Dutch Golden Age

Dutch Golden Age
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Rembrandt The Night Watch (1642)
This article focuses on social and cultural history. For political events, see History of the Netherlands and Dutch Revolt (1568–1648). For more information about notable Dutch persons in the Golden Age, see List of people from the Dutch Golden Age.

The Golden Age (Dutch: Gouden Eeuw, Dutch pronunciation: [ˈɣʌudən ˈeːw]) was a period in Dutch history, roughly spanning the 17th century, in which Dutch trade, science, military and art were among the most acclaimed in the world.


Causes of the Golden Age

In 1568 the Seven Provinces that signed the Union of Utrecht (Dutch: Unie van Utrecht) started a rebellion against Philip II of Spain which led to the Eighty Years' War. Before the Low Countries could be completely reconquered, war between England and Spain broke out, forcing the Spanish troops under Philip II to halt their advances. Meanwhile, Philip's Spanish troops had conquered the important trading cities of Bruges and Ghent. Antwerp, which was then arguably the most important port in the world, had to be conquered. On August 17, 1585 Antwerp fell which initiated the delineation of the Southern Netherlands (mostly modern Belgium). The United Provinces (today's Netherlands) fought on until the Twelve Years' Truce, which did not end the hostilities. The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War, brought formal recognition and independence for the Dutch Republic in 1648.

Migration of skilled workers to Netherlands

Under the terms of surrender of Antwerp in 1585 the Protestant population (if unwilling to reconvert) were given two years to settle their affairs before leaving the city and Habsburg territory.[1] Similar arrangements were made in other places. Protestants were especially well-represented among the skilled craftsmen and rich merchants of the port cities of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. More moved to the north during the period 1585-1630 than Catholics moved in the other direction, although there were also many of these. Of those moving north, many settled in Amsterdam, which was a small port in 1585, but thanks to the immigrants was quickly transformed into one of the most important ports and commercial centres in the world by 1630. The exodus can be described as 'creating a new Antwerp'. This mass immigration from Flanders and Brabant was an important driving force behind the Dutch Golden Age.

In addition to the mass immigration of natives from the Southern Netherlands, there were also significant influxes of non-native refugees who themselves had previously fled from religious persecution, particularly Sephardi Jews from Portugal and Spain and, later, Huguenots from France. The Pilgrim Fathers also spent time there before going to the New World.

Cheap energy sources

Several other factors also contributed to the flowering of trade, industry, the arts and the sciences in the Netherlands during this period. A necessary condition was the supply of cheap energy from windmills and from peat, easily transported by canal to the cities. The invention[2] of the sawmill enabled the construction of a massive fleet of ships for worldwide trading and for defense of the republic's economic interests by military means.

Wealth and birth of Corporate Finance

During the later part of the 16th century the Dutch, traditionally able seafarers and keen mapmakers,[3] obtained an increasingly dominant position in world trade, a position which before had been occupied by the Portuguese and Spaniards.

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company (Dutch: Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) was founded. It was the first-ever multinational corporation, financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange. This company received a Dutch monopoly on Asian trade and would keep this for two centuries. It became the world's largest commercial enterprise of the 17th century. Spices were imported in bulk and brought huge profits, due to the efforts and risks involved and seemingly insatiable demand. To finance the growing trade within the region, the Bank of Amsterdam was established in 1609, the precursor to, if not the first true central bank.[4]

Monopoly on trade with Japan

These various reasons for the domination of Amsterdam as a trade center led to a trade monopoly in 1640 by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) with Japan through the trading post on Dejima. This former island in the bay of Nagasaki measures but 15,000 square meters, from here the Dutch traded between China and Japan and at the same time paid tribute to the Shogun. Until 1854, the Dutch were Japan's sole window to the western world. The collection of scientific learning introduced from Europe became known in Japan as Rangaku or Dutch Learning. The Dutch became instrumental in transmitting to Japan some knowledge of the industrial and scientific revolution that was occurring in Europe. The Japanese purchased and translated numerous scientific books from the Dutch, obtained from them Western curiosities and manufactures (such as clocks), and received demonstrations of various Western innovations (such as the demonstrations of electric phenomena, and the flight of a hot air balloon in the early 19th century). In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch were arguably the most economically wealthy and scientifically advanced of all European nations, which put them in a privileged position to transfer Western knowledge to Japan.

