Art Business in 17th Century Holland:

how the bottom fell out of the

Golden Age of Dutch painting.


by H.A. Fraser.


The Dutch Baroque stands out in art history for the volume of paintings that artists produced for eager buyers. Between 1610/20 and 1670/80, easel pictures of varying qualities were purchased by virtually every middle class family in Holland. Why did such demand exist? And for the Dutch painter, a happy future seemed all but guaranteed. Out of this period emerged Jan Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, Jan van Goyen, Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn. Yet, within this promising situation was a significant flaw which led to a crisis in the art market and hard times for many artists. But let us find the roots of the wealth which created the desire for art in the first place.

At the turn of the 17th century, Spain was the dominant world power (as we might imagine France in the 18th, England in the 19th, and the U.S. in the 20th century). And under Spanish control was the Netherlands, a country which was to undergo some dramatic changes during and after the domination. One such change was a decision by the Spanish monarch Philip II to make the Netherlands the central banker for Spain. Records of all transactions made by the Spanish Empire were made and kept in Amsterdam and Antwerp.

It was no accident that the Netherlands was chosen for this purpose. Its favourable maritime situation meant that it was ideal to manage trade between Northern and Southern Europe. As well, with the ruin of the Italian and German bankers in 1596 (due to the insolvency of Philip II) Amsterdam, in what was to become Holland, became the centre of the European money market.

Spanish domination of the Netherlands, however, also meant absolute rule and the people revolted. But only the northern Netherland provinces managed to break free and establish themselves as Holland, named after one of the largest northerly provinces. The southern provinces remained a Catholic colony of Spain until 1648. Although Holland had progressed in freeing itself from Spanish rule, significantly, it maintained a "mediaeval" system of de-centralised, regional self-government. Such government results in isolation, not normally conducive to great economic growth. Thus it was Holland's good fortune that Amsterdam should continue as a banker for Spain even after it was recognised as an independent country in 1609. Holland grew still more affluent after the Peace of Westphalia between Spain and all the Netherlands in 1648.

Holland fast became a nation of flourishing merchants, farmers and seafarers free from monarchical rule, as well as the influence of the Catholic church. The official Dutch religion was Calvinism.

Out of this mix of good fortune and freedom grew: a ruling class of merchants and bankers; a class of "regents" consisting of town counsellors, mayors, et al; and a very large and well-off urban middle class. And this middle class, by virtue of its size, had the strongest influence over visual art. Again, there was no state-organised or courtly production of art. And the Calvinist church, which largely eschewed imagery, kept their houses of worship bare and whitewashed. Even the guilds had little or no influence over art production.

For reasons that can be explained by wealth and a desire for some prestige, the newly rich middle class began to buy pictures. "Cabinet" pictures of homey, familiar subjects small enough to fit in modest dwellings, were produced to meet a growing demand. The picture trade became so lively that diarist John Evelyn, during a visit to Holland in 1641, noted that "it is an ordinary thing to find a common farmer lay out two or three thousand pounds in this commodity. Their houses are full of them, and they vend them at their fairs to very great gain." A growing number of artists in Holland began to mass produce paintings. It was a situation which encouraged an unheard of specialisation in subject matter. Collaboration of several specialists on one picture -- a sky painter, a building painter, a water painter -- was not uncommon.

This happy laissez faire market situation, however, had one great flaw: production was based mainly on the home market. Why this was so may be explained to some degree by the previously mentioned old fashioned Dutch political system of regional self-government. The Dutch had become rich by a fortuitous decision made by Philip II; they flourished in spite of an isolationist mentality. While the reasons for the reliance of artists and dealers on the home market remain a matter of some conjecture, this singular focus eventually resulted in an over abundance of pictures and dwindling prices.

In the meantime, specialists produced saleable pictures at a steady rate. Secular, everyday life images were the most popular: the portrait, landscape, still life, interiors, and architectural views, scenes which had originated in the latter half of the 16th century. And there were many subtypes of each of these subjects. Jan van Goyen developed a new type of landscape popular for its familiar elements: a distant town under a heavy sky, viewed from across a body of rippling water. Also popular was the "Vanitas" allegory. In Pieter Claesz's "Still Life" (1629) partially eaten food and a tipped glass in an otherwise luxurious still life contain hidden meaning: they remind the viewer that earthly pleasures are passing. Portraiture also provided a decent source of revenue for artists. The regent class including communes, corporations, civic associations, and hospitals, commissioned scores of paintings. Cheerful subjects were preferred to disturbing ones. Unpleasant incidents were given a vaguely moralising but humorous perspective. Gerard Honthorst's "Merry Flea Hunt" (1625-30) suggests that a fate similar to that of the flea will meet another visitor. The two laughing women are a procuress and a prostitute.

The specialisation of painters was encouraged by art dealers who asked for the kind of work that was most marketable. On the positive side, the fine art trade standardised and stabilised the market; it created regular demand and told the artist what buyers wanted. However, with the over production of art, prices began to drop. A painting could be bought for a mere two or three guilders where a good portrait cost 60 and an ox, 90. And because of sinking prices, artists were forced to produce more art at a rapid rate to make up the loss in revenue. Many Dutch landscapes may have taken less than a day to create. This, of course, exacerbated the problem and set up a vicious circle.

Artists tried all ways to sell their art. In "Born Under Saturn" the Wittkowers tell us that Dutch artists sold their products "in fairs and street markets or had them paddled around by hawkers". They raffled them in lotteries or put them up for auction. Artists entered into contracts with dealers, often on very bad terms. According to chronicler Roger de Piles, the portrait painter Gaspar Netscher "worked for a long time for dealers who, exploiting his ease in producing, paid him very little for his pictures and sold them at very high prices".

As the situation worsened, many artists found second jobs. Rembrandt and Vermeer dealt in pictures and antiques. Van Goyen dealt in real estate and tulips; Jan Steen owned a brewery in Delft and an inn in Leyden; Jacob Ruisdael was a barber-surgeon.

Around the middle of the century, the market for naturalism bottomed out with the introduction of a new demand. Artists who changed to suit this new market began to mirror an emerging society of second generation Dutch wealth. This society preferred images created in a French or Italian manner of opulence and classical forms. Still, the golden age of art production in Holland was drawing to a close. Overnight artists who made money before the market had peaked found little incentive to stay in the country after the market flood. And by 1670 many of the major painters of the period had died, including Rembrandt in 1669.1 The period, so promising at the start held a great flaw: artists and dealers singular reliance on the home market. The home market which rebounded to some small degree as artists left the country and a demand for art of other countries increased, did not match the activity of the first half of the century. The golden age of Dutch painting closed for good with the emergence of France as a centre of economic, political and military strength in the 18th century.

1 The legendary demise of Rembrandt is a separate story in itself although his decline after 1642 has been attributed to the change in taste to which he could not or would not adapt, the law of supply and demand (as we have seen), personal indulgences and business mismanagement. Rubens, who worked out of Flanders (southern Netherlands) and died the same year as Rembrandt (and who also requires a separate article), left behind a fortune.