Dutch painting in the 17th century
Painting was the most popular of Netherland arts. All the great Dutch masters produced and sold a large number of works, and taught scores of pupils. Only a small percentage of these became professional painters. Breero the poet and Jacob van Campen the architect, started life as students of painting.
When an Asiatic prince needed a Dutch artist for his court, the East India Company had no difficulty in finding a budding portrait painter among its employees. In the second half of the century some people in Batavia possessed sixty or seventy pictures, and so general an interest in painting necessarily implies a great deal of amateur work. There is no reason to add to these pages a catalogue of famous Dutch masters or their biographies, which can be found in any biographical dictionary or text-book on the history of art. The names of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Gerard Dou, Ruysdael, Van Goyen, Van de Velde, and many others are familiar to aU visitors of museums anywhere in the western world. Yet it is not without interest to devote a few words to the position of painters and the art of painting in Netherland society as a whole.
The art was popular because it was to use our most familiar label far more "democratic" than any other of the arts, even literature. Portraits or groups,
landscapes or seaviews, still-life or historical and allegorical compositions appealed to the masses, and those who could not afford paintings could at
least acquire engravings by the same masters. We know that paintings were sold at open stands at the fairs, and engravings were so popular that their production became an export industry. In the first decade of the 17th century the East India Company even tried to sell them in the Far East, but the Buddhists and Moslems of southeastern Asia showed no desire to buy the choice collections of landscapes, nudes, classical illustrations, Madonnas, and scenes of Dutch country life sent out.
The Dutch masters naturally chose their subjects to suit the taste of their patrons. The official predominance of Calvinism meant that they had few orders for large murals and none for huge altarpieccs like those which in the southern Low Countries occasioned Rubens' masterful compositions. The court of the princes of Orange, although a little suspect to the more extreme Calvinists because of the carefree social life centered there in Frederick Henry's time, did not offer the opportunities one might have expected to Dutch painters. Frederick Henry ordered a number of paintings, among them several by Rembrandt; and his widow had the great hall of her residence at the Hague, the "House in the Woods," decorated with large pictures representing the great moments of her husband's life. The princes of Orange favored painters from the southern Low Countries who worked in the grand Baroque manner as well as their northern colleagues.
The great artists of Holland fortunately escaped being the proteges of the mighty. To be sure, men like Pope Julius II and the princes of the House of Medici were wonderful animators of art in Italy during the Renaissance, and the world owes much to the support given by Spanish kings to men like Velasquez. But the situation in the Netherlands, where a large number of less wealthy patrons fostered painting not for their own glory but out of real interest in art, was far more desirable. This was responsible for the great variety of artistic production, and created a far more agreeable social position for the artist. The Netherland painter of the 17th century was regarded socially as a skilled craftsman, but even so the distance between him and his patron was far less than that between the highly honored artist at a royal court and his Maecenas. The prices paid for paintings were high, if we allow for the fact that the works of a contemporary master can never be valued so highly as when their exceptional value has been recognized for generations and they can no longer be produced. Prices of sixteen hundred guilders paid for the "Night-watch" or five hundred guilders for a portrait are certainly high, as the buying power of the guilder in Rembrandt's day was equal to at least three dollars of our currency.
This did not preclude personal tragedy in the artistic world, for some of the greatest among the Dutch masters found even this semi-independent status incompatible with their artistic sentiments. Vermeer who could never produce in quantity suffered terribly although his paintings brought high prices. Others failed through mismanagement of their financial affairs, either because temperamentally they never could make ends meet, or because they lived in too pretentious a style even when making good money. Rembrandt's attempt to rise above the level of common painters may have been looked upon askance, but his tragic downfall was by no means due to lack of appreciation on the part of his protectors. After his bankruptcy, he continued to receive many commissions, and in the documents of the time he was always referred to as a "painter of great renown." His individualism, his unflinching determination to picture things as he saw them, and not as conceived by others, Inevitably created numerous difficulties, but he could rely on the admiration of many of his fellow country-men for his art.
That many Netherlander preferred the less wonderful but more accessible paintings of minor artists to those of the great master was natural enough. They were no mean "connoisseurs" of art. When he died, in 1669, Rembrandt did not hold first place among the Dutch masters in the eyes of his contemporaries, but his fame had spread all over Europe. Admiration of the Dutch school of painting rose so high that while formerly Holland had taken lessons from Italy, the reverse was now true, Italy and especially Rome had received many visitors from the Lowlands during the 17th century. Many works of Dutch artists citizens of the Calvinist republic still adorn the churches and palaces of the Papal City.