The tag “Dutch Golden Age” evokes a luminous glow, as a sunset over vistas with ruins or harbors; it calls to mind lavish spreads of food in costly vessels, of well-dressed men gathered to celebrate their membership in an exclusive group, and of elegant women attending to ordinary tasks in neat interiors. The establishment of the Dutch Republic and the incorporation of the Dutch East and West India companies fostered unprecedented prosperity in the northern Netherlands. The prosperity that built mansions on expanded Amsterdam canals depended on exploiting the people and natural resources of Africa, Asia and the Americas. Those images evoked by the “Dutch Golden Age” incompletely and often falsely represent what the tag purports to signify.
This collection of essays is the first in a planned series to examine the period in light of the global and multi-valanced endeavors of the Dutch Republic. It examines the period through the lens of that phrase, to explore its historiography, to show why it became ubiquitous, and to demonstrate its various applications. Jan Blanc’s introduction sets forth the parameters of the discussion of the “Golden Age” from its origins in antiquity to its problematic definitions. Four sections organize the essays thematically.
The first section, “Myths and Translations”, opens with Céline Bohnert’s essay that examines how a Golden Age was constructed by Ovid as a happy and harmonious time, and interpreted in Christian terms with the Ovid moralisé; translations and commentaries vary in their references to both ancient and Christian frameworks. Illustrations, too, offer nuanced interpretations. Proceeding from Bernard Salomon (1557), subsequent prints present nature’s bounty, sensuality and happiness in various degrees. Next, Maria Aresin demonstrates how grisailles by Gerard de Lairesse representing the four Ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron incorporate allegorical figures and emblems. These canvases were made in 1682 for the entrance hall of the Keizersgracht house of the Amsterdam merchant Pieter Hunthum. The author discusses De Lairesse’s sources in Karel van Mander and Cesare Ripa, as well as Ovid, Hesiod and Virgil. De Lairesse criticized artists in general for depicting the most common subjects treated previously by others, and thought they should seek original approaches to less familiar narratives. In this cycle, he sought to portray the four ages in novel ways, selecting primary figures of Astraea for the first, Jupiter for the second, Minerva for the third, and Mars for the fourth. Aresin points out the rarity of depictions of the full cycle of the Four Ages. I add that De Lairesse’s cycle is in marked contrast to that by Pietro da Cortona in the Sala della Stufa of the Palazzo Pitti of about 1640, which relied on Ovid for its frothy if less specific figures. The section closes with an essay by Jan Blanc that sets forth the usage of the term “Golden Age” in the seventeenth century by Joost van den Vondel, G.A. Bredero and other writers, and its codification in political terms by artists and writers with reference to the Oranjezaal.
The second section, entitled “Features and Topoi,” opens with Jeroen Jansen’s piece discussing how seventeenth-century Dutch poets regarded their Greek and Latin forebears; they were particularly keen on Homer, who was praised for simplicity, naturalness, and directness. The inclusion of Maria Margareta van Akerlaecken is appropriate, not only to give space to women writers, but also because she valued the same qualities in her own poetry that her male contemporaries found in Homer. The following chapter, by Stijn Bussels and Lorne Darnell, examines the various and often contradictory attitudes toward architecture. At the same time that Hercules Seghers and Pieter Saenredam were depicting Dutch ruins and cathedrals of earlier centuries, Salomon de Bray complained that Dutch cities were too full of earlier buildings, which were barbaric and built by the Goths; he desired construction of new modern buildings that conveyed the orderliness associated with Vitruvius and ancient Rome. During his time in Paris, 1585–86, Arnoldus Buchelius visited French cathedrals with the scholar Philips van Winghe; their visits had a purpose beyond sightseeing, as they were asked to contribute notes to a new edition of Gilles Corrozet’s guidebook to the antiquities of Paris (1586). Their additions to the guidebook and Buchelius’s own notes reveal that they appreciated the grandeur and ornament of cathedrals such as Amiens and Rouen. Buchelius, however, found the two towers of Notre-Dame de Paris lacking in beauty, mostly, it seems, because they were small in comparison to others. In their additions to Corrozet’s text on the basilica of Saint Denis, Buchelius and Van Winghe made use of Abbot Suger’s writings and connected Suger to the rebuilding of the church. Their additions to Corrozet allow for identifying the age of the cathedrals as a Golden Age. Buchelius’s own notes demonstrate his positive appreciation for the “Gothic, German, and barbaric” so criticized by Vasari, whose vocabulary shaped his own terminology. Even as Buchelius recognized that Utrecht Cathedral was Gothic, he praised it.
The third section, “Landscapes and Utopias,” begins with a chapter by Marije Osnabrugge on the practice of landscape painting, analyzed through the writings of Van Mander, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Willem Goeree, Willem Beurs, De Lairesse and Arnold Houbraken. All emphasized that first-hand experience of nature was essential to landscape painting, so artists, usually living in cities, had to go into the countryside or travel to make drawings for use in paintings. Osnabrugge proposes that these authors “did not perceive significant differences between views of the Dutch countryside and of foreign lands,” but appreciated landscapes for their light, design and color as well as natural elements of mountains, rocks, trees and so forth.
In the chapter following, Sarah Mallory focuses on Mauritius. The island was occupied by the Dutch from 1598 to 1710. Descriptions, both literary and visual, present a utopia, an Edenic garden and fantastic bounty of nature. Printed imagery is repeated with little variation to contradict or correct that presentation that is so far from the reality. Her approach can be applied to other locations where the East and West India companies landed and set up businesses that exploited forced labor and natural resources.
The last section, “Aftermath and Posterity,” begins with an essay by Maria Holtrop examining the historiography of the Dutch seventeenth century. General use of the phrase “Dutch Golden Age” is most often associated with the nineteenth century and applied to contrast the present with a longed-for and rosier past; but it is traced to the sixteenth century and proliferated in publications around 1990. The literary journal De Gids was founded in 1837 by E.J. Potgieter, who considered the seventeenth century to be the greatest epoch in the history of the Dutch Republic. Although he did not often use the phrase, he associated it with achievements in culture, science, law, architecture and politics and identified it with the life and times of Frederick Henry. Among other authors, C. Busken Huet would identify this period with Rembrandt. In September 2019, the Amsterdam Museum decided to discontinue its use of the term, in favor of a temporal definition and an emphasis on inclusivity for Amsterdam residents of today. An outcry in the press ensued, although reaction in the arts community was generally positive. The final chapter by Jan Blanc surveys the controversies in current usage of the term “Golden Age” to encompass the full range of the seventeenth-century culture in the northern Netherlands.
Within the scope of this short review, I can touch upon only a few of the myriad issues raised in this rich volume. Recent initiatives sponsored by The National Institute for the Dutch History of Slavery and its Legacy, the New Netherlands Institute, and other research centers to examine previously overlooked histories make the publication particularly timely. I eagerly await the appearance of subsequent volumes in the series.
Logan A. Richmond Professor of Art History Emerita