THE NEW film Girl With A Pearl Earring about the Dutch artist Vermeer has provoked interest in the life and society of the great Dutch painters. JOHN MOLYNEUX looks at the reasons why Dutch society produced a flowering of great art in the 17th century.
WE ARE not used to thinking of Holland, or rather the Netherlands, as a leading player on the world stage. With a population one quarter of Britain’s and a land area one eighth that of France, the Dutch have tended to be seen as playing only supporting roles in the main dramas of the last two centuries.
Nevertheless there was a time, a brief period of less than a century, when the Netherlands was in the vanguard of world history-in a number of important respects the leading country in the world. This was the so called ‘Golden Age’, roughly from 1600 to 1675. Today it is remembered mainly for its art.
This is not surprising when you think what this short span of time yielded. Three of the greatest of the ‘old masters’-Franz Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer (whose Girl with a Pearl Earring is the starting point for the novel and newly released film). Innumerable portraits and portrait painters, superb landscapes (this was really the beginning of landscape painting).
Whole schools of domestic interiors, of still life and ‘trick of the eye’ works, another of sea battles and what were called ‘genre’ paintings-depictions of low-life, the poor, tavern scenes. All of it was significantly different from any art that had gone before.
It is one of the most remarkable episodes in the entire story of art. There is probably no period in which such a high proportion of the population had their portrait painted or owned an original painting. The work of the supreme artist of the time, Rembrandt, has never been surpassed. Art historians and critics often describe the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer as ‘timeless’. If by this is meant simply that they have retained their appeal up to the present time, then this is clearly true. But if the suggestion is that they are the product of purely individual inspiration existing outside of any historical or social context, then nothing could be further from the truth.
The exceptional vitality of Dutch art was just one aspect of the exceptional vitality of Dutch society in the 17th century. This was founded on the enormous dynamism of the Dutch economy. Dutch agriculture was the most productive in Europe. It also led the field in industrial production. The textiles industry grew fivefold between 1600 and 1664.
Dutch warships were the best in the world and their merchant fleet was equally outstanding. In 1670 Dutch tonnage exceeded that of England, France, Portugal and Spain combined. The Dutch Republic dominated herring fishing in the North Sea, cod fishing off Iceland and whaling at Spitzbergen in the Arctic.
In less than 60 years they built a seaborne empire that stretched from the Moluccas (Indonesia) in the east to New Amsterdam (New York) and Pernambuco (Brazil) in the west and from Spitzbergen to Cape Town in the south. Alongside this economic growth went a spectacular process of urbanisation. In the 16th century the north Netherlands already had 11 cities with a population of over 10,000 compared to only four in much larger Britain.
In the Golden Age these cities expanded rapidly in number and size. Amsterdam rose from 30,000 in 1570 to 200,000 in 1672. Right through history, from Egypt, Greece and Rome in the ancient world to Florence and Venice in the 15th century flowerings of art have, alas, been associated with accumulations of wealth. Dutch art was no exception to this rule.
But what accounts for this extraordinary economic development in this small country? The answer is simple and clear. Dutch society was the product of a successful revolution. This is usually missed or avoided by ‘mainstream’ historians. The revolution began in 1565 when a year of famine provoked the Netherlanders into revolt against their rulers, the Spanish Habsburgs.
This led to 40 years of fighting on land and sea. The Dutch Republic emerged victorious as a new and independent nation. It was the first modern war of national liberation. The Dutch nation came into being in the course of the war rather than existing before it. Even more important was that in the course of this struggle a social revolution occurred. The Habsburg Empire was a bastion of feudal reaction and the Catholic Counter-Reformation which ruled over a vast range of Europe.
Hand in hand with the defeat of the Habsburg armies came the rise to power of a new social class, the Dutch burghers or bourgeoisie. The result was the establishment of the first bourgeois, or capitalist, state. This liberated the productive forces held back by feudalism and gave the Dutch economy, for a period, a decisive advantage over the rest of Europe. Once England also took the capitalist road after the English Revolution of the 1640s it soon outpaced its smaller rival.
The Dutch Revolution made the Netherlands the freest, most enlightened, most socially advanced country in Europe. First, it was a republic with a stadholder as head of state, not a monarchy or empire like almost everywhere else. Second, it practised religious tolerance, including for Catholics and Jews.
This was of crucial importance in the 17th century. It derived directly from the revolutionary need for unity in the struggle against Spain.
It led to a remarkable degree of freedom of speech, thought and scientific inquiry and to a relatively emancipated position for women. The combination of freedom and prosperity made the Dutch Republic a focus for large-scale immigration from its more repressive neighbours. People came especially from the southern Netherlands (today’s Belgium) which remained under Habsburg rule, and Germany during the Thirty Years War.
The Netherlands attracted many of Europe’s leading dissenters and freethinkers-the English Leveller John Lilburne and the great philosophers Descartes, Spinoza and Locke all lived or spent time there. These conditions shaped the development of Dutch art. The overthrow of feudalism and the end of Catholic dominance meant a sharp decline in commissions for vast canvasses full of swirling figures such as Rubens had painted, to adorn churches and palaces.
But it gave rise to a huge market for smaller paintings to hang on the private walls of the rising middle classes. The role of seapower in the revolt and after generated the marine painting of van de Velde the Younger and others. The still lifes of flowers, vases and food reflected the new bourgeois domesticity and its preoccupation with possessions. The role of civic guards or shooting companies in defending cities led to a specific genre of group portraits of militia of which Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is the most famous. Landscape painting arose precisely in reaction to the rapid urbanisation. The depictions of tavern low-life embodied the Dutch burghers’ concern for order and respectability.
The three outstanding artists-Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer-were all products of these conditions but responded to them in different ways. Hals painted, with great vigour and freshness, a wide variety of representative social types of the new order. These included The Laughing Cavalier, The Merry Drinker, The Gypsy Girl, The Regents and Regentesses of the Alms House. Hals’s mood ranged from affectionate amusement to bitter critique. Rembrandt also depicted the people of his times from the top of society to the lower depths but with greater emotional depth and power.
He gave expression to the underlying contradictions of the new age-the conflicts between wealth for some and pauperisation for others, love and freedom on one side, alienation and tragedy on the other. Vermeer took the bourgeois dream of domestic tranquillity and raised it to the level of the sublime.
This was done largely through interior scenes of great simplicity-a young woman sewing or reading a letter, or sat at a virginal (early harpsichord)-bathed in delicate light. The middle classes still cherish this dream, hence the enormous popularity Vermeer retains today.
It is too mechanical to claim that great art is always linked to political and social revolution or vice versa, but in the case of Dutch art it certainly was. It was a classic example of the revolutionary liberation of the productive and cultural forces of a society hitherto fettered by a reactionary social and political order.
Rembrandt by John Molyneux (£3.99) looks in more detail at one of the masters of the Dutch Golden Age. This is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
If you want to see some of the paintings then visit the National Gallery (free entry), Trafalgar Square, central London.
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