Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. Three names that almost everyone, anywhere in the world, recognises. We are understandably proud that all three of these great painters hail from the Netherlands. Our country may be small, but we punch way above our weight when it comes to painting and creative expression. In fact, we’re perhaps one of the biggest players on the world stage.
Dutch artists are among the most famous in the world, and museums in the Netherlands and abroad are only too happy when they get the chance to exhibit the iconic masterpieces by these masters. What museum wouldn't want to have Rembrandt's Night Watch in its collection? The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has the honour of housing this great work.
Why are they called Dutch Masters?
The term 'Dutch Masters' was chosen because the name really reflects the greatness and exceptional talent of these artists. It highlights their unparalleled mastery and impact on art history. Although the term 'Old Masters' is also sometimes used, we’ll stick with Dutch Masters.
The Dutch Masters remain an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Their works are studied, admired and appreciated by art lovers all over the world. They form an invaluable legacy that reminds us of the rich history of Dutch painting and architecture.
Most Dutch Masters flourished during the Dutch Era in the 17th century, a period of economic prosperity and thriving culture. Their paintings reflect not only the height of artistic achievement of that time but also the social, historical and cultural context. They document the life, landscapes and social structures of the period, giving them invaluable historical and cultural value.
Portraits, landscapes and still lifes were very popular at this time but the period was also known for 'genre painting'. A good example of this is The Merry Family, a painting by Jan Steen. Part of the Rijksmuseum collection in Amsterdam, it’s a witty depiction of a cluttered and chaotic household and contains numerous symbols and details that indicate irresponsibility and vice. Today, the Dutch expression 'a Jan Steen household' is often used when things are a bit messy.
Immerse yourself in the Dutch Era and visit the Mauritshuis in The Hague. This museum is home to works by greats such as Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Carel Fabritius, but the most famous work in its collection is undoubtedly Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Many painters of the Dutch Era spent time outdoors marvelling at our gorgeous Dutch scenery and turning it into paintings. Also displayed at the Mauritshuis, the View of Delft by Vermeer is a perfect example of landscape painting.
Van Gogh: the ultimate master?
Van Gogh, the most famous landscape painter in the Netherlands (and perhaps the world), was a Post-Impressionist painter inspired by the landscape and lifestyle of peasants living in provinces such as North Brabant and Drenthe. Many of his works embody the authentic side of everyday life in the Netherlands and many of the locations he painted look practically the same today as they did during his lifetime.
Obviously, fans of Van Gogh have to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but the stylish Kröller Müller Museum in Apeldoorn is another rather special option for lovers of the great master’s work. Located in lush green surroundings, it is home to the second-largest collection of the Dutch icon’s work in the world. Want another top tip? Go on a small Van Gogh tour in rural Brabant.
The best place to truly experience the Dutch Masters
Mondrian and De Stijl
Fans of Mondrian can also visit his birthplace Amersfoort, where his former home has been turned into a museum. Villa Mondrian, his childhood home, is located in the town of Winterswijk in the eastern Netherlands. And last but not least, Museum Dr8888 in Drachten boasts an extensive collection of De Stijl art and architecture.
An idiosyncratic view
When we talk about the Dutch Masters, we also have to mention two lesser-known movements: The Hague School and The Tachtigers. These were two movements that advanced the Netherlands on the global art stage thanks to their new, idiosyncratic views.
The Hague School was a 19th-century art movement that emphasised a realistic depiction of the Dutch landscape and a true sense of everyday life.
Characteristically, this representation also attempted to mirror the artist's state of mind. Jozef Israëls was one of the leaders of this movement and many of his works can be found in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In Groningen, Israëls’ hometown, there is a monument in memory of him created by sculptor Abraham Hesselink.
The Tachtigers were primarily an innovative movement within Dutch literature. But numerous artists and painters also joined this movement, which was mainly a counter-reaction to Romanticism. One of the most famous Tachtigers was George Breitner from Rotterdam who, funnily enough, caused a furore with his portrayal of city life in…Amsterdam.
The Breitner Academy, an art academy located in our capital, focuses on Visual Education and was named after this famous Tachtiger. Perhaps a new Dutch Master will emerge from its doors soon…