On a narrow, low lying strip of coastal country in Northern Europe, scarcely two hundred miles long, a country so water logged that enemies and rivals spoke of it as mud flat, there arose in the seventeenth century one of the great civilizations of the world. The golden age of the Dutch republic stands out as one of the most comprehensive, most astonishing, and most admirable achievements of mankind, a monument alike to human industry and the human spirit.
From this little country, with its windy sand dunes and its damp pastures, ship went out to sail its farthest seas. On the mud flats large, solid prosperous cities came into being. Their quays received the goods of all the world, which their merchants exchanged and distributed again to all the world. Their great banking houses financed the sovereigns of Europe. Thanks to its geographical position and the enterprise and energy of its people, the Dutch republic was, only teo generations after its founding, the richest commercial community Europe had yet seen.
Such a civilization could have easily been wholly materialist in all its manifestations; a Golden Age in the narrowest and hardest sense. Scientists, thinkers and poets flourished among them. The works of their great painters, luminous, tranquil, and profound, shine out among us still. Spiritual and material greatness were deeply, inextricably interwoven in the great achievement of the Dutch.
The high noon of the Golden Age is roughly from 1625-1648 during which Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, guided the affairs of state. Rembrandt was painting and Vondel was composing his great poetic dramas. But the political drama had begun a hundred years earlier, beginning with their assignment to King Philip II of Spain as his cut in the family inheritance as part of the Hapsburg holdings. At that time, the Reformation had shaken and divided Europe and Philip II saw it as his mission to reunite Europe within the fold of the Roman Catholic Church under the dominating influence of Spain.
Unfortunately, the Protestant religion in various forms had already penetrated into the Netherlands, and his attempts to stamp it out and meddle in economic policy brought the country to the verge of revolt. In 1567, Philip sent the Duke of Alva to impose military rule on his recalcitrant subjects. But the Dutch, under the Prince of Orange, William of Nassau, organized a rebellion with heroic tenacity and against high odds that resulted with the dislodging of the Spaniards from the northern half of the country. He had hoped to liberate and hold the whole, but after his assassination in 1584 it became clear that the rich southern provinces, which were catholic in sympathy, would remain with Spain, leaving the north to form a new and independent Dutch Republic.
Frederick Henry did not cause the Golden Age in Holland, but it is impossible to imagine it without his generous and reassuring presence in the background. Under his leadership the Dutch soon re-established equilibrium in the war with Spain and pushed doggedly on to final victory at the Peace of Munster in 1648. During all these years Spain was a visibly declining power , while the young Dutch republic went from strength to strength.
When we think of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic we think above all of the great painters. The new Dutch middle class wanted homely paintings to decorate the walls of their comfortable rooms. They wanted secular paintings because they were predominantly Protestant, and they valued above all, lifelike representations of their countryside, their domestic life and the objects that gave them pleasure; in addition to portraiture . Dutch portrait painters acquired an extraordinary forcefulness in the treatment of the human face and hands, and an extraordinary skill in working out a striking design with small points of color and relief. Group portraits were also in demand. Paintings became not only a pleasant thing in themselves, but a good speculation and an viable and active art market developed.
Rembrandt, however, gave offense by breaking the rules of convention. Carried away by his own more profound and subtle vision of the play of light and shade, he painted in “The Sortie of the Banning Cocq Company” , one of the greatest of his pictures and certainly them most memorable of all the group portraits of this epoch. But it is easy to understand why some of the sitters, whose forms and faces are lost in shadow, were far from pleased with the result.
Rembrandt was for a time a fashionable and successful portrait painter, but he stands apart from the portrait painters and genre painters who supplied the new and eager demands of the Dutch. He has the quality of genius which is outside historic time and place. However, Rembrandt could have achieved the fulfillment of his genius nowhere else so well as in seventeenth-century Holland. Amsterdam with its world wide trade provided him with exciting and infinite visual material; his book was life, and he read people and learned in the end to set down what he had read with a sad and silent wisdom that has never been equalled.
For a time he was successful, but genius so individual and so strong can rarely retain popular favor. He went beyond his public and fell into disfavor. But he was never utterly neglected. He always retained a small group of discriminating admirers and of patrons who valued and bought his pictures. It is the great merit of a society like that of seventeenth-century Holland, so competitive and so various, that it has room for small groups, literary and artistic cliques, which can sustain and encourage work outside the grasp of the general public.
It would not be strictly true to say that Rembrandt reveals the inner spirit of the Dutch at this time. He is a painter of the spirit, but his message is at the same time so individual and so universal that it would be a belittlement to attach it merely to the Dutch Golden Age. But no epoch, however fruitful can be held to be truly great unless it has produced one giant of universal stature, one genius who transcends time and place. For the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic that giant is Rembrandt.
One other painter of this time has a claim to rank among the greatest; a painter whose achievement, unlike that of Rembrandt, belongs in time and space and by every outward convention to Holland in the seventeenth century and to no other epoch or place in the world. That painter is jan Vermeer of Delft. He depicted with absolute faithfulness the domestic scenes and simple views that were so dear to Dutch collectors. It is a world of the mundane. But it is also, and who can say why?, a moment stopped out of time. Here is an incident of no importance, a fragment from the lives of unknown people held forever, not just as a picture but as a reality. With the other Dutch genre painters we know we are looking at a picture; with Jan Vermeer we are experiencing a living moment.
With him therefore, we come nearest to the inner essence of the Dutch seventeenth century. The zest for liberation, the adventurousness,the energy and the wealth of this remarkable people do not explain all. What else must there have been? Does the secret lie in this intensity of living, this concentration of the spirit, which Vermeer has so perfectly and so indefinably captured within the narrow limits of his few surviving paintings?