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer's Dutch art painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Born in Delft in October 1632, Johannes Vermeer was another of the greatest Dutch artists. He was most famous for his paintings of daily life portrayed in indoor settings, including pieces such as ‘The Milkmaid’ (1658) and ‘The Art of Painting’ (1668).

Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (1665) painting is what he is most remembered for in the Dutch Golden Age. This piece is still celebrated for its colour, detail, and the mystery associated with the woman pictured. The mystery is around who she is; her hair is disguised, her eye colour is unknown, and yet her longing stare makes you feel like you’ve met her before.

This “unknown” woman is what captured people’s attention, as it appeared this portrait was not a portrait at all, but a “tronie”. A “tronie” is what the Dutch describe as the head of a perfect “type”, relating to a musician or a young beauty. It refers to a piece of art that exaggerates facial expressions or someone’s characteristics, which is what Vermeer portrays in this piece. To admire this famous Dutch painting, you can venture to the 1882 Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands; this is where it resides all year round.

Other notable works from Johannes Vermeer are:

  • ‘View of Delft’
  • ‘The Procuress’
  • ‘The Glass of Wine’
  • ‘The Concert’
  • ‘The Lacemaker’.

Discover further art styles

Tall Boy Prints' landscape framed artwork hung on navy wall above sideboard

Now you’ll have a better understanding of Dutch artwork and the history behind the Dutch Golden Age. You can appreciate this style in full and pass on this wisdom to a fellow art history lover!

Remember to visit our blog for further insights into other art styles. Simply read our article on the brief history of Italian art, alongside other helpful guides.