In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 17th-Century Dutch Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Realism
  • Historiography
  • Economics
  • Production and Technical Art History
  • Self-Fashioning
  • Collection and Display
  • Prints and Printmaking
  • Global Engagement
  • Art and Text

Renaissance and Reformation 17th-Century Dutch Art
Christopher Atkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0162


Artistic production in the long 17th century in the Dutch Republic radically reenvisioned the forms of visual culture and its consumption. In the wake of the Dutch Revolt of 1579 that severed the formerly conjoined Low Countries into the largely Catholic regions of Flanders, controlled by the Spanish Habsburgs, and the predominately Protestant Dutch Republic, which fought for the political independence that it officially achieved in 1648, Dutch art developed a distinctive, if not revolutionary, character. During the period, there was a multifaceted and unprecedented flowering of diverse secular genres, from still life to landscape to genre image to portrait. Each of these types of subjects had historical precedent, but they had not existed as independent genres complete with individuals who specialized in the creation of just one category of art. Many artists employed a highly naturalistic mode of representation when crafting these secular genres, as did those who produced the histories and biblical narratives that also remained popular. In paintings and prints, artists largely strove for naturalistic representations of space, volumetric renderings of objects, seemingly accurate depictions of light, and unidealized formulations of the human body, especially the face. As a result, audiences have frequently labeled 17th-century Dutch art as “scenes of everyday life.” The seemingly truthful appearance of these images has led to a complex body of literature that has proffered myriad interpretive schemata to understand the meanings of individual pictures, the genres of representation, and the aesthetics of naturalism. Like the new forms, art was consumed in way that it had not been previously. The relatively wide distribution of wealth in the Dutch Republic led to more people, and people of different social levels, buying art than had occurred previously in Europe. In turn, the consumption of art operated on an unprecedented scale. Several million new paintings were created in the region in a little over one hundred years. Aside from portraiture, few of these objects were created on commission. Rather, various indirect methods of exchange emerged, creating an open art market.

General Overviews

Several reliable texts provide readers with a broad survey of the arts of the Dutch Golden Age. At five hundred folio pages, Haak 1996 provides the most extensive and comprehensive introduction to painters of the period. In general, Haak 1996 frames the subject geographically by grouping artists by municipal region. Slive 1998 takes a more biographical approach, emphasizing individual stylistic developments. Westermann 2004 offers a thematic approach while also extending the author’s analysis. Haak 1996 and Slive 1998 treat paintings and painters exclusively. Westermann 2004 extends the author’s discussions to include a wider range of visual material. Each of the three texts explores 17th-century Dutch art in local cultural conditions and artistic traditions. In the process, each source tends to isolate Dutch art from other aesthetic interests and developments current in Europe.

  • Haak, Bob. The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1996.

    Divided chronologically into three parts, this book is organized geographically. This organization enables the inclusion of more artists than one finds in other sources. Indeed, the value of Haak’s book lies in the breadth of material. Haak treats painters beyond those in the primary urban centers, like the artists active in Dordrecht and Middleburg who are not usually covered in a nonspecialist study.

  • Slive, Seymour. Dutch Painting, 1600–1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

    First published in 1966, revised in 1972 and 1977. Slive presents accepted, established positions on major themes and figures. The text alternates in focus between biographical treatment of major artists and explorations of genres of pictures. Thirteen of the seventeen chapters cover the period between 1600 and 1675, leaving cursory discussion of late-17th- and 18th-century art. Earlier editions of the book were coauthored with Jakob Rosenberg and E. H. ter Kuile and included sections on architecture and sculpture.

  • Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585–1718. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    Originally published in 1996. Westermann utilizes a thematic organization. The text shifts focus from the artists to interpretation of images. In each chapter, Westermann clearly and concisely conveys complex issues in a way that is accessible to all levels of readers. Westermann integrates nonrealist pictorial trends and styles more successfully than is done by other comparable texts. Likewise, she treats art from the entire period relatively equally.

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