The Dutch Golden Age
The Gouden Eeuw (Dutch “Golden Age”) was marked by supremacy in commerce, military power, science, intellectualism and art. The phenomenon of the Golden Age was known as the “Dutch Miracle,” where a very small and somewhat fragmented nation dominated entirely by a world power, Spain, quickly cast off its shackles and turned into a global bastion. Architectural design also blossomed because there was so much money, and so many people who wanted to spend that money—often on architecture and art.
Trade was massive during this time. In 1602, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC (“United East India Company”, known outside Holland as the Dutch East India Company) was established. It was the first-ever multinational corporation, financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange. For more than two hundred years, the VOC kept its Asian trade monopoly. This firm was the world’s largest commercial enterprise of the 17th century. Spices were imported in bulk to satisfy unending demand, which brought huge profits. This was mostly due to the high prices of those goods sold, caused by the efforts and risks involved on the supply side, and the seemingly insatiable market on the demand side. To finance the growing trade within the region, the Bank of Amsterdam was established in 1609, the precursor to, if not the first true national central bank. The Dutch empire stretched from Holland to South Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Of course, New York began as New Amsterdam in the early 1600s. The creation of a large, powerful and prosperous merchant class contributed to the overall growth of the nation and its empire.
In the area of science, the Dutch excelled on two levels. Willem van Oranje (“William of Orange”) was so grateful to the city of Leiden for their unrelenting efforts in fighting Spain that he established Leiden University in the latter part of the 16th century, which almost immediately blossomed into the world-class university that it still is—a gathering spot for the best minds in the world. Combined with the intellectual freedom largely created by the rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, an atmosphere was created that drew people from all over Europe into an environment of scientific discovery. Astronomy was highlighted, as was physics. The development of optics led to far better telescopes and microscopes—thereby allowing for the study of microbiology.
The perpetual battle against the sea propelled Dutch hydrology engineers to the top of that discipline— a position that has never been relinquished.
Among those who migrated to Holland was René Descartes, who lived there from 1628-1649. Thomas Hobbes and John Lock, among many others, also found fertile intellectual soil in Holland.
When combined with the Dutch leadership in printing, the entire atmosphere of the nation was electric.
On the art front, there are three artists whose names are locked in history with the Golden Age: Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. Note that the Dutch did not contribute in the same manner to literature, music, dance, or sculpture. People often associate Ludwig van Beethoven with Holland, due to his very Dutch name. Indeed, he had a grandfather from southern Holland (now part of Belgium), Lodewijk (the Dutch name from which “Ludwig” was derived in German) van Beethoven, though he moved to Bonn, Germany when he was 20 years old. So Ludwig was born in Germany to a German-born father, but kept his Dutch name, of course.
The effects of the Golden Age were astounding, not least because the Dutch had a transformation of their national identity. From that point forward, Holland has always had a level of influence that is out of proportion with its size.
The Dutch contributed monumentally to the art world, but almost entirely in oil painting and etching.
Rembrandt Begins His Professional Life
1n 1625 Rembrandt moved back from Amsterdam to Leiden where he developed and perfected his legendary use of light and consequently, darkness. At the same time, remarkably, he also produced his first etching—a vastly different artform bearing almost no relationship with the talents required in painting, excepting of course, basic rules of composition. Unlike his painting skills, his etching skills were self-taught. As with his paintings though, light and darkness were hallmarks of his etchings. He created light in his etchings with a lack of darkness, which he in turn created through his painterly, denser cross-hatching or added ink.
Three of Rembrandt’s first works showing his emerging signature style: The Spectacles-pedlar (Sight), The Operation (Touch), and The Three Singers (Hearing) all completed in 1624/25
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1626)
He once again moved to Amsterdam in 1631, which by then was reaping the financial rewards of the Dutch Golden Age. All the new-found wealth resulted in high demand for commissioned art—particularly portraits. At first, he stayed at the home of art dealer, Henrick Gerritsz. van Uylenburgh, who happened also to be the cousin of Saskia van Uylenburgh, whom Rembrandt married in 1634.
