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A Golden Age?
Rethinking 17th-century
Dutch painting

Overview of the project

What exactly is the Dutch ‘Golden Age’? The notion itself has never been addressed. Art historians have the habit of using the term to qualify Dutch seventeenth-century society and, more specifically, Dutch art of the period. The notion is treated as self-evident, ignoring its normative dimension and history.

This project intends to rethink the notion of the ‘Golden Age’, by analyzing the manner in which it was defined, thought and described in the Seventeenth Century itself, by the Dutch as well as by the visitors and other foreigners who observed the country. The project is conducted at the Université de Genève by professor Jan Blanc and his team, and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (2017-2021).


Several commonplaces are connected to the Dutch ‘Golden Age’. Ever since the Nineteenth Century, historians have emphasized the way in which the typical political, religious and social situation in the United Provinces set it apart from its neighbours and gave an idiosyncratic character to its art. By enclosing the arts of the Netherlands within its borders at a time when the idea of the Dutch nation itself was taking shape, historiography has tended to ignore the question of the mobility of artists and works of art.

Moreover, from the end of the Seventeenth Century onwards and especially since the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, the artistic production in the United Provinces, victim of prejudice regarding its supposed singularity, has often been forced into the category of ‘genre painting’, contrasting history painting in Counter Reformation France, Italy, Spain and Flanders. In addition, the study of the dynamics of patronage, deemed essential for the understanding of European seventeenth-century art elsewhere, has been overshadowed by research on the art market, which was thought to be predominant in the Dutch Republic and intrinsically connected to Calvinism.

In fact, the very idea of a ‘Golden Age’ is based on a distorted perception of the artistic production in the seventeenth-century Northern Netherlands. To avoid labelling this period with our current historical and normative categories and in order to examine the period with fresh eyes, we should return to the judgements and observations of the actors and witnesses from the Seventeenth Century itself. In addition to a re-examination of visual sources and art literature, we propose to constitute and analyze a corpus of travel descriptions of visitors to the Dutch Republic between the late-Sixteenth and early-Eighteenth Century. This database will help us to understand how the Dutch constructed the image of their own ‘Golden Age’ – the term they use themselves is Gulden Eeuw – and how it was perceived by the visitors of the young country.

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