Thirty years ago, Peter Laslett, a social historian of early modern Britain, titled his book The World We Have Lost. He argued that historians, in spite of improved methods of social statistical modeling and textual analysis, could never fully comprehend what daily life was like for people in the past. Although they could calculate birth and death rates, quantify food shortages, and track the activities of the household economy, historians could never satisfactorily explain people's motives, fears, expectations, hopes, dreams, and desires. The internal, emotional, and cultural factors by which historical figures understood their world remained hidden from the historian, even with the most sophisticated analysis.
Today, however, the study of history looks quite different. A whole school of "cultural" historians has emerged whose research is oriented to further explanation and understanding of "the world we have lost." Utilizing methodologies from other disciplines, such as literary criticism, art history, and anthropology, historians have become quite comfortable speaking about the emotional and cultural factors affecting the lives of their historical subjects. Historians began to analyze paintings, clothing, and music (to name a few items) as historical texts to be "read" just as a social historian might read through baptismal records or account books.
This type of cultural history presents unique challenges for the historian. First, historians are forced to understand, if not master, the methodologies of the fields from which they borrow. This is necessary because artifacts such as a painting are essentially works of creativity in which the artist manipulates "reality." The second challenge of the historian is to discern what is artistic invention and what is not. However, even these creative inventions can offer clues about the past. While the cultural historian is ultimately left with a certain amount of information that is interpretive and even subjective, this is no less true for the statistical analysis of social history -- records are lost and statistical modeling requires methodological assumptions as much as cultural history.
This lesson plan is intended to offer a brief introductory case study in cultural history through an examination of the Dutch "Golden Age." During this remarkable period in Dutch history, from approximately 1580 to 1680, the Dutch Republic stood as one of the most powerful states in Europe. The Dutch Golden Age was also the era of prolific cultural expression. Household names in the world of painting, like Rembrandt van Rijn and Jan Vermeer, were Golden Age artists. And, on the surface, the Dutch Republic looked thoroughly modern in every sense. It expressed religious tolerance, had a flourishing market economy, was ruled by a representative government, and had an egalitarian social structure. This lesson, however, challenges this view of the Dutch Republic by using seventeenth-century Dutch art, architecture, and "traditional" historical texts as a "window to the past" in order to better understand the Dutch as part of a specific historical context.
1. To understand the relationship between artistic expression and historical context.
2. To practice skills in interpreting visual images as a primary historical source.
3. To analyze Dutch Golden Age culture and establish connections between Dutch cultural history and political, social, and economic history.
Introductory Activity: "Reading an Image"
It may be helpful to start asking students to analyze an image in which the context will be more familiar. Have students examine a photograph from a 1960s American antiwar protest, linked below. Ask them to analyze the photo, not in historical terms -- e.g., "It is a war protest" -- but as an image. In other words, what visual clues let them know it is an antiwar demonstration? (For example: the flower, the contrast of the colorful clothing on the protesters versus the uniform of the soldiers.) Does the image itself suggest a political message; is the photographer more sympathetic to the soldiers or the protesters? Vietnam War Protesters
Almost any image of a more familiar event could be used for this exercise, but for the purposes of the lesson plan below, one with more "symbolic" meaning, rather than a straightforward narrative context, will be more effective.
I. Dutch Calvinism and Religious Toleration
The Calvinist form of the Protestant Reformation rooted itself in Dutch religious life. The Dutch Republic was the first state (excluding the city-state of Geneva) in which Calvinism became the official state religion. The Synod of Dordrecht, which produced the first systematic explication of Calvinist doctrine following Calvin's death, was held in the Dutch Republic and dominated by Dutch theologians. (The full text of the Canons of Dort is available online; see the link below.) Calvinist Protestantism provided the Dutch a powerful tool for building a nationalistic identity in their war of independence against Catholic Spain. Yet in spite of this strong religious identity, and the fact that Calvinism was the only "official" religion in the Republic -- one had to prove church membership to hold public office -- the Dutch were relatively tolerant of other faiths. This was in part due to the Dutch Revolt itself -- the Netherlands still contained a significant percentage of Catholics. Alienation of Dutch Catholics might have transformed the Revolt into a religious war, turning all of Catholic Europe against the Republic. Jews also found refuge in the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam. Expelled from Spain in 1492, the Sephardic Jews first immigrated to Portugal. After being turned out of Portugal, they made their way to Amsterdam, where they built a synagogue as early as 1605; by the end of the seventeenth century, there were three places of worship for Jews in Amsterdam. By comparison, Jews were not even granted any recognition, let alone a place to worship, in England until 1750. The Canons of the Synod of Dordt
Activity: Representing Dutch Tolerance
Dutch religious toleration strikes a familiar ring today and seems thoroughly modern. However, there were limits to Dutch toleration; neither the Jewish synagogues nor the Catholic churches were permitted any visible signs identifying them as places of worship. Indeed, it appears that Dutch tolerance was literal -- these non-Calvinistic faiths were tolerated only, certainly not welcomed.
