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During the Middle Ages, Netherlandish art was subject to the leveling influence of the Romanesque and Gothic styles that prevailed throughout Europe. In the 15th and 16th cent. the southern, or Flemish, provinces in general led in quantity and refinement of production and set the artistic pace for the entire region (see Flemish art and architecture). Consequently, it is difficult to distinguish a development of national traits in the art of the Dutch provinces before the aesthetic florescence of the 17th cent. Moreover, the iconoclasm that attended religious and political upheavals in the mid-16th cent. destroyed much existing work.
The earliest known Dutch paintings, by such artists as Geertgen tot Sint Jans and Albert van Ouwater, date from the second half of the 15th cent. and are clearly related to the Flemish tradition of the Van Eycks. In the 16th cent. a profusion of Italian Renaissance motifs appeared especially in decorative sculpture, and centers of sculptural production grew up at Dordrecht, Utrecht, and Breda. In painting, enthusiasm for Italian art, combined with a kind of late revival of Gothicism, resulted in a mixture of mannerist and classicist elements in works by such painters as Cornelis Englebrechtsz (1468–1533), Jacob Corneliszoon van Oostsanen (c.1470–1533), Jan Gossart, Jan van Scorel, Maerten van Heemskerck, Hendrik Goltzius, and Cornelis Corneliszoon (1562–1638). At the same time, a continuing native tendency toward sober realism asserted itself in the works of Jan Mostaert, Antonio Moro, and Lucas van Leyden.
The Flowering of Dutch Art: The Seventeenth Century
The current of Italian Renaissance influence persisted well into the 17th cent. and is to be noted especially in the work of the most important sculptor, Hendrik de Keyser, whose style was perpetuated in the work of his sons Willem and Pieter de Keyser. The 12-year truce with Spain (1609–21) introduced a period of unprecedented cultural growth and material prosperity. Calvinist proscription of church art and the absence of extensive state patronage encouraged the development of private easel painting, and a heightened national pride was reflected in the immense popularity of pictures portraying the domestic scene and Dutch burgher activities.
The expressions of jovial burghers were captured in the rapid, vigorous brushstrokes of Frans Hals. Meanwhile, many other artists devoted themselves primarily to treating special types of material portraying contemporary Dutch life. Among these were Thomas de Keyser and Bartholomeus van der Helst, who were primarily portraitists; their works include many of the large group portraits of officers of corporations and guilds—a type of painting peculiar to Dutch culture. Adriaen van Ostade became well known as a painter of peasant scenes.
At Utrecht the 16th-century Italianate tradition persisted in the work of Abraham Bloemaert. The outstanding members of the Utrecht school, notably Gerard van Honthorst, Hendrik Terbrugghen, and Dirck van Baburen, went to Italy and were influenced by Caravaggio in their rendering of large-figured genre groups and isolated half-length figures of musicians and drinkers. With their dramatic rendering of light and shade, these artists, together with the classical and historical painters the Pynas brothers and Pieter Lastman, provided the background for the greatest figure to emerge in the history of Dutch art, Rembrandt van Rijn.
Rembrandt's genius was expressed in the whole gamut of subject matter, from portraiture, landscape, and interiors to still life and historical scenes. Unfortunately, his incredible mastery of all types of painting and the graphic arts was reflected only weakly in the art of his numerous pupils, among whom were Nicholaes Maes, Gerard Dou, and the most talented of his disciples, Carel Fabritius.
Toward the middle of the 17th cent. there was increased interest in the rendering of homely domestic scenes and views of urban life, seen in the paintings of Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, and Jan Steen. In the 1660s and 70s taste began to favor effects of wealth, elegance, and refinement. A tranquillity of atmosphere pervaded not only works of lesser artists but also the exquisite paintings of Gerard Ter Borch and Jan Vermeer.
Landscape also became an enormously popular subject, offering full scope to the native tendency toward pictorial realism. The painters depicted their countryside with a sensitivity and unpretentious sincerity that has made the Dutch school of landscape one of the most influential and esteemed of all time. At the beginning of the 17th cent. a mannered, decorative style was carried over from the 16th cent. in the landscapes of Gillis van Coninxloo. A straightforward contemplative realism emerged in work by such artists as Esaias van der Velde and the highly original Hercules Seghers.
In the second quarter of the century the landscapes of Jan van Goyen and Salomon van Ruisdael reveal a greater breadth of space and more dynamic composition. The culmination of these tendencies was reached in the art of Jacob van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp, and Meindert Hobbema and in that of the great specialists in marine views, Jan van de Cappelle, Willem van de Velde, and Ludolf Backhuysen. Certain landscapists emphasized animal painting (e.g., Paul Potter) or concentrated on unusual light effects in sunsets and moonlight scenes (e.g., Aert van der Neer).
Outstanding Dutch still-life painters included Jan Davidszoon de Heem, Willem Claeszoon Heda, and Willem Kalf (1619–93). An outstanding painter of birds and wildlife was Melchior d' Hondecoeter. Also characteristically Dutch as subject matter were architectural interiors. Specialists in this field included Pieter Saenredam and Emanuel de Witte. After the middle of the 17th cent. there was a long period of artistic decline. Even works of the principal artists in the last quarter of the century reveal tendencies toward empty elaboration of effects and pomposity or sentimentality of content.
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
The Twentieth Century
Sculpture and the Minor Arts
On early Netherlandish painting see studies by E. Panofsky (2 vol., 1953) and M. J. Friedländer (9 vol. in 10, tr. 1967). See also C. van Mander, Dutch and Flemish Painters (tr. 1936); J. Rosenberg et al., Dutch Art and Architecture: 1600 to 1800 (rev. ed. 1972); J. M. Nash, The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer (1972); R. H. Fuchs, Dutch Painting (1978); L. Stone-Ferrier, Dutch Prints of Daily Life (1983); S. Alpers, The Art of Describing Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1984); S. Slive, Dutch Painting 1600–1800 (1995).