The Golden Age of Art: Great Painters & Famous Works

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

During the 17th century, artists in the Netherlands produced some of the world's most renowned works of art. Learn about the Golden Age of Art, and explore the great painters and the famous works they created. Review the historical background, examine the paintings of daily life, and meet the famous Dutch artists who created them. Updated: 10/04/2021

A Little Historical Background

It's a country that goes by many names: the Netherlands, the United Provinces, Holland, the Dutch Republic. It's also a country that, in the 17th century, experienced a glorious era of artistic achievement that historians often call the Golden Age of Art.

We'll begin with a little historical background. In 1556, the Netherlands fell under the rule of King Philip II of Spain. Philip was Catholic. The Netherlands was primarily a Protestant country. Tension mounted quickly and exploded into a Dutch rebellion and all-out war in 1568. Several provinces declared their independence in 1579. Finally, in 1609, both sides agreed to a truce. For all practical purposes, the war ended here, even though Spain did not officially recognize the new Dutch Republic until 1648.

When the violence ended, the Netherlands' Golden Age began. As we study the art of this period, keep in mind these three historical facts. First, most Dutch people were Protestant Calvinists who valued simplicity. They worshiped in plain, white-washed churches that lacked religious art. Second, the Dutch Republic was a prosperous country that took a leading role in trade throughout the world. At home, the middle class grew wealthy and powerful. Third, the nation was a republic, governed not by nobility but mostly by middle class merchants who controlled local government and had strong influence at the national level.

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  • 0:01 A Little Historical Background
  • 1:35 Paintings of Daily Life
  • 3:25 Famous Dutch Artists
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Paintings of Daily Life

These characteristics of the Dutch Republic affected the development of Golden Age art. First off, the art world welcomed a whole new class of patrons. Successful Dutch merchants enjoyed collecting art, and even members of the lower middle class bought paintings. It was not unusual for cobblers, blacksmiths, bakers and butchers to own several pieces of artwork. Second, in the Dutch Republic, most paintings ended up in people's homes. As Calvinists, Dutchmen didn't want art in their churches, but they certainly weren't opposed to displaying it in their houses.

To cater to their new customers, Dutch artists focused on several distinct genres that have come to represent the genius of the Golden Age.

1. The activities of everyday life

Artists painted familiar scenes of home, work and marketplace, but they also tended to include symbols and moral lessons in their pictures. Viewers had fun trying to figure out the artists' messages.

2. Still life

Painters created detailed, realistic depictions of everything from food to flowers.

3. Landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes

The Dutch appreciated their environment, and they enjoyed paintings that dramatized maritime scenes, revealed the beauty and harmony of the countryside and depicted both the busyness and the stability of the city.

4. Portraits

The members of the prosperous middle class wanted to preserve their likenesses for all time. Artists painted portraits of men, women, children and families, sometimes in elaborate costumes but almost always with expressive faces and meaningful gestures.

5. Historical paintings

Golden Age artists liked to tell stories, and they often turned to history for their subject matter.

Famous Dutch Artists

Now let's meet a few of the most famous artists of the Golden Age. Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669, has been called one of the greatest painters of the era and maybe even of all time. He is known for his portraits, especially his self-portraits, of which 80 still exist. Rembrandt also painted many biblical scenes, like the Sacrifice of Isaac.

His subjects exhibit great emotion and expressive gestures. They seem like they could jump right off the canvas and tell their story. The artist also liked to play with elements of light and dark. The Storm on the Sea at Galilee shows Rembrandt's concentration on emotion and his interest in the interaction of light and darkness.

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