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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

17th century art was dominated by the rise of two critical art movements, namely the Baroque and the Dutch Golden Age. Both would spread way beyond the visual arts, just as the Renaissance had done in previous centuries.

The Mannerists of the 16th century had begun the transition from the Renaissance era towards the emotional, extravagant Baroque era. Movement and drama would excite the public and donors alike as key artists appeared from across Europe, with the main centers of excellence occurring in Italy, Spain and Flanders.

By the start of the 17th century the Dutch Golden Age had already been active for several decades and would now add some critical contributors to it such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vermeer (1632-1675).

We would also see the emergence of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) who helped to establish landscape painting as a respected genre in its own right, and the significance of this would be appreciated in later centuries, after the rise of the Romanticists and the Impressionists.

The Drama and Emotion of Baroque Art

Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Caravaggio were leading lights in the Italian Baroque art scene. The latter combined an extreme use of light, known as chiaroscuro, with gruesome imagery to shock and excite the art world in equal measure.

His impact would inspire the Caravaggisti, who continued this style into later generations. Multi-skilled Bernini, by contrast, provided emotional expressions with his sculptures that helped to spread the Baroque movement into other mediums. He would complete many ambitious projects, some of which would combine architecture and sculpture to create an environment of grandeur.

Spanish artists continued to focus on religious art during the 17th century, with Diego Velazquez (1599-1599) and Francisco Zurbarán (1598-1664) also making use of mythological subjects within their work. Velazquez himself served in the court of the Spanish royal family which filled his oeuvre with portraiture, and also brought about the iconic Las Meninas from 1656.

Spain itself was going through the Counter-Reformation at this point, which would create a strong level of societal upheaval, as the Catholic Church attempted to combat the spread of Protestantism.

The Flemish Baroque school encompassed elaborate and detailed compositions, completed in rich palettes of color. Religious and mythological content was prevalent, with leading names in this group including the likes of Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and Frans Snyders. English monarch Charles I was particularly partial to this collection of artists and added many of their paintings to his collection, which is why many still remain in public collections across the UK.

Portraiture within this school, particularly from that of Van Dyck, was sensitive in brushwork and accurately displayed the personalities of each sitter. Movement and energy was also present in Flemish Baroque art, and the overall atmosphere tended to be more positive in tone as compared to Baroque art in other European regions.

Rise of the Dutch Golden Age

The Dutch Golden Age would impact many different aspects of culture in this region, but innovations in the visual arts were amongst the most memorable. Influences from the Baroque era would spread into the Netherlands and be combined with local tastes to create an important and varied body of work. Continuing the earlier achievements of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, we would see the lives of ordinary folk featured here, in charming and playful depictions.

There would also be specialists in landscape and still life painting who worked in a manner that was exclusive to this region. Interestingly enough, religious themes were on the way out, having dominated European art for centuries, and the use of printmaking was also helping to re-shape the relationship between art and the public. Many of the advancements had begun in the 16th century, but by now had built up a strong momentum, with donors starting to adapt their commissions accordingly.

Frans Hals was much loved for his charming portraits, often featuring unidentified local drinkers enjoying a night’s entertainment, with this skilled painter capturing their lively personalities in an honest and lively manner. There were also beautifully crafted commissioned portraits of individuals of a higher social status too, though, including his iconic Laughing Cavalier.

The greatest name to have come from the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt, was able to lift the technical levels of portraiture even beyond those of Hals and is perhaps best known for his series of self-portraits which proved highly commercial at the time and helped the artist to stave off his financial concerns, at least in the short term.

Besides a number who specialized in landscape painting, there was also the extraordinary work of Vermeer who created some iconic genre paintings, portraits and also some charming scenes of his hometown, Delft. Girl with a Pearl Earring spearheads his own contribution and an important aspect in their success as artists was in the strong trading routes found in the Netherlands at this time, ensuring their work could travel far and wide, potentially influencing artists in other countries over the course of the 17th century and beyond.

The era of the Dutch Golden Age ran approximately from the late 16th century to the late 17th century, with debates continuing over its precise date. Crucially, the Dutch Republic was set up in 1588 and from this point onwards the Netherlands would enjoy dominance across Europe in trade and science, with the benefits of that eventually feeding into its innovative art scene.

The considerable wealth generated through global trade brought more donors into the art market, giving artists greater flexibility and giving the best of them something of a celebrity status. Alongside this growth in the visual arts, new architecture would also be required to keep up with the country’s booming economy, bringing a growing demand for the leading architects. They would help design new town halls and even infrastructure projects which aimed to help the Netherlands to retain its competitive advantage for future generations.

Emergence of the Landscape Painting Genre

Landscapes had been used in art for centuries, but previously they were only used as supporting elements for another genre. This would change in the 17th century, however, thanks to the work of French artist Claude Lorrain in Italy, as well as a number of landscape specialists from the Dutch Golden Age. Claude Lorrain was famed for his use of light, whilst also combining touches of classical architecture alongside hills, rivers and the sea.

His work would prove to be a forerunner for the Romanticists, whilst the Flemish landscape painters produced an entirely different output, capturing the unique environment of the Netherlands. Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682) and Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) were perhaps the most prominent in this, but whilst their influence was significant, many studying this period in Dutch art would overlook their work in favor of the more publicized genre paintings.

English Portraiture of the 17th Century

Whilst England remained very much on the fringes of the main European artistic developments of the 17th century, there were still several important changes going on here at the time. Many of the qualities of imported European painters, such as Hans Holbein the Younger (circa 1497-1543), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) plus Orazio (1563-1639) and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) would leave a legacy which spread into the work of native born artists.

Portraiture was dominant, fuelled by a procession of wealthy donors who would help support artists both at home and abroad, with some traveling around the continent in order to bring some of the finest European art back to English shores.

King Charles I (1600-1649) and Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel (1585-1646) were amongst the wealthiest collectors and they would also commission specific projects that would be installed within their mansions and palaces. This legacy would ultimately lead to a thriving English portrait scene that would build momentum in the centuries that followed.

Charles I’s collection of paintings and sculptures would become amongst the most famous in history and aside from wanting to display his wealth to visiting parties, the monarch was genuinely passionate about this expensive but rewarding pastime.

Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Hans Holbein the Younger could be counted amongst his favorite artists, but he was also pivotal in encouraging the rise of English portraiture by supporting a number of English artists. Sadly, to many, the monarch’s extravagance was a sign of his disconnect from his people, and many of his paintings were sold off after his execution in the mid-17th century.