European Great Power

The Dutch also dominated trade between European countries. The Low Countries were favorably positioned on a crossing of east-west and north-south trade routes and connected to a large German hinterland through the Rhine river. Dutch traders shipped wine from France and Portugal to the Baltic lands and returned with grain destined for countries around the Mediterranean Sea. By the 1680s, an average of nearly 1000 Dutch ships entered the Baltic Sea each year.[5] The Dutch were able to gain control of much of the trade with the nascent English colonies in North America and following the end of war with Spain in 1648, Dutch trade with that country also flourished.

The Trippenhuis in Amsterdam[6]

Other industries

National industries expanded as well. Shipyards and sugar refineries are prime examples. As more and more land was utilized, partially through transforming lakes into polders, local grain production and dairy farming soared.

National consciousness

The outcome of the revolt against Spain, better known as the Eighty Years' War, that had been fought over religious freedom and economic and political independence, and ended in total independence of the reformist northern provinces (see also Dutch Republic), almost certainly would have boosted national morale. Already in 1609 much of this was accomplished, when a temporary truce was signed with Spain, which would last for 12 years.

Social structure

Canal with patrician houses - Leiden

In the Netherlands one's social status in the 17th century was largely determined by income. Social classes existed but in a new way. The landed nobility had relatively little importance since they lived in the more underdeveloped inland provinces and it was the merchant class that dominated Dutch society. The clergy did not have much worldly influence either: the Roman Catholic Church had been more or less suppressed since the onset of the Eighty Years' War with Spain. The new Protestant movement was divided, although exercising social control in many areas to an even greater extent than under the Catholic Church.

This is not to say that aristocrats were without social status. To the contrary, it meant rather that wealthy merchants bought themselves into the nobility by becoming landowners and acquiring a coat of arms and a seal. Aristocrats also mixed with members of other classes in order to be able to support themselves as they saw fit. To this end they married their daughters to wealthy merchants, became traders themselves or took up public or military office to earn a salary. Merchants also started to value public office as a means to greater economic power and prestige. Universities became career pathways to such a public office. Rich merchants and aristocrats sent their sons on a so-called Grand Tour ('Great journey') through Europe. Often accompanied by a private scholar, preferably a scientist himself, these young people visited universities in several European countries. This intermixing of patricians and aristocrats was most prominent in the second half of the century.

After aristocrats and patricians came the affluent middle class, consisting of Protestant ministers, lawyers, physicians, small merchants, industrialists and clerks of large state institutions. Lower status was attributed to farmers, craft and tradesmen, shopkeepers, and government bureaucrats. Below that stood skilled laborers, maids, servants, sailors, and other persons employed in the service industry.

At the bottom of the pyramid were 'paupers': impoverished peasants, many of whom tried their luck in a city as a beggar or day laborer. It should be noted that the people of the Netherlands rebelling against Philip II gave themselves the nickname "De Geuzen", which corresponds to the French word "gueux" (beggar).

Because of the importance of wealth in defining social status, divisions between classes were less sharply defined and social mobility was much greater than elsewhere. Calvinism, which preaches humility as an important virtue, also tended to diminish the importance of social differences. These tendencies have proved remarkably persistent: modern Dutch society, though much more secularized, is still considered by many to be remarkably egalitarian. Despite less income inequality than in other European countries, the difference between a dockworker's one-room hovel and a great merchant's mansion in Amsterdam was so obvious as to require no commentary.

Workers and laborers were generally paid better than in most of Europe and enjoyed relatively high living standards, although they also had higher than normal taxes. Farmers produced mainly cash crops for a nation that needed large amounts of fodder to support its urban and seafaring population, and prospered as a result.


Calvinism was the state religion in the Dutch Republic. This does not imply that unity existed. Although the Netherlands was a tolerant nation compared to neighboring states, wealth and social status belonged almost exclusively to Protestants. The cities with a predominantly Catholic background such as Utrecht and Gouda, did not enjoy the benefits of the Golden Age. As for the Protestant towns, unity of belief was also far from standard. In the beginning of the century bitter controversies between strict Calvinists and more permissive Protestants, known as Remonstrants, split the country. The Remonstrants denied predestination and championed freedom of conscience, while their more dogmatic adversaries (known as Contra-Remonstrants) gained a major victory at the Synod of Dort (1618–19). In the end the sheer number of reformist branches may well have worked as an antidote to intolerance[clarification needed].