Show students paintings or photographs of a Dutch Calvinist church, a Catholic "hidden church," and a Jewish synagogue. Ask students to discern similarities and differences between the images. In other words, what architectural features are prominent and why? (For example, the centrality of the pulpit in the Calvinist churches emphasizes the Protestant focus on preaching, rather than the Catholic eucharistic focus.) What does the image tell us about each faith? Can churches that are forbidden to display public symbols be considered "tolerated"? What advantages do the Dutch gain from religious tolerance, however limited?
Emmanuel de Witte (Dutch, 1617-92) painted several scenes of church interiors, and one is of the interior of a synagogue, available online. Search by artist's name. The Web Gallery of Art
A Web site with images of a surviving Catholic "hidden" church, called "Our Blessed Lord of the Attic" (Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder), is available, but the text is in Dutch. A site with English text regarding the history of the Church, but with lower quality images, is also available. Monumenten de Archeologie in Amsterdam Museum Amstelkring
II. The Dutch Market Economy: Wealth and Death
The Dutch Republic was easily the wealthiest of the seventeenth-century European states. Its economy, even to a greater extent than England's, was based on global trade. Domestically, the Netherlands was highly urbanized. By 1600 the Dutch province of Holland had 12 towns with over 10,000 residents, while all of Britain had only six. Powerful guilds monopolized urban trade and manufacturing. Because much of the land itself had only recently been reclaimed from the sea, Dutch fields produced abundant yields -- during the "Little Ice Age" from roughly 1600 to 1648, only Dutch and English farmers increased agricultural production. The first stock market in which the public could invest capital into economic ventures was the Bourse in Amsterdam. The Dutch East Indies Company, a government-subsidized trading monopoly, dominated European trading. Any good that was imported or exported throughout Europe doubtless made part of its voyage on a Dutch East Indies ship, at least until England and France embraced a policy of mercantilism and triggered costly trade and actual wars. In fact, the Dutch economy was so dependent on trade that the Dutch actually sold arms and supplies to Spain while fighting for independence from the Spanish Empire. Spain was not only the enemy but also the Dutch Republic's largest customer. A good illustration of the dominance of shipping and trade is William van der Velde's painting The "Gouden Leeuwe" Before Amsterdam (1686), available online at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The Web Gallery of Art
There was a downside to Dutch economic wealth, however. Markets were completely unregulated and could crash with disastrous results. Almost ridiculously, the Dutch economy went into a tailspin over the tulip craze of the 1650s. Tulips, which were brought to the Netherlands by the East Indies Company from Turkey, were so popular that a single bulb could cost 1,000 guilders -- roughly equivalent to a year's income of a Dutch artisan, or twice what Rembrandt earned for his masterpiece The Night Watch. One Dutch merchant reportedly traded his home for a tulip bulb, and an Amsterdammer was given a life prison sentence when the onion he mistakenly ate in a tavern turned out to be the tavern keeper's tulip bulb. Tulips, however, proved easy to reproduce in the fertile Dutch soil and had no intrinsic economic value -- eventually the price of bulbs collapsed as the supply increased; those with life savings invested in tulip bulbs were wiped out, and the economy suffered a nearly 10-year recession.
Moreover, the Dutch suffered from what historian Simon Schama called an "embarrassment of riches." Dutch wealth clashed with the Calvinist tradition that proclaimed humans were so "totally depraved" with sin that Christian humility was the only possible way to live -- perhaps the root of the famous reputation of Dutch frugality. Seventeenth-century Dutch painters went to great lengths to remind viewers that in spite of apparent wealth in this life, death and God's final judgment were ever looming and that the things of the material world were but fleeting moments when compared to divine salvation or damnation.
Activities 1. Dutch Still Life
Dutch still-life painting allowed artists to demonstrate their talent, but it had a didactic purpose as well. Each item was a symbol, and frequently the message of the still life indicated that despite present abundance, decline and decay were at hand. Display William Heda's Still Life with Gilt Goblet, available online. Ask students to "read" this painting, not as a display of objects, but as a moral statement or social commentary. For example, the gilt goblet is a luxury item, but because it is overturned, it could be a warning about the pursuit of wealth. The tray of oysters similarly represents prosperity as oysters were expensive (even in Dutch coastal areas), but oysters also spoil quickly. Is this another warning? The Web Gallery of Art
2. The Dutch Household
Ask students to compare two genre paintings by Jan Steen (1626-79). Genre paintings usually portrayed some sort of scene with a narrative structure, many of which were comical. They also, like Dutch still lifes, often carried a moralizing lesson. Jan Steen is considered one of the masters of the genre painting. Two good comparisons would be Steen's Prayer Before the Meal and his genre portrait The Artist's Family, based on a Dutch proverb: "As go the old, so pipe the young." One painting clearly represents domestic order, the other chaos. How is the household related to the Dutch economy? Dutch culture?
