Dutch & Flemish Baroque

Dutch & Flemish Baroque

Reformation split the Low Countries into Flanders that remained royalist and Catholic and Netherlands, republican and protestant. This political, religious polarizing affected social ideals and, as a consequence, told on nuances of artistic preferences.


Doubtlessly, the architecture of Netherlands and Flanders was greatly influenced by Italian tendencies. However, for Protestant Netherlands this impact at the beginning of the 17th cent. was rather superficial (with the prevalence of national forms), towards the middle of the century such architects as Hendrick de Keyser and Jacob van Campen, approached to deeper understanding of classical forms and brought baroque features into their buildings, like Noorderkerk (“Northern church”) and Westerkerk (“Western church”) by Keyser. Anyway, the Netherlandish variant of the style was far more austere and unassuming than Venice or Roman. That’s connected with strict Protestant values.

The establishment of Spanish protectorate and maintaining Catholicism as the ruling religion favored spreading of roman baroque forms in Flanders. Here the prototype for some of early churches, as well as in many other countries, was the Il Gesu in Rome. The influence is clearly seen in the church of St. Carl Borromei by Pieter Huyssens. But Flemish architects managed to elaborate the original variant of baroque on the base of local traditions. He’s distinguished not only by sophistication of planning and space solutions, but also by the solemn and festive decoration, particularly on the facades. Double- and triple pilasters, giant order, broken pediments were common both in ecclesiastic architecture, like the Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage, designed by Lucas Faydherbe, and in public one, like the House of Rubens.

Dutch Painting

Dutch Golden Age painting. Dutch history witnessed a rapid change in social hierarchy in the 17th century: merchants and bourgeoisie were striking the keynote in major spheres of life. A full-fledge and fruitful artistic marketed was formed. Just during several decades of the 1600s, over 4 million of paintings were produced in Netherlands. Artists quickly caught up the tastes of new potential customers and redirected themselves on small-scale works that would fit into small city abodes. That’s why they’re call “minor Dutch masters”. All painters had strict specializations in genres. The genre differentiation became quite multiple. In portraiture appeared a type of group portrait, usually ordered by guilds or other organizations. It’s pioneer was Frans Hals.

Landscapes, apart from traditional country views (often with staffage – the human and animal figures) included cityscapes, “italian landscapes”, maritime painting. Adriaen van de Velde effectively worked in this field.

Still lifes had various subgenres (emerged in different artistic centers – Haarlem, Delft, Leiden, Utrecht, Dordrecht, Amsterdam):

  • Banketje (“banquet pieces”), ontbijtjes (“breakfast pieces”), showing typical meal, usually had a ciphered in objects message. For example, oyster symbolized sensuality, lemon – fidelity, etc. An outstanding master of such still lifes was Willem Claesz Heda.
  • Pronkstillevens (“ostentatious still lifes”) depicted exotic and expensive things, imported from other countries. Willem Calf preferred working in this subgenre.
  • Vanitas (“vanity”) – symbolic composition with moralistic message about brevity of life, brought to the highest level by Pieter Claesz.
  • Flower painting was conceived by Ambrosius Bosschaert and became an extremely popular genre.
  • Still lifes with dead game-bird or fish were also meant to remind about temporality of human’s existence. Jan Weenix produced quit a few canvases on this theme.

Still lifes play a great role in uncovering the details of the Dutch life-style of the 17th cent. The same significance has genre scenes – episodes from every-day life of all social classes, tavern parties etc. by Adriaen van Ostade or Jan Steen. The most mysterious artist, who worked in genre painting was Johannes Vermeer.
History painting included also visualization of mythological and biblical stories. It largely orientated on Italian baroque style, especially on carravagism. Rembrandt was the greatest master, whose inconceivable artistic gift was in many respects ahead of his time.

The distinctive features of Dutch Golden Age painting is its naturalism, keenness on hidden symbols and didacticism ‑ all that reflected the spirit of epoch and Protestantism.

Flemish painting

Generally speaking, artists of two neighboring countries, despite political turmoil, preserved a lot of things in common. Flemish painting had a genre system, similar to the Dutch one. As in Netherlands, here artists also aspired for illusionism, life-likeness. Since the 16th cent., they combined southern, Italian, and their own, northern tradition. It’s especially obvious in the school, established by Peter Paul Rubens. He was the first painter, who elaborated style that corresponded to the tastes of main patrons of art – aristocracy and Catholic Church. Monumental, vigorous compositions in vibrant warm colors, applied by energetic brushstrokes, expressed the feeling of “joie de vivre”. Such cheerful mood is common for Flemish painting.

17th cent. gave the world a number of excellent masters: Adriaen Brouwer in genre painting, Anthony van Dyck in portraiture, Jacob Jordaens in history painting, Frans Snyders in depicting still lifes.


Comparatively feeble development of Dutch sculpture is connected with some cultural restrictions. Calvinist dogmas denied possibility of rendering religious images in fine art, so there were no paintings and sculptures in protestant churches. The architectural peculiarities of wealthy patrician dwelling also left no space for its wide application, as well as urban planning didn’t favor flourishing of monumental sculpture. Out of many types of this kind of art, relief and sepulchral compositions were most common. On a large scale they were executed in the baroque tideway, but weren’t artistically noteworthy.

Situation with Flemish sculpture was better. Catholic Counterreformation provided sculptors with numerous orders for opulent church furnishing. Besides, their statues became higher, as masters of sculpting in stone, apart of Mason and Sculpture guild, were accepted to the Guild of Saint Luke. That equaled them to painters. Some artists, like Luca Faydherbe and Theodor Verhaeghen were well-renown in their country, others, like Françoise Duquesnoy managed to gain fame even outside it, in Italy. In parallel with monumental pieces, small-scale ivory and wooden sculpture was in requisition, both for religious and private purposes. Anyway, except for portrait busts, Flemish sculpture preserved decorativeness, what made it a logical continuation of architectural traditions.

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