In the Footsteps of the Old Masters

The Myth of Golden Age Holland in 19 th Century Art and Art Criticism

by Agnieszka Rosales Rodríguez (Author)
©2016 Monographs 399 Pages


The author presents a broad phenomenon known under the term of «Hollandism» as present in the European culture. Investigating various areas of 19th century painting, art criticism and literature, the author explains interpretation clichés attached to the culture of the Golden Age (e.g. its bourgeois and Protestant character, its realism and its genre character), which are entrenched in art history. She also presents those aspects of northern Netherlandish painting in the 17th century which were contrary to this image and which made many artists seek the sources of modernité in the art of Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer. The book offers an insight into the complex motivations and attitudes towards the artistic tradition not only of the great painters, but also of the little-known, almost forgotten imitators of the Dutch «Little Masters».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. The myth of Golden Age Holland in 19th century criticism and historiography
  • I.1. Holland in the eyes of a traveller, a critic and a historian. Tourist clichés versus aesthetics
  • I.2. The Night Watch – a painting and national history
  • I.3. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp and the modern laboratory
  • II. “The Sunday of life” – the idyllic image of Holland in the Golden Age
  • II.1. The bourgeois ethos: domestic tranquillity and pleasures of a burgher’s life
  • II.2. The “moral geography” and the “light of Holland”
  • II.3. A repository of the modern painter’s accessories
  • III. The dark face of Janus. The disturbing aspect of Golden Age Holland
  • III.1. Expressiveness of colour and light. Interpretations of the manner of Rembrandt and Hals
  • III.2. Slaughtered Ox – the structure of flesh
  • III.3. Around the body of Bathsheba – the “mud” and the light
  • III.4. The Biblia humana. On portraying human misery
  • III.5. Ruisdael the poet. Truth and fantasy: the landscape painter’s dilemmas
  • III.6. A self-portrait by Rembrandt. The paradigm of a modern painter’s personality
  • Conclusion
  • Illustrations
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Onze Gouden Eeuw was the name 19th century Dutch historians gave to the 17th century – the acme of their country’s power, the rise of the nation and the richest period in the culture of the northern Netherlands.1 In fact, Holland’s Golden Age, which began in 1581 with the States-General issuing the Act of Abjuration that dethroned Philip II Habsburg and gave birth to the Republic of the United Provinces, became an ideal for the entire 19th century, a “locus of consolation”, a mirror of the longings and ambitions of the era, and a vision of history and art. Following the Hegelian perception of the history of culture in terms of Zeitgeist, the character, genius and originality of the Dutch school were interpreted as a general expression of “the quick and natural blossoming of a people glad to live”.2 The myth of Golden Age Holland presupposed many stereotypes of 17th century culture: its national, republican, Protestant and bourgeois character. In the words of the French critic Eugène Fromentin, “The Dutch school begins with the first years of the seventeenth century. […] It is the last of the great schools, perhaps the most original, certainly the most local. At the same hour, under the same circumstances, are seen to appear in conjunction two events, a new state and a new art”.3 The nature of the art of the northern Netherlands, i.e. its anti-metaphysical approach, anti-intellectualism, realism, focus on the genre scene and naivety, were supposed to have arisen from a clichéd perception of Dutch mentality with its distinguishing features of simplicity, strict morality, reason, pragmatism, practicality, honesty, and a penchant for order. The vision of Golden Age Holland as a bourgeois idyll resulted from the deterministic methodology that had been inherited from Hegel, which subjected art to the pressure of documenting history and burdened a work of art with materialistic determinants. Yet this picture of a well-regulated world, an exemplar of good order and a projection of the happy “Sunday of life” that was immortalised by the great philosopher,4 and after him ← 7 | 8 → by many interpreters of the art of the northern Netherlands, does not embrace all of the aspects of 17th century culture. The image of a harmonious, peaceful Golden Age as an era of triumph of the bourgeois ethos, Protestant ethics and national spirit is constantly subverted by an element of disquiet, darkness, spirituality and tragedy. That other, dark face of Holland, the “reverse” or “negative” side of the Golden Age, was primarily supposed to be epitomised by the art of Rembrandt. The the spirit and the profoundly poignant yet sometimes predatory character of the “dark face” art go beyond the idyllic perception of the 17th century and demolish the vision of the craft of the Little Masters with respect not only to the form and contents of a work of art, but also to the creative stance. In the 19th century Rembrandt’s art became a powerful source of the myth of an independent artist – a man of genius. His works were celebrated for their expressive, dramatic elements, a tendency to break artistic norms and conventions, universal humanistic contents, passionate colour and light; but, after all, Rembrandt’s achievements lay at the foundation of the native culture to the same extent as the vision of a utopian land of peace and order. Jacob van Ruisdael, with his dreamy, melancholic landscapes, was the only other painter who managed to overcome the perception that was imposed upon the Dutch: the image of a modest Little Master, a craftsman whose paintings were a placid and faithful description of the bourgeois world. Yet, at the same time, in Dutch historiography as much as in foreign art criticism, the art of Rembrandt and Ruisdael was the embodiment of the northern Netherlands “school”, which was contrasted with other 17th century trends, such as Italianism, Classicism, the Utrecht Caravaggionism or Mannerism. These were perceived as foreign and were not identified with the local character and national spirit of Holland. Writing about his compatriot to whom history had already granted a place among the immortal artists, Carel Vosmaer declared that Rembrandt van Rijn stood at the forefront of the entire Dutch school and reflected its spirit, character and national genius; that, although he was a product of his times and his country, in some respects he exceeded them; that he was not only Dutch, but also universal, generally human, and that his art belonged not only to the 17th century but to all times. “Two centuries separate us from the so-called Hundred Guilder Print, Jacob, The Night Watch, The Syndics and so many other portraits,” Vosmaer wrote, “but any artist shall recognize an ideal concord between his own perception of modernity and ← 8 | 9 → his works, as if they were created yesterday”.5 The French critic and art historian Thoré-Bürger also predicted that the 17th century master from Amsterdam would represent new tendencies in art, and would rule over artistic imagination much more powerfully than his rival, the Academic ideal of an artist, the divine Raphael: “It is strange that every time I think about Rembrandt and the Dutch, Raphael and the Italians seem to me a contrast to the artists of the North. For years I have constantly lived partly with the Italians and Raphael, partly with the Dutch and Rembrandt, who never seems to leave me. […] One morning, finding portraits of Raphael and Rembrandt in an illustrated magazine, I automatically began to cut them out to pin them on the wall, as plebeians, children and artists are wont to do. Raphael is turned left, Rembrandt right. It is impossible to pin them facing each other; it would appear to be double irony. I naively pinned them back to back, and over their heads, which now, when turned, were near, I wrote JANUS; to this mystic name I added the monogram of both masters, arranged so: RR. This was an instinctive summary to all my deliberations regarding the two geniuses. Are they not, indeed, the Janus of art? Raphael looks back; Rembrandt looks ahead. The first of them saw abstract humanity under the symbols of Venus and the Virgin, of Apollo and Christ; the other looked directly, and with his own eyes, at a real and living humanity. One is the past, the other is the future”.6 The metaphor of the face of Janus summarised culture as a locus of tension between the South and the North, the Academic tradition and modernité.

