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The Dutch Golden Age : a new aurea aetas ? The revival of a myth in the seventeenth-century Republic

International Conference

31 May - 1 June 2018
Université de Genève

The ambiguity of the Dutch notion of the Golden Age (gulden ou gouden eeuw), which first appears during the second part of the sixteenth century, is intriguing. It refers firstly to the golden age, as it was described by Greek and Roman authors, a mythical society that existed under the protection of Saturn, in peace and happiness and in harmony with nature. But the notion is also used by the Dutch themselves to designate the society that they were part of – or wished to be part of - , after the independence of the United Provinces from the Spanish reign. As a model of an ideal society that aimed to revive, reactivate, indeed to reinvent, the ‘aurea aetas’ functions as one of the founding myths of the emerging ‘Golden Age’. The different aspects of this myth (its emergence, time, society and place) will be explored during this international and interdisciplinary conference.

This conference is the first of a series of conferences and seminars organized in the context of the project «Un Siècle d’Or? Repenser la peinture hollandaise du XVIIe  siècle», directed by Prof. Jan Blanc and funded by the Swiss Fonds national de la recherche scientifique (2017-2021).

location: Uni Dufour, room U260

free entrance




9h : Jan Blanc (Université de Genève): Le siècle d’or hollandais : une modernité paradoxale 


9h30 : Liza Méry Spector (Université de Poitiers): D’Hésiode à Ovide: le mythe de l’Âge d’or dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaine  


10h30: Jeroen Jansen (Universiteit van Amsterdam): The very oldest and best poets. Originality in Dutch Golden Age poetics

11h: Céline Bohnert (Université de Reims): L’âge d’or ovidien au xviie siècle: textes, commentaires et gravures




1.  Aetas aurea et gulden eeuw au début du XVIIe  siècle / Aetas aurea and gulden eeuw in the early 17th century

14h : Ralph Dekoninck (Université de Louvain): Concordia Mundi. La quête iréniste d’Otto van Veen entre passé et présent 

14h30: Saskia Cohen-Willner (Universiteit van Amsterdam): Karel van Mander and the invention of the Golden Age


15h30 : PAUSE / BREAK

2. Nostalgies et utopies / Nostalgia and utopias

16h: Maria Aresin (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz): From Peace to Pain: the Four Ages of man as a historiographical model and as images

16h30: Elinor Myara Kelif (CNRS–Centre André Chastel–LabEx EHNE): «Iustitia et Pax osculatae sunt»: messianisme politique et âge d’or, de Dirck de Quade van Ravesteyn à Johan Wierix

17h-18h : DISCUSSION




3. Honneur et profit / Honour and profit

9h: Judith Noorman (Universiteit van Amsterdam): «Eer voor goet» in 17th-century Dutch art and honour culture 

9h30: Juliette Roding (Universiteit van Leiden): «Honour and profit» in 17th-century Dutch art and art theory 


10h30 : PAUSE / BREAK

4. Identités et représentations / Identities and representations

11h: Lotte Jensen (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen): The Dutch Golden Age and the shaping of a Dutch sense of identity 




5. Ici / Here

14h: Marije Osnabrugge (Université de Genève): Localizing Dutch Italianate landscape painting: artistic practice and the formation of a sub-genre 

14h30:  Miriam Volmert (Universität Zürich): Creating Spaces for a Golden Age. Visions of Past and Present in the Dutch Vernacular Landscape

15h: Stijn Bussels & Lorne Darnell (Universiteit van Leiden): Discourses on modern architecture, or how the Dutch created a sacred and native Golden Age 



6. Là-bas / There

17h: Sarah Walsh Mallory (New York University): Memory spaces and far away places: printed images of Dutch Mauritius, c. 1600 

17h30: Maria Holtrop (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam): Aurea aetas, Golden Age or Age of Gold: different ways of looking at the Dutch seventeenth century 




Prof. Jan Blanc (UNIGE) , Dr Léonie Marquaille (UNIL), Susanne Bartels MA (UNIGE), Dr Marije Osnabrugge (UNIGE)

assistants: Léa Eigenmann, Constantin Favre, Jeanne Gressot, Léa Hernot, Clara May, Leïla Thomas, Maeva Velasquez


« ’T was in dien tyd de Gulde Eeuw voor de Konst, en de goude appelen (nu door akelige wegen en zweet naauw te vinden) dropen den Konstenaars van zelf in den mond »

(‘This time was the Golden Age for Art, and the golden apples (now hardly to be found if by difficult roads and sweat)  fell spontaneously in the mouths of Artists.’)
[Arnold Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, 1718-1721, vol. II, p. 237.]