III. Dutch Egalitarian Politics
While the Dutch Republic had a traditional landed aristocracy, they were far less powerful in Dutch politics than their European counterparts. One reason for this is geographic. The massive engineering projects to literally drive the ocean off of large tracts of land required the work and sacrifice of everyone from the aristocrat to the peasant. The Dutch saying, "God created the universe, but the Dutch made the Netherlands," was not only a statement of pride, it was a political manifesto as well. The effort required for land reclamation carried into politics as the Dutch quickly developed a representative government in which many (though by no means all) participated in local political life. Even while part of the Spanish Empire, the locus of Dutch political power was in the town council and in the provincial estates. "Regents" who represented the leading guilds and the burghers dominated the town councils and enjoyed a great deal of independence in local governance. Because of the Dutch Republic's economic reliance on urban-based trade, the regents in various town councils, especially in the larger cities of Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam, held a disproportionate amount of political influence. Above the town councils were the provincial estates, which included representatives of three groups: the clergy, the aristocracy, and the towns. And, unlike France for example, the representatives of the towns were much more influential than the clergy and the aristocracy.
Prior to independence from Spain, the Spanish king was the head of state. However, because of their struggle to free themselves from the empire, the Dutch generally mistrusted centralized governments. At times of crisis, the provincial estates might individually appoint a stadholder-- usually a member of the aristocracy with military experience who would be granted permission to raise and lead an army or navy. In times of exceptional crisis, the Dutch provincial estates would meet in a General Estate and appoint a stadholder for the entire Republic. The General Estate appointed William the Silent of the House of Orange to be the first stadholder of the unified Dutch provinces in 1579 as the Dutch prepared to declare their independence from Spain. William's successes against the Spanish army, at least until his assassination by a Catholic priest in 1584, established a Dutch tradition that successive stadholder would come from the House of Orange. The position of stadholder, however, must not be confused with a monarchy (although the House of Orange became the royal family of the Netherlands in 1814). The heir to the House of Orange did not automatically inherit the stadholder, and he had no powers other than those granted by the estates, which were dominated by town regents who jealously guarded their prerogatives.
At times during the seventeenth century, the regents and the stadholder were political opponents. In order to maintain the army and navy, the stadholder depended on the estates to raise taxes, and since regents were the wealthiest members of Dutch society, they frequently refused to grant new taxes, especially if they suspected the stadholder harbored royal pretensions, always a possibility when the stadholder possessed all the means of coercion by controlling the military. Often, the Dutch estates preferred to go without a stadholder, preferring to maintain a more decentralized government, with each province managing its own economic affairs and defending themselves with locally controlled militias. After the death of the stadholder William II in 1650, the position was not renewed, and the closest the Dutch came to a head of state was Johann de Witt, who as the pensioner of the Province of Holland (essentially the chief financial officer) was the next most powerful individual. This decentralization, however, proved a disaster when in 1672 the Dutch Republic was invaded by the French army from the south and blockaded by the English navy. Without a central authority to respond, the Dutch were forced to burst their dykes and flood large sections of the land in defense. The resulting floods and damage to Dutch agriculture marked the end of the Dutch Golden Age.
Activities 1. Social Status and Prestige
In an exercise similar to above, ask students to compare two Steen paintings, The Leiden Baker and His Wife and The Burgher of Delft and His Daughter. The latter appears to be a Dutch regent, while the former an artisan; ask students if these paintings can be interpreted as a political statement.
2. Political Institutions
Display Caesar van Everdingen's painting Count Willem II of Holland Granting Privileges. William II, who died in 1650, was the last stadholder before the crisis of 1672. Ask students to describe the advantages/disadvantages of the stadholder system. Are these evident in Everdingen's painting?
Then, display Rembrandt's Night Watch, which is essentially a group portrait of the Amsterdam militia company under the command of the town regent, Banning Cocq. Thus, this painting represents the decentralized form of governance. Again ask students the advantages/disadvantages of governance by the town councils and provincial estates. Are the political ideologies between the stadholder and representative forms of government evident in these two paintings?
Both Count Willem II of Holland Granting Privileges and Night Watch are available online (search by artist's name): The Web Gallery of Art
Have students write a short paper analyzing the work of a Dutch artist within the historical context of the Dutch Golden Age. In other words, students should evaluate the artist based on how the works reflect Dutch political, economic, social, religious, and cultural life in the seventeenth century, rather than simply for its artistic forms. The Web Gallery Web site can be searched by artist or even genre. The Web Gallery of Art
Additional Resources General History
Israel, Jonathan. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
General works on Dutch history in English are sparse, but this is the best for the period.
Israel, Jonathan. Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585-1740. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
An indispensable book on Dutch economics and trade.
Berkvens-Stevelinck, Christiane, ed. The Emergence of Tolerance in the Dutch Republic. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1997.
Religion and religious toleration are analyzed in depth in a series of essays.
Schama, Simon. An Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Random House, 1987.
The best available in English on Dutch cultural history, emphasizing the interconnections between art and cultural values. Art
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Deals more formally with aesthetics.
Silve, Seymour. Dutch Painting, 1600-1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
A good survey giving a more "art historical" analysis of Dutch Golden Age painting.