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The secret life in Dutch Golden Age paintings: the real world behind the looking glass

By the end of the 19th century, the masterpieces by the majority of Dutch Golden Age painters were destined to gather dust in closets or to be thrown to fire. After all, what can be more boring than contemplation of the aristocrats playing music, drunken peasants, brooding young men and women in the quiet interior rooms, harsh unpopulated landscapes with all those mills and cows, or bunches of flowers in the center of a table? Nowadays museum visitors also look rather indifferently at gallant knights and stiff ladies, servants in kitchens and abundantly served banquets.
The secret life in Dutch Golden Age paintings: the real world behind the looking glass
Nevertheless, why did the Dutch people of the 17th century esteem these paintings so much? Was it only the artistic skill of the painters who depicted the usual life, that made hoi polloi and aristoi pay a lot of money? No. The Dutch Golden Age painting was not an ordinary reflection of the world, but the Looking Glass with numerous details revealing the unexpected stories and meanings.
You just need to know how to interpret them.

The land of water and wind

Look at the map of Europe. There, along the coast of the North Sea, you can see a chain of islands stretched like a fluttering girl’s ponytail. And now zoom in and see how the rapacious fingers of the sea dig into the land, crumbling it like a dry biscuit. Get closer and see the way how the thin channels penetrate into the body of the continent, forming bizarre patterns, like a cobweb of bluish veins under thin skin. This is the Netherlands, "the land of water and wind" or, literally, "lowlands".
  • The map of the Seven United Provinces by Jansoniens, 1658
  • Peter Kaerius, the map of the Seven United Provinces in the form of lion (1617)
They say that God created the world, and the Dutchmen created the Netherlands. Over the centuries, the inhabitants of this country were conquering the water by their hard work, watch and ward. The geography influenced their way of life, history and culture; but the waters and the sea winds were also a boon, as they were the resources that played the main role in the success of the state in the 17th century. That period was the heyday era of the Netherlands, featuring both economic and artistic advancement.
In fact, the period that was called the "Dutch Golden Age" lasted for sixty to ninety years. It depends on what you take as a starting point, the proclamation of the independence of the Northern provinces from Spain in 1581, the establishment of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, or the beginning of the Twelve Years' Truce during the Eighty Years' War in 1609 (the conflict officially ended only 39 years later, after signing of the Münster Peace Treaty). But the final year is clearly marked — it was the year 1672, when France invaded the Netherlands.
Gerard ter Borch the Younger, "The signing of the Münster Peace Treaty" (1648). On the left are the
Gerard ter Borch the Younger, "The signing of the Münster Peace Treaty" (1648). On the left are the Dutch delegates with raised fingers, on the right are the Spaniards, who put their hands on the Gospel
It’s amazing that unpretentious Netherlanders, hardened by work and political travails, adored painting so much. In the 17th century, the foreigners were surprised a lot by the country inhabitants' fancy for art. In 1640, Englishman Peter Mundy wrote, "As for painting and people’s attachment to paintings, I think no one else can compare to them…"
During the Golden Age, Dutch people created millions of works of excellent quality, according to some estimates. During this period, more than a thousand local artists created their paintings, and some of them became the greatest of all time.
Karel Fabricius. Goldfinch
1654, 33.5×22.8 cm

Guardians of lands and souls

Dark ominous clouds fly away over the horizon, and warm sunrays envelop the wings of the windmill. It watches over the course of everyday life as a guardian: a mother and her child go to the river, where a knelt woman is washing clothes, and her movements give rise to ripples on the smooth water surface. The rowers cross the river in their boat. In the distance, cows and sheep graze in peaceful surrounding
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Mill
1648, 87.6×105.6 cm
Windmill is, probably, the most indicative symbol of the Netherlands. Today there are a little less than a thousand of them left, but there was a time when there were ten times more of them. In the 17th century, they were used not only for grinding grain and spices, but also for sawing wood, triturating pigments for paints; moreover, until recently, they were used to control the water level at the inland.
The painting by Rembrandt van Rijn depicts a turning mill; its wings were attached to a wooden box mounted on a vertical rack. The entire top structure turned after the wind on the rotating platform. Such mills were also called "postal", because millers could send various messages by setting the blades in a certain position. In the same way, the residents were warned of the Nazi raids and the need to hide in the shelters during the Second World War.
Rembrandt’s father owned a grain mill near Leiden. We can assume that this very mill is depicted in this painting. However, the changes that the artist made into the landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
(for example, he painted and then erased the bridge) indicate that he did not mean a specific mill, but a kind of symbol. In the Netherlands of the 17th century, the windmills implied several meanings. Someone equated the movement of the wings to the moral path of human souls. Besides this, the field drainage structures were considered the guardians of the land and its people.