Renaissance Humanism, of which Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466–1536) was an important advocate, had also gained a firm foothold and was partially responsible for a climate of tolerance.

This tolerance was not so easy to uphold towards Catholics, since religion played an important part in the Eighty Years War of independence against Spain (with political and economic freedom being other important motives). Hostile inclinations could however be overcome by money. Thus Catholics could buy the privilege to hold ceremonies in a conventicle (a house doubling inconspicuously as a church), but public offices were out of the question. Catholics tended to keep to themselves in their own section of each town despite making one of the largest single denominations (for example, the Catholic painter Johannes Vermeer lived in the "Papist corner" of the town of Delft). The same applied to Anabaptists and Jews. Utrecht, whose population was still 40% Catholic in 1650, with an even higher share amongst the elites, was something of an exception to this pattern.[citation needed]

Overall, levels of tolerance were sufficiently high to attract religious refugees from other countries, notably Jewish merchants from Portugal who brought much wealth with them. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France in 1685 resulted in the immigration of many French Huguenots, many of whom were shopkeepers or scientists. However, some figures, such as the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677) experienced social stigma for their ideas.


Due to its climate of intellectual tolerance the Dutch Republic attracted scientists and other thinkers from all over Europe. Especially the renowned University of Leiden (established in 1575 by the Dutch stadtholder, William of Oranje, as a token of gratitude for Leiden's fierce resistance against Spain during the Eighty Years War) became a gathering place for these people. For instance French philosopher René Descartes lived in Leiden from 1628 until 1649.

Dutch lawyers were famous for their knowledge of international law of the sea and commercial law. Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) played a leading part in the foundation of international law. He invented the concept of the Free seas or Mare liberum, which was fiercely contested by England, the Netherlands's main rival for domination of world trade. He also formulated laws with regard to conflicts between nations in his book De iure belli ac pacis (On laws of war and peace).

Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695) was a famous astronomer, physicist and mathematician. He invented the pendulum clock, which was a major step forward towards exact timekeeping. Among his contributions in astronomy was his explanation of Saturn's planetary rings. He also contributed to the field of optics. The most famous Dutch scientist in the area of optics is certainly Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who invented or greatly improved the microscope (opinions differ) and was the first to methodically study microscopic life, thus laying the foundations for the field of microbiology.

Famous Dutch hydraulic engineer Jan Leeghwater (1575–1650) gained important victories in The Netherlands's eternal battle against the sea. Leeghwater added a considerable amount of land to the republic by converting several large lakes into polders, pumping all water out with windmills.

Again due to the Dutch climate of tolerance, book publishers flourished. Many books about religion, philosophy and science that might have been deemed controversial abroad were printed in the Netherlands and secretly exported to other countries. Thus during the 17th Century the Dutch Republic became more and more Europe's publishing house.


The Low Countries witnessed a cultural development that stood out from neighbouring countries. With some exceptions (notably Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel) the Baroque movement did not gain much influence. Its exuberance did not fit the austerity of the largely Calvinistic population.

The major force behind new developments was formed by the citizenry, notably in the western provinces: first and foremost in Holland, to a lesser extent Zeeland and Utrecht. Where rich aristocrats often became patrons of art in other countries, because of their comparative absence in the Netherlands this role was played by wealthy merchants and other patricians.

Centres of cultural activity were town militia (Dutch: schutterij) and chambers of rhetoric (Dutch rederijkerskamer). The former were created for town defence and policing, but also served as a meeting-place for the well-to-do, who were proud to play a prominent part and paid a fair sum to see this preserved for posterity by means of a group portrait. The latter were associations on a city level, that fostered literary activities, like poetry, drama and discussions, often through contests. Cities took pride in their existence and promoted them.


Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

Dutch Golden Age painting followed many of the tendencies that dominated Baroque art in other parts of Europe, such as Caravaggesque and naturalism, but was the leader in developing the subjects of still life, landscape, and genre painting. Portraiture were also popular, but History painting — traditionally the most-elevated genre struggled to find buyers. Church art was virtually non-existent, and little sculpture of any kind produced. While art collecting and painting for the open market was also common elsewhere, art historians point to the growing number of wealthy Dutch middle-class and successful mercantile patrons as driving forces in the popularity of certain pictorial subjects.[7]

This trend, along with the lack of Counter-Reformation church patronage that dominated the arts in Catholic Europe, resulted in the great number of "scenes of everyday life" or genre paintings, and other non-religious pictures. Landscapes and seascapes, for example, reflect the land reclaimed from the sea and the sources of trade and naval power that mark the Republic's Golden Age. One subject that is quite characteristic of Dutch Baroque painting is the large group portrait, especially of civic and militia guilds, such as Rembrandt van Rijn's Night Watch.

Today, the best-known painters of the Dutch Golden Age are the period's most dominant figure Rembrandt, the Delft master of genre Johannes Vermeer, the innovative landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael, and Frans Hals, who infused new life into portraiture. Some notable artistic styles and trends include Haarlem Mannerism, Utrecht Caravaggism, the School of Delft, the Leiden fijnschilders, and Dutch classicism.


The Kaaswaag (Cheese Weigh House) in Gouda, finished in 1667, was designed by architect Pieter Post (1608–1669), as was the Waag in Leiden.

Dutch architecture was taken to a new height in the Golden Age. Due to the thriving economy cities expanded greatly. New town halls, weighhouses and storehouses were built. Merchants that had gained a fortune ordered a new house built along one of the many new canals that were dug out in and around many cities (for defense and transport purposes), a house with an ornamented façade that befitted their new status. In the countryside, many new castles and stately homes were built. Alas, most of them have not survived.

Early in the 17th century late Gothic elements still prevailed, combined with Renaissance motives. After a few decades French classicism gained prominence: vertical elements were stressed, less ornamentation was used, natural stone was preferred above bricks. In the last decades of the century this trend towards sobriety intensified. From around 1670 the most prominent features of a housefront were its entrance, with pillars on each side and possibly a balcony above it, but no further decoration.

Starting at 1595 Reformed churches were commissioned, many of which are still landmarks today.

The most famous Dutch architects of the 17th century were Jacob van Campen, Pieter Post, Pieter Vingbooms, Lieven de Key, Hendrick de Keyser.


Dutch 17th-century achievements in sculpture are less prominent than in painting and architecture, and fewer examples were created than in neighbouring countries. One reason for this was their absence in the interiors of Protestant churches; after all, objection to Roman Catholic veneration of statues had been one of the contentious points of the Reformation. Another was the comparatively small class of nobles. Sculptures were commissioned for government buildings, private buildings (often adorning housefronts) and exteriors of churches. There was also a clientele for grave monuments and portrait busts.

Hendrick de Keyser, who was active at the dawn of the Golden Age, is one of the few prominent home-grown sculptors. In the 1650s and 1660s, the Flemish sculptor Artus I Quellinus, along with his family and followers like Rombout Verhulst, were responsible for the classicizing decorations for the Amsterdam city hall (now the Royal Palace, Amsterdam). This remains the major monument of Dutch Golden Age sculpture.


The Golden Age was also an important time for developments in literature. Some of the major figures of this period were Gerbrand Adriaenszoon Bredero, Jacob Cats, Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft and Joost van den Vondel.

See also


  1. ^ Boxer Charles Ralph, The Dutch seaborne empire, 1600-1800, p. 18, Taylor & Francis, 1977 ISBN 0091310512, 9780091310516 Google books
  2. ^ Saag Molens were invented in Uitgeest, according to the "Haarlemmermeer boeck" by Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater
  3. ^ The maps used by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba to attack Dutch cities overland and by water, were made by Dutch mapmakers.
  4. ^ Quinn, Stephen. Roberds, William. The Big Problem of Large Bills: The Bank of Amsterdam and the Origins of Central Banking. August, 2005.[1]
  5. ^ Baltic Connections: Mercantilism in the West Baltic
  6. ^ The Trip brothers, arms traders, built the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam, currently the seat of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is a typical example of 17th century architecture.
  7. ^ Helen Gardner, Fred S. Kleiner, and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, (2005): 718–19.


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