“Opinions differ on the question of whether a golden age is something you can experience while it's happening or whether it only comes into focus on reflection...no matter how grand and prosperous and momentous the time in which you are living may be, its grandeur is inevitably stained by the incessant drabness of the present.”  -Russell Shorto

There are certain moments in history and periods of time that stand out as being superior to others. As humans, we have the tendency to study history and look back on the past with curiosity and nostalgia.

We may reflect on a period of time and wish we could back and make it our reality. We essentially want to escape our boring present in order to adopt a new life in a glamourous period from the past.

Whether we are entranced by Paris' Belle Epoque, the grandeur of Ancient Rome, the creativity of the Italian Renaissance, the prosperity of the Dutch Golden Age or the freedom and social changes of the 60's counter culture in America; daydreaming about the past affects all living human beings.

Individuals may think that living a life in the past is far more interesting, entertaining and better than their present. 

Superprof is here to analyze the glory of the moments, culture and scientific advancements that shaped the Dutch Golden Age and have consequently caused sentimental Dutch citizens and people from all over the world wish they had been born in another century!

The Start of the Golden Age

drawings of the past
Many paintings in the Dutch Golden Age depict ships and trading due to the fact that this was their primary economy. (Source: Visual Hunt)

The Golden Age refers to a period in the Netherlands that lasted for the majority of the 17th century. During this time period, Dutch art, trade, science and military were the best in the world.

It was a time after the Netherlands broke free from the Spanish and declared their own independence. Without the control of Spain, the Dutch could prosper economically and express themselves artistically. 

There are many reasons, wars and moments in history that caused the Dutch Golden Age to begin. Religion had a major part to play in this period of time.

After the Netherlands declared their independence and recognition from the Spanish government, there were many struggles between the Protestants and Catholics. After the fall of Antwerp in 1584, the Protestant-dominated Dutch revolt was forced to surrender to Spanish forces.

This event that was part of the Eight Years' War, obliged Protestants to leave the Habsburg territory within 4 years if they were unwilling to convert to Catholicism. Many of the Protestants moved up north to Amsterdam which became the capital of the Dutch Republic looking for work in order to start a new life. Various individuals of Catholic faith relocated south where they would be more accepted.

While trading Amsterdam in the north began to thrive during this period, Antwerp in the south suffered due to the fact that the Dutch blocked the Scheldt river.

The Protestants that moved to Amsterdam in this period were highly skilled craftsmen and merchants with much experience. Their work ethic and previous experience contributed to Amsterdam becoming one of the most important ports and commercial centres in the world by the time 1630 came around. 

Immigration from citizens of Europe became increasingly popular in the Netherlands due to religious persecution in other European countries. The infrastructure and canals built during this period were largely due to hardworking immigrants.

The invention of the wind-powered sawmill was an ingenious way to use a cheap energy source in order to construct ships that would encourage international trade and build a stronger military presence to avoid future attacks.

The further prosperity experienced during the Dutch Golden Age is contributed to trade with the Far East. The Dutch became extremely dominant in world trade and this led to the founding of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602 which exported and imported all over the world. This was a major step forward for the Netherlands and also for the world becoming the first multinational corporation on the planet.

The Dutch East India Company was funded by shares from the first-ever modern-day stock exchange. 

With the VOC the Dutch were focused on looking outward and creating trade relationships that would result in major profits. The company monopolized trade with Asia and became the world's largest commercial enterprise during the 17th century.

Many historians credit the Dutch Republic's geographic location as a reason for its wealth during this time period. The cities of Lisbon and Seville were too far to trade with the Baltic ports. Therefore, the Netherlands took advantage of their location being halfway between the Bay of Biscay and the Baltic and traded with those living in that area.

The cities of Holland such as Rotterdam had major ports that were perfect for trading. This fact made the Dutch have an extreme share of the amount of European shipping tonnage; accounting for well over half during this time period.

Art and Culture from the Golden Age

beautiful art
Vermeer's masterpiece has been interpreted and beloved for centuries. (Source: pixabay)

Art became indispensable during the Dutch Golden Age. International consumers were not only interested in goods but they wanted a painting from a Dutch artist hanging above their fireplace.

Everyone during this period had at least some interest in art. Even the lower classes of society enjoyed the finer things in life and had paintings in their homes. Unlike a lot of the art during the 17th century, Dutch art was not very religious. The Netherlands had broken free from Spain and from Catholicism, therefore, paintings had other themes and meanings. Secular subjects grew up and became more popular.

Seventeenth-century Amsterdam was very tolerant of other religions, cultures and artistic expression. Anyone was free to be creative without judgement and it was a place where painters, sculptors and other artists made a difference.

Famous Dutch artists talked about during art history classes such as Rembrandt painted their best works of art during the Dutch Golden Age period. 

There were many types of paintings during this time period and artists would spend their whole artistic career concentrating on a certain genre of work such as landscapes, portraits, still lifes, seascapes or a sub-type of these genres. Dutch paintings during the Golden Age are typically included in the Baroque period.