In 1719, the painter Arnold Houbraken voiced his regret about the end of the prosperity that had reigned in the Dutch Republic around the middle of the seventeenth century. He indicates this period as especially favorable to artists and speaks of a ‘golden age for art’ (Gulde Eeuw voor de Konst). But what exactly was Houbraken talking about? The word eeuw is ambiguous: it could refer to the length of a century as well as to an undetermined period, relatively long and historically undefined. In fact, since the sixteenth century, the expression gulde(n) eeuw or goude(n) eeuw referred to two separate realities as they can be distinguished today: the ‘golden century’, that is to say a period that is part of history; and the ‘golden age’, a mythical epoch under the reign of Saturn, during which men and women lived like gods, were loved by them, and enjoyed peace and happiness and harmony with nature.

Following Hesiod, Virgil and Ovid, the principal authors of the Renaissance evoked the myth of a golden age and presented it as a model for the ideal society. This was equally the case for the young Republic of the United Provinces. From the sixteenth century onwards, Dutch artists expressed the desire to revive the golden age of ancient art. This mythical revival could likewise serve as a justification of the political choices of the Seven Provinces. This is apparent when, in 1604, Karel van Mander remarks that it is necessary that the “kings” and “lords” are “fair and wise in the countries that they govern” and that “man” enjoys a “safe, calm and joyous life thanks to the application of good laws and unbending justice”, so that one may speak of a ‘golden age’ (gulden Eeuwe). More in general the reference to the golden age functioned as a statement about the prosperity in the Dutch Republic.

Within the context of that which we might call an ‘imagined community of the golden age’ – following the words of Benedict Anderson (1983) – historians, philosophers, lawyers and theologians but even more so painters, poets and playwrights were mobilized in the seventeenth century to participate in the formation of the Dutch Golden Age.

Section 1. The Golden Age and its myths
In the introduction of the conference we seek to define the use and functioning of myths in the construction of historical and political imaginaries in early modern Europe, specifically the myth of the golden age
in the United Provinces during the seventeenth century.

Section 2. The ‘time’ of the Dutch Golden Age
The first aspect of the Dutch reinterpretation of the golden age that will be addressed is that of the ‘time’ of the myth, in other words: the manner in which the seventeenth-century Dutchmen conceived and constructed the relation between their ‘golden age’ and that of the Ancients. Did Dutch artists see and construct the Golden Age as a mythical past or rather as a radiant future? In which artistic disciplines is the concept of the Golden Age most discernible and which interpretation is pervasive (e.g. nostalgic, utopist, presentist)?

3. The ‘space’ of the Dutch Golden Age
We will also reflect on the imaginary spaces of the Golden Age. The myth of the Golden Age was initially articulated within the context of Greek and Latin mythological literature. These landscapes were thus originally associated with the characteristics and topoi of ideal landscapes of the Classical Antiquity and the Mediterranean. Was this image of a primitive, pastoral, golden age central in artistic representations of the subject; what were the consequences of such an interpretation (e.g. for depictions of urban
life); how was the idyllic image communicated to non-Europeans? Or rather, did Dutch painters aim to construct the image of another type of golden age, more idiosyncratic and in line with the social, economic and environmental reality of the Dutch Republic?

4. The ‘society’ of the Dutch Golden Age
The subject of the place of nature in the Golden Age automatically leads to questions about its culture, that is to say: the societal model that such a myth could or should propagate. Several interpretations of society in a
golden age existed: optimist (John Locke), ‘erotic communism’ (Ernst Robert Curtius) pessimist and restrictive (Erasmus, Adriaan van de Venne, Thomas Hobbes), classless or hierarchical (Plato), paradoxical (Simon Schama), etc. How were these versions of the societal model reflected in literature and visual arts? What was the place of money and wealth in the Dutch Golden Age?

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