A plethora of painters lived and worked in Holland at the time, mainly due to the desire of the Dutch to expend disposable cash through art and real-estate purchases. In Dutch “schilders” could refer equally to house painters as artists, and they, together formed collective “clearing-houses” in various cities to control supply and demand. These “guilds” set rules that had to be followed in order to be allowed to sell art. Among other rules, artists who moved into another city had to serve an apprenticeship in their new location prior to being admitted into the guild. Alternatively, they could marry a citizen of the new city. Rembrandt became a member of the Amsterdam Guild of St. Luke in 1634, the same year he married Saskia and after he worked in van Uylenburgh’s studio for a period of several years. Which alternative took precedence is not known. What is known, is that the guild exercised great control of its members and membership as they proclaimed:
“that everyone who falls under the arts or the Guild of Saint Luke, namely painters, sellers of art, glass makers, embroiderers and sellers thereof, bookbinders and sellers thereof, sculptors, engravers and figure cutters, tapestry workers, compass makers, potters, coffin makers, including all others who work with pencil, brush or with paint, will not be allowed to exercise their profession in this city, unless they first become citizens and burghers of this city, and will have paid the guild in full.”
The Guild exerted its control over the painting marketplace in terms of what could be sold and by whom. It was not until much later, in 1658, during a major sale of Rembrandt’s prints, that control was exerted over the sale of prints in general. Up to that point they had a far freer attitude toward prints, which allowed Rembrandt to do as he pleased, without the oversight of the guild.
Rembrandt’s Downward Spiral
Rembrandt’s personal life went into a downward spiral in several respects. Three newborn children died in successive infancies. The fourth, Titus, lived—but then Saskia herself died one year later, in 1642 at age 30. Child mortality rates in Holland, like the rest of the world at the time, were abysmal. Without unnecessarily minimizing the impact of the loss of a child, it was not unusual or uncommon. Yet the death of Saskia was entirely unexpected and had a profound impact on the artist.
On the financial side, Rembrandt suffered cash flow and balance sheet issues for most of his adult life, perhaps made worse by his personal trials. He had a reputation for overspending on his art acquisitions, including innumerable props he desired to use in his future work. Rembrandt declared bankruptcy in 1656, despite his healthy income levels. He was an artist who made a good living during his lifetime, but his expenses simply overshot his income.
For hundreds of years in the past, and to the present time, scholars regularly debate Rembrandt’s painting output during various periods of his life. Whether his ebbs and flows were caused by his personal issues or the recalibration of his artistic methods is unclear. What is clear is that it is not possible to simply count each work as though it is equal. Rembrandt’s output by count was distinctly lower in the 1643 and 1644 years, but he also just finished his gargantuan Night Watch painting in 1642.
Debates rage regarding which works, or which parts of works, were done by the direct hand of the master and which were done by underlings or students. High-end computers have been brought to bear in an attempt of ascertaining authenticity. Roughly 300 paintings and slightly fewer etchings were done, and the output of each can be seen in the following charts:
Rembrandt clearly had a huge downturn in his work-output—both in 1649 with one work, and later, in 1664, without any. Of course, the one work attributed to 1649 was the colloquially-named “Hundred Guilder Print”, which is alternatively called, Christ with the Sick around Him, Receiving Little Children, or Christ Preaching. Irrespective of the name, the work is a stunning masterpiece.
“Hundred Guilder Print” (1634)
On the one hand, Rembrandt created a landmark masterful work. On the other hand, he only created that one. Ultimately, no one knows for sure why he declined so much during those periods. It is simple to understand why his output dropped in the last few years of life, including the time when his beloved son, Titus, died one year before Rembrandt himself died.
Rembrandt’s name, hundreds of years after his death, is synonymous with greatness, and is included in the shortest list of history’s greatest artists.
Rembrandt and Religion
As a general rule, the Dutch have always been opinionated and iconoclastic. When Protestantism began in the 16th century, Holland quickly became a very segregated society, where religious beliefs were closely held and formed a strong societal pillar. The people in the southern part of the nation were often Catholic and the rest were usually Protestant—overwhelmingly Calvinist.
Among the Calvinist beliefs and practices was a wholesale rejection of icons prevalent in Catholicism. Calvinist churches were very plain and religious art was anathema, particularly anything depicting Jesus, which was a radical departure from Dutch Catholic churches, where icons, gold and art were seemingly everywhere.