Many landscapes of the period when Rembrandt painted this picture contained historical and cultural references to the struggle of the Netherlands for independence from Spain. It is impossible to say for sure whether the artist implied a political statement in this image of dignity and calm under the sunrays after the storm. However, the subject of the painting can be interpreted as a triumph of peace and hope for the prosperity of the new republic, where people live without wars and fears.

New patronage

It may seem that the Dutch paintings of the 17th century reflect the reality, but in fact, they combine reality and fiction in equal portions. The artists violated traditions and stepped out of line to illustrate popular proverbs or slogans, pronounce a moral judgment to the mores and actions of their heroes. The result was a huge number of works with extremely original approaches and various subjects.
Jan Steen, "The Baker Arent Oostwaard and his Wife, Catharina Keizerswaard" (1658). Rijksmuseum, Ams
Jan Steen, "The Baker Arent Oostwaard and his Wife, Catharina Keizerswaard" (1658). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Wealthy merchants were not the only people to order and buy paintings. Among passionate collectors, there were bakers, shoemakers, butchers and blacksmiths, as well as civilian institutions like city guards, guilds, and various societies.

Thus, a new kind of patronage arose in the Netherlands, different from the all-European model: not only churchmen, aristocrats or rich people patronized the painters. This explains the popularity of everyday subjects, the painting techniques used, and the ways the art works were distributed.
The collections of wealthy citizens often included ten to fifteen paintings in addition to the engravings and detailed maps. Initially, the paintings were of modest size, but the increase of the connoisseurs' well-being conduced growth of the picture dimensions. Over time, they had no choice but to hang paintings on the walls to facilitate looking at them. The most significant works were exhibited in public rooms — parlours and living rooms.
  • The “picture in picture” device, which Gabriël Metsu used in his “Woman Reading a Letter” (1667) extends the narrative: by drawing the curtain aside and showing a stormy marina, the maid hints to the lady that love is like turbulent waves
  • In the painting “Card Players” (1658) by Pieter de Hooch, the landscape
    The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
    on the wall only confirms that in the 17th century, picturesque works decorated even the most modestly furnished rooms in Holland.
By the way, until the middle of the century, rooms of a typical Dutch middle-class house did not have any special function. Beds could stand in halls or kitchens, or just anywhere. Later, the premises have got their intensions, which affected the selection of paintings. Thus, domestic and religious scenes hung in inner chambers, while landscapes and cityscales graced guest rooms.
We would rather walk through the rooms and look at the paintings on the walls in detail.

Passions of lords and servants

The setting is a richly furnished living room of the people from high society. The young mistress switched off from her music lesson to greet the visitor standing in a gallant pose. "The Suitor’s Visit" by Gerard ter Borch the Younger is not only an example of a perfect artistic skill. The picture is full of subtle psychological nuances, which are clear only to the connoisseurs of that period.
The man by the fireplace looks at the elegantly dressed couple with some suspicion. Another young wo

The man by the fireplace looks at the elegantly dressed couple with some suspicion. Another young woman at the table is occupied with her French lute, theorbo. The scene seems to be full of decency, but the Netherlanders of the 17th century would easily see the sexual implication in the indirect hints. Firstly, the glances of the main characters: they look into each other’s eyes. Secondly, the musical instruments creating sweet vibrations to evoke passion. Their gestures are even more frank: the lady put her thumb between the fingers of the other hand, she makes an invitation; the gentleman accepts it by forming a circle with two fingers of his left hand.

