A Golden Age?
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’, as opposed to the prevalence of 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.
The very idea of a ‘Golden Age’ appears to be based on a somewhat 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.
This research will be contextualized by means of four research axes.
Within the context of the first research axis, we will examine how the notion of the ‘Golden Age’ was constructed in the Seventeenth Century in Dutch texts and images, in addition to the analysis of the corpus of travel descriptions. We will address this concept from the perspective of the production as well as the reception of the works of art.
The second research axis will focus on the conditions of artistic production, by re-evaluating it within the context of recent social art historical studies. It will address the question how the artists themselves, by selecting and developing certain iconographical themes and aesthetics, have contributed to the construction of the image of a ‘Golden Age’.
The third axis will address the same question, but from the perspective of the demand for art. It will examine the social, economic, religious and theoretical expectations, to be able to indicate the ‘need’ for a Golden Age’ in the Dutch Republic.
Finally, to strip seventeenth-century Dutch art from its supposed exceptionality, the fourth axis will show the strong connections between the Dutch Republic and the different European regions, by means of a reflection on the importance of artistic exchange during this period.
State of Research
Many overviews have been written about the arts in the Dutch Republic. Our project wishes to reconsider and revise some of the current representations of the Dutch Golden Age, by addressing three historiographical lacunae in particular: