The Dutch Protestants felt that medieval church architecture and decoration had been forms of indoctrination perpetuating legends and discouraging thought; they decided to worship God with prayer and sermons rather than with art; the only art they kept in their ritual was song. So their ecclesiastical architecture aimed at an almost stark simplicity. Even the Catholics raised no memorable churches in the United Provinces. Overseas merchants, in the sixteenth century, brought in, perhaps from Syria or Egypt, the idea of bulbous cupolas; the fashion spread from Holland and Russia into Germany, and became a feature of Central European baroque.
Businessmen, not the clergy, dominated Dutch architecture. And first of all they built themselves sturdy dwellings—almost all alike, not instilling fear, like the Florentine palace, nor arousing envy; the luxury and art were all inside, and in the flower gardens carefully tended. Their civic buildings allowed more ornament and pride. Lieven de Key brought French, German, and Renaissance elements into a remarkable harmony in the Rathaus, or town hall, that he built for Leiden. The Hall of the Butchers’ Guild at Haarlem, also by Lieven de Key, is as proud as a Gothic cathedral. The town hall at The Hague shows the classic style completely domesticated in Holland.
The Michelangelo of Dutch architecture and sculpture in this age was Hendrik de Keyser, who became city architect of Amsterdam at the age of twenty-nine (1594). There he designed the Westerkerk, the Exchange, and the East India House, all in Italian-Dutch Renaissance style. At Delft he built the town hall and the monument to William I; and in 1627, at Rotterdam, he cast in bronze his masterpiece, the noble statue of Erasmus which for some years sat calmly intact amid the ruins of the Second World War. Some of the loveliest Dutch structures dating from this period lost their lives in that failure of statesmanship.
Pottery shone among the minor arts. In Rotterdam and Delft tiles were an industry that good taste made an art. Delft raised its faïence to a place in nearly every home in the Netherlands. About 1610, soon after the opening of Dutch trade with the Orient, Delft potters began to imitate Chinese ware, and produced a thin blue majolica called Hollandsch porseleyn.100 Soon half the West-European world displayed Delft pottery on its walls or shelves.
The one major art in the Netherlands was painting. Never elsewhere in known history—not excepting Renaissance Italy—did an art win such pervasive popularity. For the years between 1580 and 1700 the art catalogues list fifteen thousand Dutch paintings.101Italian influence dominated Flemish art, but in the northern provinces the successful resistance to Spanish power aroused a nationalistic spirit and pride that needed only the wealth derived from overseas trade to produce a cultural explosion. Art was turned into new channels of domesticity and realism by the almost complete withdrawal of ecclesiastical and aristocratic patronage. The new patrons were merchants, burgomasters, lawyers, corporations, guilds, communes, hospitals, even almshouses; hence the portraits, group pictures, and genre. Nearly every Dutch city had its school of artists, nourished by local patronage: Haarlem, Leiden, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Dordrecht, Delft, The Hague. Simple citizens who in other lands might have been, in art, illiterate dependents of the Church, adorned their homes with pictures, sometimes bought at considerable cost; so a baker proved his good taste by paying 600 florins ($7,500?) for a single figure by Vermeer.102 Secularization was almost complete: saints went out as subjects, merchants came in; the home and the fields triumphed over the church. Realism flourished; the bourgeois sitter appreciated a little idealization of himself and his wife, but dykes and dunes, windmills and cottages, sailing ships and cluttered docks pleasantly refreshed, on the walls, the memory of actual and common things. Jolly topers, tavern tipplers, even bordeeltjes were welcomed into homes that a century earlier might have shown saintly martyrs, historic heroes, or pagan gods. Nudes were out of style; in that damp climate, with those stout forms, nudity was no delight. The Italian cult of beauty, refinement and dignity seemed out of place in this new environment, which asked nothing more of art than the reproduction of daily life and familiar scenes.
There was a sad side to this picture of a nation mad about pictures: the artists who painted them lived for the most part in poverty and low esteem. In Flanders the Archduke, the lords, and the bishops paid their chosen artists well. But in Holland the painters, competing individually, produced for the common market, and they reached customers largely through dealers who grew up between producer and purchaser and who knew how to buy cheap and sell dear. Dutch artists rarely received high prices: at the crest of his fame Rembrandt earned only 1,600 guilders by The Night Watch, van Goyen only 600 by his View of The Hague and much less for the rest; Jan Steen painted three portraits for twenty-seven guilders, Isaac van Ostade sold thirteen of his pictures for a like sum. Many Dutch artists had to do extraneous work to butter their bread: van Goyen sold tulips, Hobbema was a tax collector, Steen kept an inn.103 The artists themselves were so numerous that they glutted their market. A list of the famous ones would fill pages, and a list of their treasured works would crowd a book. Shall we thank them in a footnote?V