Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, circa 1659. Creator: Emanuel de Witte. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
On Art


The Dutch golden age could be anything but for the painters

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There are numerous estimates about exactly how many paintings were produced during the Dutch golden age. While it may be impossible to reckon even approximately it is not unreasonable to suggest that perhaps between five and ten million pictures were painted to service the demands of seventeenth-century Netherlanders.

After all, by 1650, Amsterdammers were per capita the wealthiest citizens in Europe and the trickle-down effects were real. In the 1640s, an English merchant-traveller named Peter Mundy was startled by the omnipresence of paintings in the new nation: “Butchers and bakers … yea many tymes blacksmiths. Cobblers, etts., will have some picture or other by their Forge or in their stalle.” The homes of many middling sorts were hung with pictures in a profusion that would still be unusual today.

The revered Dutch historian Johan Huizinga believed that his countrymen loved paintings because of their innate and “intense enjoyment of shapes and objects” and an “unshakeable faith in the reality and importance of all earthly things”.

Not for them Baroque display and the religious paintings of the ousted Spanish. What they wanted were small images of the real world.

It is remarkable just how many great Dutch artists met miserable and untimely ends

An extraordinarily talented cadre of painters emerged to feed this appetite — about one painter for every 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants — and many of the best of them were closely connected. They married into one another’s families, lived in nearby streets and had numerous patrons in common.

Webs of connection are easy to trace: Rembrandt, for example, shared a studio in Leiden with Jan Lievens (who was then thought his superior); he later taught Ferdinand Bol, Govert Flinck and Carel Fabritius; Fabritius, the painter of The Goldfinch, influenced Vermeer in Delft; Vermeer and Gerard ter Borch signed the same notary document in 1653; Vermeer also knew Jan Steen, who went to the same school in Leiden that Rembrandt had attended, and was himself friends with Gabriel Metsu and Frans Hals.

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius, 1654. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group)

Many painters were connected in the nature of their deaths too. It is remarkable just how many great Dutch artists met miserable and untimely ends. For all their talent, painting made few of them rich and most had second jobs — Vermeer dealt in paintings, Jan Steen ran a brewery, Jan van Goyen speculated in tulips and property (and ruined himself twice as a result), and Pieter de Hooch worked as a factotum for a linen merchant.

There were exceptions: the flower painter Rachel Ruysch, for example, lived to 86 and worked for the Elector Palatine, who demanded just a single painting a year in return for a handsome stipend — and to add to her good fortune, she also won the lottery; while Ferdinand Bol married an heiress and retired from painting. Misery, however, was a familiar state for any number of others.

The most dramatic death came to Fabritius. Very few of his paintings have survived, perhaps just 13, but he was, said the contemporary publisher-poet Arnold Bon, “the greatest artist Delft or Holland ever had”. He died aged 32 on 12th October 1654 when the city gunpowder magazine exploded, destroying a quarter of the city and killing more than 500 people.

The “Delft thunderclap” could be heard 150 miles away. Fabritius’s house collapsed on top of him and although he was alive when pulled from the rubble he died shortly afterwards. “Thus that Phoenix remained in his thirties,” wrote Bon, “in the midst and at the height of his powers.”

Fabritius’s master Rembrandt famously died a bankrupt, despite being courted by the Medici and Charles I, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Rembrandt’s old friend Lievens died poor and tormented by the knowledge that he had never lived up to his early promise.

Vermeer died suddenly at 43, broken by debt when the Dutch economy collapsed in 1672. His widow, in a petition for financial assistance, wrote that the painter “had lapsed into such degradation and decline, which had affected him so deeply, that he, as though struck by total confusion, had gone from healthy to dead in a matter of a day and a half”.

Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, circa 1659. Creator: Emanuel de Witte. (Photo by Heritage Art)

Poverty also hastened the end of the landscapist Meindert Hobbema as it did to Frans Hals too, who had been subsisting on the patronage of admiring fellow artists and a city pension from Haarlem. The cow painter Paulus Potter contracted tuberculosis and died at just 28. Hendrick ter Brugghen died of the plague at the age of 40.

Meanwhile, Frans Post was helped to the grave by alcohol, which may also have played a part in the death of Hercules Seghers — who died after falling down the stairs. Even the painter of tavern scenes, Adriaen Brouwer, a Flemish artist rather than a Dutchman, died age 32 and was buried in a common grave.

Along with Fabritius, the most vivid end belonged to Emanuel de Witte, an accomplished painter of church interior scenes. According to the early biographer of Dutch artists, Arnold Houbraken, after becoming involved in an argument with his landlord a despairing De Witte hanged himself from an Amsterdam canal bridge.

However, the rope broke and he plunged into the water. That night was so cold that the canal froze solid and there De Witte’s body stayed, undiscovered until the ice thawed nearly three months later. Just one more painter who found the golden age tragically less than golden.

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