The current book7 presents an analysis of the cultural construction of the myth of Golden Age Holland. Apart from the ambition to confront critical and historical clichés with the artistic practice of the era, it is underpinned by questions as to how a myth becomes a component of modern culture, how the canons of art history emerge, how the recollection of a painting is transformed, and how the old masters are “updated” to respond to the challenges of the present time. When looking into these issues the researcher is offered three perspectives. The first is the iconographic perspective, the one that is easiest to pinpoint and most often invoked in earlier publications. Its horizon is drawn by a multitude of works that repeat, travesty, or freely and ingeniously play with the earlier painting tradition. Yet, considering the vast production of genre scenes, landscapes and portraits in the 19th century, when iconographic evidence for inspirations derived from the ← 9 | 10 → Dutch Old Masters can be counted in thousands of images and the models have often already been filtered through the art of the 18th century, an attempt to create an all-embracing catalogue of these images would not only be a titanic task, but an absurd one as well. The second perspective can be described as workshop-related, referring strictly to the technical side of a painter’s work; it has indeed been very useful in the development of not only many trends in 19th century art, but also in the very notion of “good craftsmanship”. Finally, the third, ideological perspective originates from an examination of a vast amount of texts of varying quality, scale and reach, all of which confirm the existence of a fascination with the political, social, religious and aesthetic aspects of Holland. This rich and diverse legacy reveals a landscape of Dutch culture: a universe of metaphorical images which, like the “Sunday of life” and “face of Janus”, are more than a mere verbal game. It is futile to ask for a rigorousness of concepts when the repertoire of tropes is concerned, and “open” poetic phrases often express the described phenomena in a more accurate and resonant manner. The assumption of the current book is to investigate the manifestations of the myth of Golden Age Holland and the forms in which it was present throughout the 19th century – a century of renewed interest in the country itself, of flourishing museums and of a cult of earlier art. Hence it is not a chronologically and geographically presented history of taste, but a journey in the footsteps of art criticism and the art of painting itself, mainly by means of tableaux mythiques et fondateurs which, on the one hand, themselves have a rich fortune critique and, on the other, are a source of new artistic clichés. They draw the conceptual and visual characterisation of the 19th century as an era when the artists’ canons were being created, while criticism faced the task of singling out the most valuable images of the thousands circulating in the public space. More attention will be given here to the language of this criticism and to the interpretative tools, aesthetic categories and topoi it created than to the appraisal of Dutch paintings by the art market of the era. Even the most cursory overview of the commercial evaluation of 17th century works of art would require an entirely different methodological approach. The myth, however, functioned in a completely different space: the space of literature, the vigorously developing media, criticism, periodical publications, reproductions and attractive museum displays, which pulled a given work of art into the sphere of the collectively and publicly experienced sacrum. Thus the pantheon of masters and the gallery of masterpieces which made up this 19th century “museum of the imagination” (and which were inherited by the next century, as it acquired that canon of Old Masters from venerable European collections in its turn) existed quite independently from the economic realities. Some paintings, ← 10 | 11 → such as The Night Watch, had already been a subject of literature and criticism in the 18th century; others, such as Rembrandt’s Bathsheba or Slaughtered Ox, were deemed a revelation only upon gaining the status of Louvre paintings and when contemporary painting recognised in them the directions of its own artistic exploration. In Holland’s own historiography, the idea of the Golden Age began to coalesce in the late 18th century.8 The myth ripened not only with the Dutch people’s growing awareness of their own culture, but also with the development of a modern vocabulary of notions and images of art criticism, and the honours which until then had been reserved for the immortal and absolute art of the Italian Renaissance were granted by this criticism to the painting of the northern Netherlands as well. The most important 19th century statements and publications referring to Dutch art and culture came from Germany and France, where reflection on art was developing most vigorously, starting from Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics and including the works of Thoré-Bürger, Hippolyte Taine, Eugène Fromentin or Jacob Burckhardt. The phenomenon of the so-called “Hollandism” itself is changeable, evolving; it reaches its culmination in the latter half of the 19th century, and its existence is determined by, among others, publicised collections of paintings. Yet still in the 18th century Hollandism – the large-scale European reception of, and fascination with, the oeuvre of paintings and graphic art of the artists originating from the northern Netherlands – had already reached huge proportions. As one of the leading trends in European art, it functioned as a special mode of artistic statement, expressed by painters and graphic artists referring to the northern tradition in a manner consciously dissimilar to, or contrasting with, other conventions, for instance, with the Flemish or Italianate stylisation. Contrary to what might be expected, this artistic strategy was neither specific to non-Academic artists nor targeted exclusively at the bourgeois. Due to the considerable variety of Dutch models that were present in French collections and appropriated by graphic arts, already 18th century artists developed diverse models of northern naturalism or realism.9 ← 11 | 12 →

As a summa of knowledge concerning the diverse and often unexpected perceptions of the 17th century painting of the northern Netherlands, this book does not exhaust all of the possible artistic connections with or references to the Golden Age of Holland. It is to a great extent an attempt at a synthesis of this reception and an overview of its pathways, traces and creative transformations of tradition. As artists who travelled to northern Netherlands admired the beauty and simplicity of the landscape and recognised in it a Dutchman’s model of nature, throughout the entire century Rembrandt’s oeuvre was interpreted as containing an encrypted Romantic conception of art: the rebellion of a human being and an artist, the great battle of light and darkness. According to various 19th century points of view, his oeuvre contained elements that predestined him for the role of a passionate social activist defending the common man and at the same time of a formalist creating “art for art’s sake”; a naturalist, impressionist, expressionist…The paradox of the myth of Holland lies in the fact that what was bourgeois, and therefore sheltered, tamed and conventionalised, became a cornerstone of its own reverse side: the concept of modernité, the avant-garde, even though the formulas of this modernity underwent constant transformation and at the end of the century art criticism defined its attributes differently than at the beginning. The trope of the de modeste burgerlijkheid became a source of anti-bourgeois sentiment owing to the model of the leading 17th century artists, i.e. Rembrandt or Hals. But in the second half of the 19th century also the “anti-Classicism” and “anti-Academicism” of old Dutch painting were both undergoing a sui generis conventionalisation and academicisation.