We do not know the consequences of this flirting. Ter Borch is known for his ambiguity (young Jan Vermeer took it over from him). Dutch literature is rich in works both about the charms of love, and about the dangers of intricate amorous intrigues. The pose of the young man with a hat in his hand could remind the audience about a popular book of that time, which warned men not to trust women’s promises. Perhaps, the young boy is just being lured to be brutally rejected later?

The colours of the clothes of the standing lady supports this version. In her album with drawings and verses, the artist’s sister Gesina compared white colour with purity, and reddish-pink "clove" colour with heartlessness and revenge. By the way, Gesina actually was the model for the main character, and her suitor was Caspar Netscher, a disciple of Ter Borch. The master often painted his characters using his friends and family as models.
  • In “Doctor’s Visit” (1668) by Jan Steen, the female patient makes a suggestive gesture with the fingers of her left hand, and the doctor is ready to accept the offer. The other characters perfectly understand what it is all about.
  • The gentleman in the "Breakfast" (1662) by Gabriël Metsu is just handing a dish to the lady. However, the oysters on it are a classic aphrodisiac intended to stimulate sexual attraction.
But let us leave the erotic games of the Dutch elite and proceed from the well-furnished upper chambers to the "lower" world with its own raging passions.
The gentlemen, who went down to the kitchen in the middle of the day, risked experiencing the cook’s dissatisfaction, as she would be diverted from cooking dinner. The face of the young woman in the "Girl Chopping Onions" by Gerrit Dou expresses a whole range of emotions: a slight fright, suppressed annoyance, a wordless question. The light from the window to the left illuminates the ordinary objects: a dead partridge, an empty birdcage and a jug lying on its side. However, they all tell the story of not a diligent servant, but a lustful cook.

The empty birdcage in 17th century Dutch painting was interpreted as a symbol for lost virginity, the words vogel and vogelen (bird, catching birds) were the euphemisms for copulation, and the onion was considered an aphrodisiac. The other objects also have their clear sexual implications: the candles, overturned jug, mortar, and mallet. And the boy with an onion resembles Cupid.

Gabriël Metsu. Hunter
1661, 51×48 cm
Gerrit (Gerard) Dow. Dutch housewife
Jan Steen. Rascal family
1664, 108×90.2 cm
However, it is a mistake to think that the Dutch artists masked in their works only scabrous stories. Many pictures are full of lofty passions and reflections on the transience of being.

More than meets the eye

A woman in a blue jacket is standing silently in the middle of the room, shrouded in the morning light. She looks closely at the small scales in tranquil balance. At first glance, we have a genre scene. But pay attention to the wall: an image of the Last Judgment is hanging there, the divine forces determine the "moral weight" of the souls on it. One might think that Jan Vermeer shows us a lady who is more concerned with earthly values. However, his heroine is quite definitely a certain embodiment of the Virgin Mary.
Jan Vermeer. Woman with scales
Woman with scales
1663, 40.3×35.6 cm
The room setting has no tension or sense of competition between spiritual and earthly pursuits. The woman’s face is contemplative and even serene, and the scales are empty — she is only checking the accuracy of her tool. The heroine closes the center of the wall picture with her head; the Archangel Michael weighing the souls of the dead was often depicted in this place. Perhaps, the artist warns the viewer about mortality and righteousness in this manner.
The Dutch artists saw more than our eyes meet in their paintings today. The images of everyday life contained deeper meanings. Still lifes with Venetian glass and Javanese pepper marked the wealth of the Netherlands, but also prompted moral and religious reflections; the hanging lemon zest could symbolize the fleetingness of everything. Portraits were intended to eternalize the memory of the ancestors and their position in society.
Common landscapes with mills and herds, possibly, meant the pride of the country inhabitants for their success. The rest of Europe considered exotic landscapes to be in fashion, but the Dutchmen preferred the scenes that conveyed the beauty and harmony of their lands. Neat houses and hardworking women, happy cared-for children symbolized order and morality of the private life. The bright sky and warm light expressed the higher harmony and reminded that success and prosperity were gifts from God.

