The northern provinces of the Netherlands united in 1579, politically separating themselves from Flanders to the
south, and two years later, the provinces declared their independence from Spain. The Spanish would continue to
contest the provinces’ independence in the early seventeenth century, but from this point onward, the Dutch
Republic took on a unique character. In spite of its small size, the Dutch Republic was exceptionally powerful and
wealthy, gaining prosperity from banking, shipping, and trade with its own colonies in the New World and other
countries throughout the world.
Many merchants, ship owners, and businessmen became wealthy, and the prosperity spread to the middle class,
which could then afford luxuries like works of art. Some major works were still commissioned by organizations or
individuals, but more often, Dutch artists worked for an open market, making paintings and prints they could sell in
shops. Artists made what they thought would appeal to the middle class: paintings were modest in size, and genre
painting, still life, and landscape became more important.
Calvinism was the dominant religion in the Dutch Republic at this time. John Calvin was one of the Protestant
Reformers who strongly disapproved of religious art. He felt that images of saints or the crucified Christ would lead
people to idolatry—that people would mistake the images for the persons they represented and would thus pray to
the works of art instead of to God or the other holy figures. In the northern Netherlands, this distrust of religious
images took a particularly violent turn, and many older sculptures and altarpieces were destroyed as a result.
Religious art that helped people understand the stories of the Bible, however, especially small narrative works in
which figures would not be mistaken for actual people, still had a place in Dutch art.
Even if they do not have an overtly religious subject, many Dutch paintings contain a moralistic meaning. For
example, a genre painting showing what looks like a bawdy tavern scene might actually represent the Prodigal Son
(a young man who squandered his inheritance), leading the viewer to consider the consequences of drinking and
high living. Even a still life can include objects referring to the passage of time and the transient pleasure of material
goods. But there is debate about how much we should read into Dutch painting—surely the display of wealth,
pleasure, and good-natured friendship could also be enjoyed for its own sake.
As in many other countries in Europe, Caravaggio’s
darkly shadowed style of painting was influential in
the Dutch Republic. A group of painters in the city
of Utrecht learned about Caravaggio’s work from
Gerrit van Honthorst, who had traveled to Italy
around 1610. Van Honthorst’s tavern scenes (right)
seem to be lit by unseen candles, which emphasizes
the sharply defined features of the picturesque
characters. Many other Dutch artists, including
Rembrandt, used Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting in
their portraits to selectively focus on the sitter’s
face and hands.