Celebrating Everyday Life

The Golde Age

Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 (h)

17th Century

The Golden Age – The New Everyday Life Through the Eyes of Vermeer

While the Baroque period was sweeping a wave of extravagance across the regions of Europe shaped by the church and feudalism, another, more down-to-earth style was emerging in the Netherlands. It was inspired by the everyday lives of a growing middle class, who had achieved prosperity in the young, tolerant, cosmopolitan republic with its flourishing trade. Their longing for images to be captured of their own successful lives led to an unprecedented demand for art, with hundreds of painters churning out genre paintings, portraits, still lives and other types of artwork in quick succession. Among the artists of this time was Anders Jan Vermeer. Only 37 paintings are known to have been produced by his hand, but most of them are absolute masterpieces. His secret lies in his subjects’ graceful stances and, even more importantly, in his special use of light. Vermeer’s painting technique was truly revolutionary. Even his contemporaries marveled at the interplay between light and shadow, his works full of tiny reflections making them reminiscent of photographs.  To this very day, researchers have been left puzzled by his unusual technique and are still trying to work out whether he used any technical means to learn to see motifs in a new way. And if so, which tools he had at his fingertips.

Caption: Wolfgang Beltracchi in ZOTT Artspace in Munich. After a month of planning, the recreation of Vermeer’s home studio is complete. Beltracchi experiments with adjusting the camera obscura – a technical tool that Vermeer may have had at his disposal.

Five facts – the Golden Age

The arts benefited on an unprecedented scale from the economic prosperity enjoyed by the young Dutch Republic. In the middle of the 17th century, thousands and thousands of pieces were said to have been produced every year. Although only around ten percent of these have survived, old Dutch paintings can be found in countless galleries around the world.

1. Tangible success
The Golden Age brought great wealth to traders, merchants, artisans and farmers. They wanted to see their status reflected in their country’s artwork. This resulted in artists’ focus shifting to the everyday lives of their subjects, especially the middle class.

2. Remarkable realism
Rembrandt, Vermeer and van der Spelt measured their abilities according to how true to life they could make their paintings. This notion dates back to antiquity and mirrors the famous contest between Parrhasius and Zeuxis, when the former was heralded the better artist thanks to his painting of a deceptively realistic curtain. Rembrandt repeats this deception in his piece entitled The Holy Family with a Curtain.

3. Creation of space
The use of perspective is a legacy of the Renaissance. The painters used the technique of pronounced shortening to increase the illusion of depth and extend the pictorial space. This method is not only used when painting landscapes, but is also applied to studios, studies, lounges, courtyards and banquet halls.

4. Patriotism
In 1648, the Netherlands finally won their hard-earned independence from the Spanish crown. The feelings of patriotism among the country’s artists are reflected in their fondness of painting landscapes depicting the characteristic elements of the Dutch countryside.

5. Niches
Less notable Dutch artists sought out their fortune by developing areas of specialism. Besides painting the typical landscapes or portraits, some set about concentrating on unusual niches, such as still lifes of fish.

Die Nachtwache, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642 (1)

Der Astronom, Johannes Vermeer, 1688 (2)

Stilleben mit Truthahnpastete, 1627, Pieter Claesz (3)


1: Die Nachtwache, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642 © Renato Granieri /Alamy Stock Foto
2: The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer, 1668 © FineArt/Alamy Stock Photo
3: Still Life with Turkey Pie, Pieter Claesz, 1627 © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
a: Lucas Cranach the Elder „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
b: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
c: Gustav Klimt „Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” 1907. © John Baran / Alamy Stock Foto.
d: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © www.BibleLandPictures.com/Alamy Stock Foto
e: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
f: Detail from William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
g: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer im Nebelmeer, 1818. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
h: Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 © Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo