Lady on bench in Westfries museum in Hoorn
© Ernst Wagensveld via NBTC
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Dutch Era

The Netherlands as a global power

The Dutch Era

How the Netherlands conquered the world

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.
Haarlem
Haarlem
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.
Dutch Era Dordrecht façade Voorstraat

From the iconic traditional canal houses to statues and museums, the Dutch Era is strongly intertwined with our culture. Remnants of this age are reflected in the landscape of the Netherlands in many different ways.

Golden Age?

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.
Dutch Era Dordrecht Wolwevershaven Damiatebrug
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.
VOC ship Scheepvaartmuseum Amsterdam

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.”
Westfries Museum painting on operation
Westfries Museum painting on operation
In the 17th century, the Netherlands was probably the richest country in the world.
Westfries Museum Hoorn science

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.
Rijksmuseum Boerhaaven Leiden wordmap Blaeu
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.
VOC ship in Amsterdam with cannons

Art

Picturesque Holland

Every city its own artist

Dordrechts Museum Albert Cuyp
It is impossible to talk about the Dutch Era without talking about the titans of Dutch painting. No matter where in the Netherlands you are, you’re more than likely in a hometown, village, or region associated with a 17th-century Dutch master. Dordrecht was Aelbert Cuyp’s hometown, and Frans Hals lived in Haarlem for most of his life. Delft has Johannes Vermeer, and you might have heard about a certain painter named Rembrandt who was born and raised in Leiden.
More than five million master-quality paintings were produced during this age, with Haarlem, Delft, Dordrecht, Middelburg, Leiden, and Amsterdam as the major hotspots of creativity. The starring roles went to Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer. It is quite something to think about how such a small country could produce so many giants of the genre.

Did you know?

The famous painting De Vaandeldrager by Rembrandt was acquired by the Dutch state in 2022 for more than 175 million euros?

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.
Everything you need to know about the Dutch Masters
1500 painters were active in the Netherlands in the 17th century
Dordrecht Museum self-portrait of Ferdinand Bol

Science

The Big Bang of science

Protagonist: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek

Delft Oude Delft fencing portrait Antoni van Leeuwenhoek
When the tiny country of the Netherlands grew into a titanic commercial power during the Dutch Era, one major positive consequence was the emergence of internationally renowned scientists. The rigid, dominant views of how the world worked were toppled by contact with other cultures, resulting in an explosion of knowledge that we still benefit from today.
One of the biggest names from this era is Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a self-taught scientist whose homemade lenses revealed a microscopic world that nobody had ever seen before. In 1677, he investigated – among other things – his own sperm and discovered a host of tiny creatures with wriggling tails. Van Leeuwenhoek concluded that these spermatozoids were the bearers of life and therefore had to be responsible for procreation. He was convinced that the woman’s ovum served only to provide nutrition.

Did you know?

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek calculated that the Earth could support a maximum of 13.4 billion people. The human population is currently 8 billion.

Renowned scientists

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.
Rijksmuseum Boerhaaven anatomy
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. His inventions covered physics, astronomy, music, and technology… 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.
Rijksmuseum Boerhaaven Leiden planetarium

Where can I go to learn even more about the Dutch Era and science?

  • Our tip for 'Leiden'

    Leiden young Rembrandt school (De Latijnse School)

    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.

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    Take a look at our suggestions for:

  • Our tip for 'Delft'

    Dutch Era Delft Museum Prinsenhof

    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.

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    Take a look at our suggestions for:

  • Our tip for 'Dordrecht'

    Dordrecht New harbor and Grote Kerk sitting at the water's edge

    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.

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    Take a look at our suggestions for:

Cities

The mercantile spirit as an architect

Richest country in the world

The developments that brought about the Dutch Era happened in three stages. The adventurous mercantile spirit of the Dutch led them to explore the world, which caused the economy to flourish. That, in turn, was responsible for the construction of beautiful city centers. Land was reclaimed from the water, and peatlands were dug up. The land literally expanded to make way for larger cities.

The Dutch Era was typified by the classic cityscapes combining homes and warehouses. The quays are lined with narrow, deep, and tall buildings with hatches where goods from Asia were once stored. They are all listed heritage sites now, but this era was also the time of tulip mania and you could buy a canal house for three tulip bulbs!

Dordrecht Grotekerksbuurt
Characteristic cityscapes help write world history.

Haarlem, Leiden, Middelburg, and Delft are great examples of places with a 17th-century look and feel. The capital city of Amsterdam also belongs on the list. Built in 1665, the new city hall on Dam Square was positively palatial in appearance. Middelburg, meanwhile, was one of the most important Dutch cities during the Golden Era due to its advantageous location by the sea. As a result, its center is full of buildings that hark back to this unique age. Every cobblestone is imbued with stories of the time when the town helped write world history.
Zeeuws Museum De Abdij Middelburg
Finally, the other port town of Enkhuizen is also an absolute must-see. Its Zuiderzeemuseum is unique in the Netherlands, it is an open-air museum with historic houses, stores, and workshops, along with an indoor section where centuries-old wooden ships are displayed.
Zuiderzee Museum Enkhuizen

Leiden, then and now

The Famished People after the Relief of the Siege of Leiden
Geuzen entry Leidens Ontzet

On October 3rd every year, Leiden celebrates the Relief of Leiden. There are a lot of parties and people eat hutspot (a traditional mashed potato dish), herring, and white bread. This tradition derives from the end of the Spanish siege of Leiden on October 3, 1574.

Dutch Era hotspots

Places that exude Dutch history

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:
Lady walks through characteristic street Enkhuizen

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.

Ladies enjoying the harbor of Hoorn

Leiden

Anyone who visits Leiden can’t miss the city’s love for Rembrandt, as evidenced by Museum de Lakenhal and the Young Rembrandt School. The Pieterskerk church, the Latin School, and De Put Windmill are great examples of 17th-century architecture. Truly marvelous must-sees!

Portraits Rembrandt De Lakenhal Leiden

Delft

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.

Couple at Rijksmonument Oost-Indisch Huis Delft

Haarlem

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.

Couple looking down from balustrade Teylers Museum Haarlem

Dordrecht

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.

Dordrecht Wolwevershaven Stockholm building