Few other countries can boast of having fathered so many great artists, but then again, Holland seems almost expressly composed for the artist by nature. Its peaceful dells, rolling dunes, and verdant mantles of foliage seem so alluring they practically demand the artist pick up brush and palette. During the Golden Age of the 17th century, an estimated 20 million paintings were executed and every home seemed to have an oil painting hung on the wall. Even before the arrival of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the country had a rich artistic history.
In the late 16th century, the Netherlands were divided into a Flemish south under Catholic Spanish rule, and an independent northern alliance of Dutch Protestant provinces. Before then, most painters hailed from the southern cities of Gent, Antwerp, and Bruges, and their subject matter was mostly biblical and allegorical—Jan van Eyck (1385–1441) founded the Flemish School, Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516) crafted meticulous, macabre allegories, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–69) depicted scenes of Flemish peasant life.
In the north, a different style began surfacing. Around Haarlem, Jan Mostaert (1475-1555) and Lucas van der Leyden (1489-1553) brought a new realism into previously static paintings. In Utrecht, Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656) used light and shadow to create realism never seen before on canvas.
From these disparate schools flowed the Golden Age of Dutch painting, and Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer all borrowed from each diverse technique. Frans Hals (1581–1666) has been called the first modern painter. A fantastically adept and naturally gifted man, he could turn out a portrait in an hour. He delighted in capturing the emotions—a smile or grimace—in an early manifestation of Impressionism.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) is regarded as the most versatile artist of the 17th century. Born in Leiden, he grew rich from painting and tuition. His early works were overly ornamental, but as the years went by he dug deeper into the metaphysical essence of his subjects. When his material world collapsed around him—he was blackmailed and ruined—he somehow turned out even greater art, showing off a marvelously skilled use of light and shadow.
Jan Vermeer (1632-72), the third in this triumvirate, was a different case altogether. He produced only 35 known paintings, but their exquisite nature make him the most precious painter of his time. He brought genre art to its peak; in small canvases with overwhelming realism he painted the soft calm and everyday sameness of middle-class life.
Around the middle of the century, Baroque influences began permeating Dutch art, heralding a trend for landscapes. Artists such as Albert Cuyp and Meindert Hobbema's scenes of polder lanes, grazing cows, and windswept canals were coveted by 17th- and 18th-century collectors. Other masters were more playful in tone. Jan Steen's (1625-79) lively, satirical, and sometimes-lewd scenes are imbued with humor.
The greatest Dutch painter of the 19th century is undoubtedly Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). During his short but troubled life, he produced an array of masterworks, although he famously sold only one. He only began painting in 1881, and his first paintings often depicted dark peasant scenes. But in his last four years, spent in France, he produced endlessly colorful and arresting works. In 1890, he committed suicide after struggling with depression. To this day, his legacy continues to move art lovers everywhere.
The 20th century brought confusion to the art scene. Unsure what style to adopt, many artists reinvented themselves. Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944) is someone who evolved with his century. Early in his career he painted bucolic landscapes. Then, in 1909, at the age of 41, he began dabbling, first with Expressionism and then Cubism. He eventually developed his own style, called neo-plasticism. Using only the primary colors of yellow, red, and blue set against neutral white, gray, and black, he created stylized studies in form and color. In 1917, together with his friend Theo van Doesberg (1883-1931), he published an arts magazine called De Stijl (The Style) as a forum for a design movement attempting to harmonize the arts through purified abstraction. Though it lasted only 15 years, the movement's effect was felt around the world.
The most vibrant movement to emerge after World War II was the experimental CoBrA (artists from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam), cofounded by Karel Appel (1921–2006) and Constant (née Constant Nieuwenhuis, 1920–2005). With bright colors and abstract shapes, their paintings have a childlike quality. The artists involved continue to have influence in their respective countries.
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