In the 17th century, the Netherlands experienced a “golden age” of economic prosperity and unprecedented cultural flowering brought about by international maritime trade and high levels of urbanization. Interestingly, much of the art associated with the period—from vivid portraits, historical scenes, and domestic interiors to bucolic landscapes and still lifes rendered with sparkling realism—only occasionally reflects the political and religious turmoil of the period. During the Eighty Years’ War (1589–1648), which pitted seven Dutch provinces in a successful bid for independence against the Spanish empire, allegiances were split between the Protestant and Catholic Church, and between political autonomy and loyalty to the Spanish Crown. Two distinct yet connected cultural entities emerged from these struggles: Dutch (in the northern provinces, encompassing the contemporary Kingdom of the Netherlands) and Flemish (in the southern region, which today forms part of Belgium).
Artists in the north created paintings for the prosperous merchant class and for civic institutions that were largely secular in subject matter. These patrons, however, also commissioned moralizing and uplifting paintings based on Old Testament stories. The National Gallery of Art’s collection includes works by artistic giants of the era, including an iconic self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, quiet light-infused interiors by Johannes Vermeer, striking portraits by Frans Hals, Judith Leyster, and Thomas de Keyser, and tavern and festive scenes by Adriaen van Ostade and Jan Steen. A Caravaggist-style bagpipe player by Hendrick ter Brugghen joins sumptuous flower bouquets by Jan de Heem, banquet still lifes by Willem Claesz Heda, a distinctive landscape by Salomon Ruisdael, and marine and harbor scenes by Jan van Goyen and Aelbert Cuyp. The Dutch paintings range from the intimate and vernacular to those addressing ambitious themes and allegories relating to the triumph of the nation’s independence.
Southern artists, under the sway of the Counter-Reformation, continued to enjoy the patronage of both the Catholic Church and various royal courts of Europe. Peter Paul Rubens and his most famous student, Anthony van Dyck, the two most influential Flemish artists, are well represented in the Gallery’s collection. Rubens’ dramatic biblical allegories and Van Dyck’s regal portraits have a level of grandeur, artifice, and movement that distinguishes them from the mostly smaller-scaled and more restrained artistic expression in the Dutch Republic. Despite these differences, however, a still life by Osias Beert the Elder and the paintings of daily life by David Teniers the Younger echo their Dutch counterparts and bear witness to the continuation of the shared cultural framework in the northern and southern Low Countries.