In the very first paragraphs of this work, homage must be paid to Horst Gerson, the pioneer of research on the reception of Dutch art in the later eras. His fundamental dissertation, entitled Ausbreitung und Nachwirkung der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts10, is as impressive as it is daunting. The efforts of many later scholars can be seen as no more than footnotes to the work of this outstanding expert on Dutch culture. The scale of his endeavour can be measured in terms of his enormous fact-finding effort, great perspicacity and incredible insight. Due to ← 12 | 13 → its chronological and geographical scope,11 Gerson’s ambitious work, which is still, undeniably, the basic source in the literature on the subject, could not avoid certain simplifications or understatements. These are evident especially with regard to the 19th century, which occupies just a few pages of the enormous text and constitutes only an epilogue to the earlier eras (which, with regard to the operation of artistic workshops and patronage, differed diametrically from the century in which I am interested). In fact, Gerson planned to describe the operation of Northern Netherlandish iconographic models and the manner of the Old Masters in later centuries, and hence it was not his intention to characterise the culture of particular eras. The adopted method results in a certain homogeneity of the researched material, due to which the originality of 19th century thought and the specificity of its approach to the culture of the Golden Age are both, in a sense, diluted in a flood of examples of references, quotations and pastiches. Another important study, this time one which focuses on 19th century artistic culture, is a monograph by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu entitled French Realism and the Dutch Masters. The Influence of the Dutch Seventeenth-Century Painting on the Development of French Painting between 1830 and 1870.12 Taking French realism as the criterion, this extremely valuable, pioneering work highlights the fact that 19th century reception of Dutch art was not a marginal but rather a key phenomenon that involved first-rate French artists. Numerous exhibition catalogues, articles and detailed studies with a focus on restricted issues concerning 19th century reception of Dutch art could be mentioned; the key ones are contained in the selected bibliography to the current work. Among this abundant specialist literature, I would like to emphasise the significance of the works by Jan Białostocki, whose thought first guided me towards undertaking research on an interpretation of Dutch culture of the 17th century,13 and the catalogue of the exhibition “Two Golden Ages. Masterpieces of Dutch and Danish Painting”;14 taking the comparison between the art and culture of Holland and Denmark as its departure point, this exhibition proposed European Hollandism as a general topic. In recent years, this path of research ← 13 | 14 → was followed by Hans Kraan and Ingrid Brons in their book entitled Dromen van Holland. Buitenlandse kunstenaars schilderen Holland.15

In comparison with the 19th century “vision”, the current perception of Dutch painting of the 17th century seems to be the “historical truth”. Yet even this “scientific” and “objective” knowledge is an interpretation as well, an act of replacing an old myth with a new one, in short: a de-mythologising mythologisation. In the light of the recent research by Ernst van de Wetering, Svetlana Alpers and Simon Schama, Rembrandt – who not so long ago was deemed an eccentric, a “heretic” in art, a pictor vulgaris – is now seen as an “academician”, connoisseur, businessman, conscious theoretician and emulatorof the great Italian art theory. The illusionistic art of the Dutch Little Masters, once perceived as “simple imitation of nature”, from today’s perspective no longer seems to be a simple description of the world, but a sophisticated, multi-levelled game played with the viewer.16 However, I shall not be referring to the historiographic myths of the 18th and 19th century to the findings of present-day art history.