What is the Baroque period? 

The Baroque period spanned the 17th century and it was the Catholic church's response to criticism from Protestants. Those of Protestant faith criticized the Catholics for superior authority of the scriptures and justification for faith alone. The Catholics fought back using art to create a vigour and renewed enthusiasm for their teachings. They instructed illiterate members by having grandiose and direct paintings about basic biblical teachings made by artists.

Rembrandt is more commonly known for his portraits than his religious or Baroque paintings. Nevertheless, he painted a few paintings that were typical of the Baroque period with intense colour, direct themes and emotionally intense.

However, it is important to note that while many Dutch paintings during the Golden did share some characteristics of the Baroque period, various lacked the typical ideals found in Baroque art. 

The "hierarchy of genres" led many Dutch artists to paint history paintings which were at the top of the hierarchy. Nevertheless, quite a few painters resorted to paintings other genres in order to create artwork that would please their clients.

Landscape, scenes of everyday life and still life paintings of realistic events were typical during this part of history. Works such as The Windmill at Vijk by Jacob van Ruisdael, Vanitas by Peter Claesz and Adriaen van Ostade's Peasants in an Interior are all famous paintings from Dutch masters that depict their genre in a remarkable way.

People all over the world were interested in Dutch paintings during this important time period in history with an estimated amount of 1.3 million pictures being painted in the 2o years after 1640. This was done to meet the demand for international and national sales. Due to a large number of paintings and drawings available, they were cheaply priced and an art dealer could make decent money.

The most acclaimed painters from the 17th century that are celebrated today such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals had various problems during their lifetime making a living and often died poor and in debt. 

Art was extremely important and artists were viewed very highly during this period, therefore, many wealthy families paid the apprenticeships so that their aspiring artist children could learn the correct techniques.

Another interesting fact about the Dutch Golden Age is that 18th and 19th-century art from Dutch painters were never able to repeat the enormous success and demand experienced in the 17th century with Van Gogh being an exception as the only other Dutch painter that received any further acclaim.

Art from the Golden Age can be seen in an exhibition or museum near you!

The most famous paintings during this intensely creative part in history come from Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer's The Girl with the Pearl Earring, painted in 1665, which is arguably the most famous portrait in history after the Mona Lisa and The Night Watch is a masterpiece painted by Rembrandt in 1642, at the peak of the Golden Age, is a history painting of colossal size featured in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Scientific and Academic Breakthroughs During the Golden Age

Huygens academic advancements made the world a more educated place. (Source: Visual Hunt)

While trade and art dominated society in the Dutch Golden Age, there was definite room for scientific breakthroughs and advances in technology.

Due to the social acceptance and tolerance experienced in the Dutch Republic many scientists, philosophers and mathematicians flocked to universities and cities in order to expand their theories and study in a non-judgemental environment.

Leiden University located in Leiden a town near the Hague and founded by William, Prince of Orange in 1575 was a popular hub for intellectuals during the Golden Age due to its international reputation. Throughout history, this renowned university has been the alma mater of many members of the Dutch Royal Family, ten leaders and Prime Ministers of the Netherlands and over 16 recipients of the Nobel Prize have previously studied at Leiden.

Most notably, during the Dutch Golden Age, important figures such as French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, Dutch artist Rembrandt, Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens and the French-German author Baron d'Holbach all studied here to further their education, hone their skills and develop their theories and scientific breakthroughs.

We will now analyze the academic and scientific breakthroughs that some famous intellectuals underwent in the Dutch Republic:

  • René Descartes: wrote a book on philosophy published in 1641 in the Dutch Republic and titled Meditations on First Philosophy is still thoroughly used in many philosophy departments all over the world. His effect on the world of mathematics is equally apparent due to the fact that the Cartesian coordinate system was named after him.
  • Christiaan Huygens: was a very important intellectual figure during the Dutch Golden Age. He is responsible for inventing the pendulum clock which was a major step forward for timekeeping in that era. His contributions to astronomy were vital as he described the use of Saturn's rings.
  • Anton van Leeuwenhoek: he was the most famous Dutch scientist in the area of optics. He is credited for laying the foundation of microbiology. Leeuwenhoek was able to describe bacteria long before anyone else. His skills in grinding lenses led to a magnification as high as 245x.

All of the aforementioned men and many others made breakthroughs in their academic fields that have been recognized for centuries and are still used today. In addition, due to the Dutch Republic's intellectual tolerance and freedom of expression, many scientific, mathematical and informative books were published from reputable sources during the Golden Age and sent to other parts of Europe.

During the 17th century, the Dutch Republic became one of Europe's most popular publishing houses. 

Due to hard-working individuals who dominated on the world stage in the sectors of trade, art, science and academics, the Dutch Republic experienced glory, prosperity and acclaim. The Dutch Golden Age was a truly spectacular time that will most likely never be repeated.

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