The 17th century was the undisputed Golden Age of Dutch art. During this busy time, artists were blessed with wealthy patrons whose support allowed them free reign for their talents. Art held a cherished place in the hearts of average Dutch citizens, too. The Dutch were particularly fond of pictures that depicted their world: landscapes, seascapes, domestic scenes, portraits, and still lifes. The art of this period remains some of the greatest ever created.
One of the finest landscape painters of all time was Jacob van Ruysdael (1628–82), who depicted cornfields, windmills, and forest scenes, along with his famous views of Haarlem. In some of his works, the human figure is very small, and in others it does not appear at all; instead the artist typically devoted two-thirds of the canvas to the vast skies filled with the moody clouds that float over the flat Dutch terrain. Today his works can be seen in many museums, including the Rijksmuseum .
Frans Hals (1581–1666), the undisputed leader of the Haarlem School, specialized in portraiture. The relaxed relationship between the artist and his subject in his paintings was a great departure from the formal masks of Renaissance portraits. With the lightness of his brushstrokes, Hals was able to convey an immediacy and intimacy. Visit the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem to study his techniques.
One of the geniuses of western art was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–69). This highly prolific and influential artist had a dramatic life filled with commercial success and personal tragedy. Rembrandt was a master at showing the soul and inner life of humankind, in both his portraits and illustrations of biblical stories. His most famous work, the group portrait known as “The Night Watch” (1642), is on view in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
A spirituality reigns over his self-portraits as well; Rembrandt painted about 60 during his lifetime. His masterly “Self-Portrait with Saskia” shows the artist with his wife during prosperous times and is now back on show in Museum Het Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam—where it was painted ca. 1635—along with others of his paintings and some 250 of his etchings.
Perhaps the best known of the “Little Dutch Masters,” who mainly restricted themselves to one genre of painting, such as portraiture, is Jan Vermeer (1632–75) of Delft. The main subjects of Vermeer’s work are the activities and pleasures of simple home life. Vermeer placed figures at the center of his paintings, and typically used the background space to convey a feeling of stability and serenity. He excelled at reproducing the lighting of his interior scenes; there are fine examples of his work at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and in the Rijksmuseum .
If Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) had not failed as a missionary in the Borinage mining region of Belgium, he might not have turned to painting and become the greatest Dutch artist of the 19th century. “The Potato Eaters” (1885) was his first masterpiece. This rough, crudely painted work shows a group of peasants gathered around the table for their evening meal after a long day of manual labor. Gone are the traditional beauty and serenity of earlier Dutch genre painting.
In 1888, Vincent traveled to Arles in Provence, where he was dazzled by the Mediterranean sun. His favorite color, yellow, which to him signified love, dominated landscapes such as “Wheatfield with a Reaper” (1889). For the next 2 years, he remained in the south of France, painting at a frenetic pace in between bouts of madness. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has more than 200 of his paintings.
Before Piet Mondriaan (1872–1944) became an originator of De Stijl (or neoplasticism), he painted windmills, cows, and meadows. His Impressionistic masterpiece, “The Red Tree” (1909)—which looks as though it’s bursting into flames against a background of blue—marked a turning point in his career. With Theo van Doesburg, Mondriaan began a magazine in 1917 entitled “De Stijl” (“The Style”) in which he expounded the principles of neoplasticism: a simplification of forms or, in other words, a purified abstraction; an art that would be derived “not from exterior vision but from interior life.” The world’s leading collection of his work is found in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague .
One of Amsterdam’s most prominent architectural features is the gable. The landmark town houses and warehouses of the city’s old center all have gables and it is easy to judge their age by their shape. Simple triangular, wooden gables came first, and then spout gables (see Keizersgracht 403) with a little point on top were used, mostly on warehouses, in the 14th century. These simply followed the pitch of the roof, but over time, more ornate designs crept in. Step gables were popular in the 17th century (see Brouwersgracht 2 in the Jordaan), and elegant, straight neck gables (see Herengracht 168) adorned with ornamental shoulders appeared between 1640 and 1780. Rounded bell-shaped gables (see Prinsengracht 359) were introduced in the late 17th century and remained popular until the end of the 18th century.
The hook sitting central on most of these gables is called a hijsbalk and was used with a rope and pulley system for hauling cumbersome items in and out of houses with steep, narrow staircases. Most of the canalside houses lean a tad forward to prevent loads crashing into the facades.
Hendrick de Keyser (1565–1621), an architect who worked in Amsterdam at the height of the Renaissance, is known for using decorative, playful elements in a way that was practical to the structure. For instance, he combined hard yellow or white sandstone decorative features with soft red brick, creating a visually stimulating multicolored facade. The Westerkerk is probably his finest work. Philips and Justus Vingboons were architects and brothers who worked in the Renaissance style; while walking along Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht, you’ll see many of their buildings, including the Bible Museum .
Jacob van Campen (1595–1657) built the elaborate Town Hall at the Dam, now the Koninklijk Royal Palace and was probably the single most important architect of Amsterdam architecture’s classical period.
Around 1665, Adriaan Dortsman (1625–82), best known for his classic restrained Dutch style, began building homes with balconies and attics, leaving off the pilasters and festoons that adorned earlier facades; see his designs at the Museum van Loon on Keizersgracht.
A further cultural flowering took place in the late 19th century, which saw the construction of Centraal Station and the Rijksmuseum by P.J.H. Cuypers in Neo-revivalist style as well as A.L. van Gendt’s neo-classical splendor of the Concertgebouw , still the city’s finest concert hall. Between 1900 and 1940, Amsterdam architects purveyed many different styles of building. H.P. Berlage is regarded as one of the city’s first modern architects, designing the stock exchange and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague . He paved the way for the Amsterdam School of architects, whose follower Michael de Klerk designed Museum Het Schip , a massive yet fluid building featuring decorations such as stained glass, wrought iron, and corner towers.
Today the tradition of producing spectacular architecture continues in Amsterdam with the ever-changing horizons on the IJ waterway; Science Center NEMO was designed by Renzo Piano, while the gleaming-white, mantislike EYE Film Institute was the first public building to be constructed in Amsterdam Noord.
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