The Dutch Era
Present and past
Join us on a journey back in time to the 17th century. It was an age of masterful painters, scientific discovery, and flourishing historic cities in which every cobblestone tells a story. The Dutch played a major global role, quite possibly the biggest, during this era. For better or worse, the Netherlands was a world power in every sense of the word.
Although it was an age of masterful Dutch painters, beautiful historic cities, and the birth of the scientific revolution, it was also an age of violence. Much of the Netherlands’ wealth was obtained through oppression and slavery. It is now widely agreed that recognizing such tragedies enriches our history. We must learn from our past, which is why the Dutch Era is an extremely interesting and insightful period of time.
In cities like Delft, Leiden, Dordrecht, Enkhuizen, and Hoorn, past and present merge in beautiful and fascinating ways. The most remarkable historic canal houses stand alongside fascinating museums that interpret and contextualize the Dutch Era.
But it’s not all about the beauty and splendor of the era. Attention is also rightly devoted to the negative aspects of this period. The 17th century is commonly known as the Dutch Golden Age, but that is far too glorious a title considering the extensive slave trade, the colonial violence, and the oppression and exploitation of many different peoples during this time. In this day and age, we cannot and must not ignore or gloss over past atrocities.
The Dutch Republic, officially the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, was a true world power in this age. The Dutch were unrivaled in the art of painting, science, and trade, as the country flourished in a way it never had before and never has since. It is no exaggeration to say that the Netherlands may well have been the richest country in the world back then.
This trade-off between good and bad is why we now prefer to use the term “the Dutch Era” instead of “the Golden Age.” Why is this important? As Ad Geerdink, director of the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, explains: “‘The Dutch Era’ implies no subjective judgment of value. It leaves room for both sides of the story. ‘The Golden Age’ does not.”
In the 17th century, the Netherlands was probably the richest country in the world.
The first multinational corporation
The Dutch Era saw the foundation of the first multinational corporation: the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, abbreviated as VOC, commonly known throughout the rest of the world as the Dutch East India Company. Its purpose was to present a stronger front against enemies such as Portugal and Spain, which certainly worked. Although the VOC is still widely considered a successful trading company, it’s important to note that its success was also partially the result of military violence.
This darker side of Dutch history was largely ignored for a long time, but fortunately, that is changing. Just about every museum that deals with the 17th century has an extensive section in which the exceptional successes of the Netherlands are juxtaposed with its colonial past.
The history of Haarlem is just about perfectly embodied by the story of Frans Hals, a painter from Haarlem whose loose, bold brush strokes birthed an innovative style. The Frans Hals Museum has no fewer than twelve of his works on display. Leiden is not only known as the city of science, but it’s also where Rembrandt grew up. Go to visitleiden.nl for a walking tour of the city where you can follow in the footsteps of the great master himself.
Several of the most internationally important artists of their time, such as Aelbert Cuyp, Ferdinand Bol, and Nicolaes Maes, worked in Dordrecht. In the Dordrechts Museum, you will find works such as the famous Self-portrait at the age of thirty and Nicolaes Maes’s The Eavesdropper on display. Definitely worth a visit.
Other pioneering minds included the scientist and doctor Bernardus Paludanus, a resident of Enkhuizen who became world-famous due to the exotic objects he collected on his travels, and Frederik Ruysch, a professor of anatomy and botany who developed new preservation techniques that allowed him to preserve human organs in alcohol. Among his discoveries are the fact that the lymph system has valves, and that the eyes have arteries.
And of course, we would be remiss not to mention Christiaan Huygens, the greatest scientist that Holland ever produced and considered one of the greatest scientists of all time. Huygens was a true Renaissance man and polymath, a genius in multiple fields and a major player in the scientific revolution. Physics, astronomy, music and technology; he created so many inventions! At Rijksmuseum Boerhaave you can admire many of them. One of his inventions was the pendulum clock, which not only allowed more accurate measurements of time but also made it possible to better determine the motions of the planets. Huygens and his brother also built telescopes of increasing size, through which he discovered a new heavenly body: Titan, the moon of Saturn. Based on all the knowledge he gathered, he also built his first small planetarium.
Where can I go to learn even more about the Dutch Era and science?
Our tip for 'Leiden'
Learn about Christiaan Huygens’s discoveries in the amazing Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. Be sure to check out the world’s oldest planetarium with the sun at the center, the stories about Blaeu’s maps, and the botanic sketches of Maria Sibylla Merian: each and every one a showpiece of their age.Read more
Our tip for 'Delft'
Delft simply exudes history. Take a walk past the house where Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was born, and the bakery café Van Maanen, where he died at the age of 91. Then head to Museum Prinsenhof Delft, where the oldest telescope of the 17th century was accidentally discovered in 2013: the four-inch-long tube had initially been mistaken for a bullet cartridge. Museum Prinsenhof Delft also has much to discover about William of Orange, the most exquisite 17th-century art and, of course, the origin of Delft Blue pottery.Read more
Our tip for 'Dordrecht'
In 1572, one century before the Dutch Era, Dordrecht hosted the first assembly of the free states of Holland, which was attended by representatives from twelve cities. It was the first step towards the establishment of the Constitution of the Netherlands. In 1648, the Augustinian monastery of Dordrecht was the setting for the peace talks with Spain. Now part of the refurbished Hof van Nederland, this monastery is definitely worth a visit.Read more
Dutch Era hotspots
Visit the Dutch Era
The fact that the Dutch Era played a major role in Dutch history is clear. In fact, it also had quite a few positive effects on the way the landscape looks today. Where best to see this? Here are a few highlights:
Hoorn and Enkhuizen
The harbor in Hoorn is proof of the Dutch desire to sail the seven seas. It’s a beautiful, traditional-looking harbor. Don’t forget to check out the De Scheepsjongens van Bontekoe (the Shipboys of Bontekoe) statue. Bontekoe was a captain in the service of the VOC. Enkhuizen’s harbor is a little bit further on and also very much worth a visit.
It’s hard to think of a place where the Dutch Era is more clearly visible than in this charming city. From the Oost-Indisch Huis (East India House) at Oude Delft 39 and the location that was the subject of Vermeer’s Little Street painting to Oude Kerk church and the special Antoni van Leeuwenhoek commemorative fence: in Delft, you can really immerse yourself in the Dutch Era.
Amble across Grote Markt square and admire the Vleeshal building, which now houses the Frans Hals Museum. Haarlem is truly suffused with the Dutch Era. Visit the oldest museum in the Netherlands, Teylers Museum, or enjoy a drink at one of the lively cafés and pubs.
With beautiful historic buildings such as the old Stockholm warehouse and Dordts Patriciërshuis, the Wolwevershaven (wool weavers harbor) is the place in Dordrecht to visit if you really want the complete Dutch Era experience. The Dordrechts Museum is also highly recommended – and once you’re there, it’s definitely worth taking a moment to relax in the Kloostertuin, an old monastery garden.