Christ in bouquets

Meat pies, seasoned with currants and expensive spices, were cooked on special occasions. Other products and items on this table also speak for luxury: exotic lemons and olives, oysters, vinegar in a valuable decanter of Venetian glass, silver dishes and the crown of the triangular composition — a gorgeous gilded bronze goblet. But the banquet is over, the tablecloth is crumpled and the table is left in a mess. Two dishes are about to slip to the floor, the glasses are overturned, some of them have cracks, and the candle has gone out. All of these are symbols of the impermanence of life, a reminder of the need to be ready for death and the Last Judgment.
Another warning is about the oysters, which are considered an aphrodisiac, as mentioned above. The empty shells are scattered around the table, but an untouched roll lies in the center. Having surrendered to carnal pleasures, the banqueters forgot about salvation, leaving the bread of life untouched. The artist Willem Claesz Heda was one of the greatest masters of the Dutch still life. The size of the picture shows that it was painted on the commission, and the full size objects help to create the illusion of reality. The plates, the knife handle and the lemon peel transfer the scene into the viewer’s personal space.
Still lifes are not highly valued by art theorists. Nevertheless, in the Netherlands of the 17th century, they were extremely popular and costly, because they were illustrative of the wealth of the country, the generosity of God and the diversity of his creations. "Simple" paintings with flowers and food could carry complex symbols. Contemplation of carefully painted plants brought pleasure during long Dutch winters, while rotten fruits, insects eating leaves, the aftermath of luxurious banquets emphasized the fleetingness of life and the need to follow the God’s commandments.
The notable customers preferred compositions with hunting trophies. The painting by Jan Weenix combines still life and landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
. The garden sculptures, the pond and architectural follies point to an aristocratic estate. However, the picture carries religious connotations: the relief on the wall depicts the Holy Family, and the pigeon flying away above the dead swan probably means the liberation of the soul after death. Even the plants strengthen the symbolism: the flower to the left is calendula, which is often associated with death, and the thorns of the rose, which the Virgin Mary is looking at, remind us of the sorrows of the Virgin.
Bouquets were not just images of plants for decorating interiors either. The flowers in the painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem were actually gathered at different times of the year, and their exaggeratedly long stems should add dynamism to the composition. Again, the caterpillars and tiny ants eating leaves, limp buds remind of the transience of things existent.
For another thing, the bouquet by de Heem seems to have references to the resurrection of Jesus and

For another thing, the bouquet by de Heem seems to have references to the resurrection of Jesus and the salvation of souls. The cross-shaped window frame reflection in the glass vase is not the only sign. The butterfly, which is often the symbol of resurrection, lands on an opium poppy — a flower associated with sleep, death and the Passion of Christ. The wheat stem refers to the sacrament of the Communion. The morning glory, which only opens at daytime, represents the light of truth, and the blackberry helps to remember the burning bush, from which God spoke to Moses.

Supposedly, there were viewers who did not see all these meanings, but the artist certainly implied them.

Left: Jan Davidsz. de Heem, "Vase with Flowers" (ca. 1660). National Gallery of Art, Washington

Questioning the above

On the other hand, can all this be bogus stories of art critics? Could it be that the old Dutch masterpieces dI’d not carry any mysterious world behind the looking glass? Could it be that the still-lifes only decorated the walls, the jeweler’s wife weighed her jewelry, the cook was busy with the dinner for the gentlemen playing music, and the lemon was just a lemon? And the mill, which helped to win a patch of land from the predatory water crumbling the coast of a small country whose Golden Age ended 350 years ago, no longer exists, does it? And the Dutch painters of the 17th century were only valued for their ability to keep a scrupulous chronicle of the everyday life of their compatriots, were they? Think these questions over. The answer is most likely to be unambiguous.
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Cover illustration: Jan Vermeer, a detail of the landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
"View of Delft" (1660 — 1661), Royal Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague