Dutch Realism (c.1600-80)
For a guide to the evolution of painting,
In fine art, "Dutch Realism" is a rather loose term which refers to the style of Dutch Baroque art that blossomed in the Netherlands during after the final phase of the Eighty Years' War for Dutch independence (15681648). Exemplified by the humanistic canvases of Rembrandt, the ethereal genre painting of Jan Vermeer, and the precise still lifes of Willem Kalf, Dutch Realism was a form of Protestant art which - in stark contrast to Catholic Counter-Reformation Art - avoided the monumental themes and idealized splendour of High Baroque painting, and focused instead on everyday themes portrayed in convincing detail. Due to the extraordinary quality of the art produced, the 17th century became known as the Golden Age of Dutch painting and its artists exerted a huge influence on representational art across Europe.
Dutch Realism embraced all the painting genres, including portraits, genre paintings and still lifes. It even included landscapes and history paintings, although these were more difficult to sell. For instance, Rembrandt's magnificent history painting "The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis" was rejected by the Amsterdam Town Council and is now in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Nor did Dutch Realism consist of a single style of painting. Dutch still life artists - like Willem Claesz Heda, for example - preferred an ultra-realist, polished style of painting, while Rembrandt and some others adopted a looser, more expressionist style of brushwork. Even so, 17th century Dutch Realism does have a number of unifying or common features, as follows:
1. Paintings Only
There was no sculpture produced in 17th century Holland, to speak of - only painting. Early Protestantism was far less comfortable with statues than Catholic Italy, France or Spain.
2. Small-Scale Panel Paintings
In contrast to large-scale Italian altarpieces, religious murals and quadratura painting - displayed in cathedrals, churches and other public spaces, most Dutch Realist art comprised small scale panel paintings, suitable for domestic display in middle class homes. Oil painting was used exclusively, following the traditions established by Flemish painters during the era of Netherlandish Renaissance Art (1430-1580).
3. Everyday Themes Celebrating the Ordinary
Unlike the grand, dramatic "high art" favoured by Rome, Dutch Realism is characterized by a more modest, down-to-earth approach. Put simply, Dutch artists focused their attention on ordinary Dutch people and Dutch houses. This approach was largely determined by the fact that the Protestant Church authorities in Holland were opposed to the embellishment of churches with altarpieces and the like. Dutch Realist artists were therefore obliged to turn to the growing Dutch middle class (merchants and traders) for their livelihood, and it was the taste of these merchants that shaped Dutch Realism. For a start, these merchants preferred paintings that showed off the material wealth they had managed to acquire. So they loved still life painting that displayed food, luxury plates, goblets, and so on: see for example "Still-Life with Nautilus Cup" (1662, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). Next, being imbued with the 'Protestant' values of virtue and industry, they were fond of genre painting that showed womenfolk practising a skill - see "The Lacemaker" - or a musical instrument - see "Woman Playing a Lute near a Window" (1664, Metropolitan Museum, NY) - in the confines of well-kept houses. Most of all, the Dutch developed a fondness for portrait art: they liked to have their portrait painted - either as individuals, or in groups. For an individual portrait, see: "Portrait of Jan Six"; for a group portrait featuring people involved in textiles, see: "Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild" (The Staalmeesters).
4. Detailed Realist Style of Painting
Dutch Realists used a form of detailed realism which derived from 15th century Flemish painting - in particular from works by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), such as the secular "The Arnolfini Portrait" (1434). In addition, some realists were influenced by the naturalism of Caravaggio (1571-1610). In the composition of their oils, Dutch painters demonstrated a clear mastery of linear perspective, as exemplified in works by Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-78), such as "A View Down a Corridor" (1662, Dyrham Park, UK).
Another important characteristic of Dutch Realist painting concerns the representation of light, a feature that was handled quite differently by different artists. Rembrandt, for example, was greatly influenced by the chiaroscuro and tenebrism popularized by Caravaggism (c.1600-50). Vermeer, on the other hand, was interested in the effect of natural light and reflected light, from glittering reflections on metallic vessels or from white-washed walls. Unlike Rembrandt's dramatic use of light and shadow, Vermeer's treatment of light takes on an almost pearly veneer - an effect he obtained by a method known as "pointillé", in which layers of granular paint are applied to give a transparent effect.
5. Discreet but Pervasive Piety
Although there was no "official" market for Christian art, as the Dutch Reformed Church forbad the decoration of churches, Dutch Realist painting is characterized by a discreet but pervasive religious piety. Dutch paintings were full of moral urgings based on subtle references to the Bible, and to religious symbolism. The most obvious form of this can be seen in the type of still life known as Vanitas Painting, as illustrated by "Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life" (1640, National Gallery, London) by Harmen van Steenwyck. Portraiture, too, was replete with Biblical references. A wonderful example is Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (Head of a Girl with a Turban)". This masterpiece was based on words by the mystic St Francis De Sales (1567-1622) to the effect that women should hear only chaste words - the "oriental pearls of the gospel." Hence the pearl earring (which symbolizes chastity) and the turban (which symbolizes the "oriental"). (Note: for a comparison with the art of Catholic Flanders, see Flemish Baroque art.)
As well as still lifes and portraits, the bulk of Dutch Realist genre painting contains a variety of moral lessons taken from the Bible. The category of "tavern scenes" - a genre exemplified in works by Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38), Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85) and David Teniers the Younger (1610-90) - provided a wealth of advice against drunkenness and self-indulgence, while works by Jan Steen cover a wider area still. Vermeer articulated his messages in a series of sublime interiors. For example, in his "Woman Holding a Balance" the empty weighing scale indicates that the subject is depicted weighing spiritual rather than material considerations. She is utterly serene in the self-knowledge that the righteous approach is to lead a life of moderation.
The greatest portrait paintings of the Dutch Realist school include:
Vermeer, Jan (1632-75)
The best still-life oils include:
Heda, Willem Claesz (1594-1681)
Jan Davidsz de (1606-83)
Kalf, Willem (1619-93)
The greatest genre paintings of the Dutch Realist school include:
Steenwyck, Harmen (1612-56)
Brouwer, Adriaen (1605-38)
Dou, Gerrit (1613-75)
Gerrit van (1592-1656)
Pieter de (1629-83)
Hoogstraten, Samuel Van (1627-78)
Maes, Nicolas (1634-93)
Ostade, Adriaen van (1610-85)
Steen, Jan (1625-79)
Teniers, David the Younger (1610-90)
Vermeer, Jan (1632-75)
Jacob Van (1628-82)
Vermeer, Jan (1632-75)
Hooch, Pieter de (1629-83)
Honthorst, Gerrit van (1590-1656)
For more about 17th century oil painting in Holland, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY