National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Dutch Landscapes and Seascapes of the 1600s

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Seventeenth-century Netherlanders had a passion for depictions of city and countryside, either real or imaginary. Local scenery asserted Holland’s national pride, while vistas of foreign sites recalled the extent of its overseas commerce. Holland’s ocean ports teemed with fishing and trading ships, and the tiny country’s merchant fleet was almost as large as all the rest of maritime Europe’s combined. The Dutch prized seascapes and insisted on accurate renderings of each hull and rigging line. Genre incidents from everyday life animate most Dutch landscapes and seascapes.

Much of the Netherlands is a low marsh formed by the deltas of the Rhine and Maas rivers. A third of the country was actually below sea level, reclaimed behind dikes and drained through pumps run by windmills. In such a flat environment, the horizon seems to lie below one’s feet; so, the sky overhead dominates the view.

A quality that sets Dutch landscape paintings apart from those of other nations is the amount of space devoted to the moist, ocean air and the sun glowing through the ever-present clouds. With their emphasis on atmosphere, Dutch landscapes might better be called “sky-scapes.”

The Art Market: Collectors and Critics in Holland

Foreigners were constantly amazed at the quantity and quality of pictures in Holland. A British traveler in 1640 remarked, “As for the art of painting and the affection of the people to pictures, I think none other go beyond them…. All in general striving to adorn their houses, especially the outer or street room, with costly pieces…; yea, many times blacksmiths, cobblers, etc. will have some picture or other by their forge and in their stall.”

Another Englishman suggested that the phenomenal investment in art was due to Holland’s small size, which prevented the more usual speculation in land and livestock. Instead, the Dutch stockpiled their profits in pictures acquired through art dealers, at auctions, or from commercial fairs.

In order to attract clients in this open and competitive market, many Dutch artists began to specialize in depicting particular subject areas. Such specialization helped establish a painter’s reputation in a way very comparable to modern brand names, whereby the buyer seeks a product based upon a company’s proven expertise. The artists who chose to define their careers so narrowly are sometimes called the “Dutch minor masters” to distinguish them from painters such as Rembrandt, Cuyp, or Steen who portrayed a broader spectrum of life.

Seventeenth-century theorists held that the principal goal of art was to depict the human body engaged in heroic or moral action. In this aesthetic classification, landscapes and still lifes ranked at the very bottom. As is often the case, however, critical opinion did not correspond to popular taste. Dutch artists created far more scenes of nature than historical allegories, and Dutch collectors often paid as much or more for such seemingly trivial subjects than they did for literary themes.

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