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 to give free reign to 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.

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. It's worth visiting 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 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 did about 60 of these during his lifetime. The Self-Portrait with Saskia shows the artist with his wife during prosperous times, when he was often commissioned by wealthy merchants to do portraits. But later self-portraits show his transition from an optimist to an old man worn down by care and anxiety. At the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam -- which has been restored to much the way it was when the artist lived and worked there -- you can see the above self-portrait along with some 250 etchings.

Perhaps the best known of the "Little Dutch Masters," who restricted themselves to one type 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 the figure(s) at the center of his paintings, and typically used the background space to convey a feeling of stability and serenity. Vermeer excelled at reproducing the lighting of his interior scenes.

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 van Gogh's 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 signified love to him, 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 Mondrian (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 flame against a background of blue -- marked a turning point in his career. With Theo van Doesburg, Mondrian 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."


In the 16th and 17th centuries, the strap and scroll ornament became quite popular. A fluid form, it frames a facade's top and resembles curled leather. The step gable, a nonclassical element resembling a small staircase (with varying numbers of steps and varying step heights), was used on many of the buildings you see as you walk along the canals today. Often, you find step gables of this period augmented by Renaissance features, such as vases and masks.

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 (like volutes, keystones, and masks) with soft red brick, creating a visually stimulating multicolored facade, while utilizing the sandstone as protection from rain erosion. 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. With them, the medieval stepped gable gave way to a more ornate one with scrolled sides, decorative finials, and other features.

Because classical elements tend to have straight lines and don't flow like the Renaissance elements did, facades shifted to a more boxed-in, central look. Jacob van Campen (1595-1657), who built the elaborate Town Hall at the Dam, now the Royal Palace, 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.

A New School -- Between 1900 and 1940, various Amsterdam architects purveyed many different styles of architecture. One of these styles stands out above the others: The Amsterdam school of architects succeeded in creating forms of brickwork that had existed only in earlier architects' fantasies. Their buildings are massive yet fluid, and feature decorations like stained glass, wrought iron, and corner towers.

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