Explanatory note

Quotations from source texts are given according to available translations into the English language or, in their absence, as translated by Klaudyna Michałowicz. Rembrandt’s etchings are specified in accordance with the generally accepted symbols and numbering in the catalogue of prints by Adam Bartsch.17 Rembrandt’s drawings are specified in accordance with the classical corpus by Otto Benesch.18

1 When P.L. Muller’s book, Republiek der Vereenigde Nederlanden in haar bloeitijd (vol. 1–3, Leiden 1896–1898), was being prepared for print, the publisher prevailed upon the author to include the phrase Onze Gouden Eeuw in the title.

2 E. Fromentin, Les maîtres d’autrefois: Belgique, Hollande, Paris 1877, quoted after: E. Fromentin, The Old Masters of Belgium and Holland, trans. by M.C. Robbins, Boston and New York, 1896, p. 123.

3 Ibidem.

4 G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics, vol. 3, quoted after: Selections from Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, by Bernard Bosanquet & W.M. Bryant, “The Journal of Speculative Philosophy”, 1886: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ae/part3-section3.htm#c1-3-c.

5 C. Vosmaer, Rembrandt, sa vie et ses oeuvres (1868), 2nd ed., La Haye 1877, p. 399.

6 W. Bürger (Thoré-Bürger), Musées de la Hollande, vol. 2, Musée van der Hoop à Amsterdam et Musée de Rotterdam, Paris-Bruxelles-Ostende 1860, p. X.

7 Doctoral dissertation written at the Institute of Art History of the University of Warsaw in the years 1999–2003.

8 This national mythology and its political determinants are discussed in a collective work edited by Frans Grijzenhout and Henk van Veen: De Gouden Eeuw in Perspectief. Het beeld van de Nederlandse zeventiende-eeuwse schilderkunst in later tijd, Heerlen 1992 (esp. in: E.H. Kossmann, De Nederlandse zeventiende-eeuwse schilderkunst bij de historici, p. 280–298, and E. de Jongh, De Nederlandse zeventiende-eeuwse schilderkunst door politieke brillen bezien, p. 225–249).

9 Methodological reflection concerning the reception of Dutch art is undertaken by Andrzej Pieńkos in the article Holandyzm w malarstwie francuskim XVIII w. W oczekiwaniu na syntezę, “Ikonotheka”, 1994, no. 7, pp. 75–87. Emphasising the complexity of the issue, Pieńkos outlined new research perspectives, e.g. the connection between Hollandism and the aesthetic preferences of the era (the category of the picturesque) and the development of the art market. The first attempt at a synthesis of the issue of connections between French artists and the Dutch Old Masters was the exhibition Au temps de Watteau, Fragonard et Chardin. Les Pays Bas et les peintres français du XVIIIe siècle, exhibition catalogue, H. Oursel, J. Foucart, A. Schnapper (eds), Musée de Beaux-Arts, Lille 1985.

10 First edition: Haarlem 1942; second edition: Amsterdam 1983.

11 The 16th to 18th centuries, covering Europe, Asia, Africa and America.

12 Utrecht 1974.

13 This thought is contained in the following articles and studies: J. Białostocki, Rembrandt w oczach potomnych, [in:] idem, Refleksje i syntezy ze świata sztuki, Warsaw 1978, p. 178–197; J. Michałkowa, J. Białostocki, Rembrandt w oczach współczesnych, Warsaw 1957; J. Białostocki, Mere Imitation of Nature or Symbolic Imago of the World? Problems in the Interpretation of Dutch Painting of the XVIIth Century, [in:] idem, The Message of Images. Studies in the History of Art, Vienna 1988, p. 166–180.

14 Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 2001.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
hollandism Dutch culture Dutch painting reception
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 399 pp., 128 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Agnieszka Rosales Rodríguez (Author)

Agnieszka Rosales Rodríguez is a historian of art. She works as an assistant professor at the Institute of Art History of the University of Warsaw. Her academic interests include painting and art criticism of the 18th and 19th century. She cooperates with the National Museum in Warsaw.


Title: In the Footsteps of the Old Masters
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