The Dutch Golden Age

During the Dutch Golden Age, the Netherlands was the world’s strongest economic power, and leader in international trade, innovative art, and scientific discovery. To prospect for some of this 17th century gold, we visited the three historical South Holland cities of Delft, The Hague, and Leiden.

Wm Orange grave

Tomb of William of Orange, Nieuwe Kerk “New Church”, Delft

The origins of the Dutch Golden Age can be traced back to William I, Prince of Orange, who resided in Delft. Known as the “Father of the Fatherland”, William of Orange led the Protestant Dutch revolt against the Catholic Spanish Hapsburgs that eventually resulted eighty years later in Dutch independence.

Delft Blue Ships

Ships of the Dutch East India Company, hand-painted Delft Blue tiles

Fueled by a Protestant work ethic and cheap energy from windmills and peat, the Dutch built the largest merchant fleet in Europe. By monopolizing the international spice trade, the Dutch East India Company became the first multi-national corporation. In today’s dollars, its market capitalization would be $7.9 trillion, more than the world’s current top ten corporations combined.

Royal Delft 1

Delft Blue Pottery, Royal Delft Factory, Delft

Operating principally in Asia, the merchant vessels of the Dutch East India Company returned with exotic imported goods, including highly-prized Chinese porcelain. In the workshops of Delft, a cheaper tin-glazed earthenware was created using a characteristic blue and white color scheme. Delft Blue pottery, still produced at the Royal Delft factory, remains a fashionable Dutch icon.

Royal Palace 2

Huis Ten Bosch Palace, The Hague

Just a mere five miles (8 km) north of Delft is The Hague and Huis Ten Bosch Palace, home of King Willem-Alexander and his royal family. Prior to the king assuming the throne in 2013, the Dutch monarchy was led by three consecutive queens (Wilhelmina, Juliana and Beatrix) whose rein spanned a total of 123 years.

Hague Binnenhof

The Binnenhof, Dutch Parliament, The Hague

During the Golden Age, the Dutch seat of government was also established in The Hague. Situated in the city center is the Binnenhof, a Gothic castle complex that includes the office of the Prime Minister and the chambers of Dutch Parliament.

Rembrandt Anatomy

“The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”, by Rembrandt van Rijn

The Dutch Golden Age was a period of religious tolerance that liberated and inspired artists. Free of church influence, Dutch painters mostly produced landscapes, portraits, and realistic everyday scenes. We found a varied collection in The Hague at the Mauritshuis Museum, which included works by Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, and Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt 2

Rembrandt Birthplace Memorial, Leiden

Rembrandt was born in the town of Leiden, just ten miles (16 km) from The Hague. He is considered the most important Dutch artist and one of the greatest visual artists in history. To see Rembrandt’s birthplace, apprentice studio, and other boyhood sites, we followed a self-guided walking tour of Leiden.

Leiden Univ 1

Leiden Observatory, Leiden University

Leiden is a college town known as the “City of Discovery”. Founded by William of Orange, Leiden University was home to the Dutch mathematician and inventor Christian Huygens and the “Father of Microbiology” Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. In the 20th century, Albert Einstein was a special professor, teaching at Leiden University for one month each year.

Pilrim Leiden

Church of the Pilgrim Fathers, Leiden

The religious tolerance of the Dutch Golden Age also attracted to Leiden a band of English Calvinists. A decade later, these same puritanical protestants sailed to Plymouth Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower, and are now known simply as the Pilgrims. Their now-famous feast of thanksgiving, following their first successful harvest, was based on a festival commemorating the Seige of Leiden.

Vermeer Delft view

“View of Delft”, by Johannes Vermeer

In the province of South Holland, we discovered the history and grandeur of the 17th century in the three influential cities of Delft, The Hague, and Leiden. By traveling back in time to when the Netherlands was a world superpower, we unearthed a treasure trove of insights into the Dutch Golden Age.

Jan Steen Party

“As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young”, by Jan Steen

 

Featured Image:  “The Girl with a Pearl Earring”, by Johannes Vermeer

Blogger’s Note:  All paintings pictured in this post were photographed at the Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague

18 thoughts on “The Dutch Golden Age

  1. Wow, fascinating history. I have certainly learned a lot from this post. I had no idea the Dutch were such super power. Rembrandt was a genius, I love his work, visiting his birth place must have very enjoyable. The Dutch are known for having a very tolerant society, interesting to learn about the religious tolerance that started as long ago as the 17th Century and the freedom artists were able to enjoy as a result. South Holland will definitely go on my list of places I would like to visit. Great post.

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    • The province of South Holland is a fascinating travel destination, Gilda. We found several historic cities and a lot of beautiful countryside within a relatively small area. We loved Delft, The Hague, and Leiden, but Gouda and Rotterdam are also fun and interesting. In many ways, religious intolerance kept the Dutch from realizing their full potential. Once they were free to open their minds, they really soared.

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  2. Like Gilda, I had no idea the Dutch were so mighty in their day. Very impressive — and sobering, when you think of it. As in, maybe we shouldn’t feel so sure of our own country’s standing? (Something to think about!)
    Beautiful pictures. Must have been amazing seeing those works of art in person!

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    • The art of the Dutch masters is engrossing, Christi. It is such a welcome change to see paintings from that era that didn’t always include religious subjects. I especially enjoyed seeing the works that depicted everyday life. In them, I could envision how Holland and the Dutch people actually appeared four centuries ago. Like you, when I think of the relatively short-lived success of the Dutch Golden Age, I realize how fast the world order can change. I hope they enjoyed their superpower status while it lasted.

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    • Excellent point, Neil. The Netherlands is no longer a superpower, but they don’t seem to miss being #1. They have a happy, healthy, and highly educated population, and have created an economy that balances capitalist incentive with a social services safety net. The Dutch are known for being prudent and thrifty, and they have applied these values throughout their society. From their renewable energy efforts to their efficient land use planning, there appears to be very few resources wasted.

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    • The Golden Age was a prosperous time for the Dutch, Janis. They took advantage of their brand new personal freedoms combined with ample energy sources and international economic opportunity. In a way, they were in the right place at the right time; but, they were smart enough to realize it. I can only imagine how exciting it must have been when the world opened up for them. We are thinking about you during Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca!

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  3. I always learn so much from your posts! I love the way you soak up the local information, as well as the history, wherever you go. That way, you truly understand the culture, and you share it with the rest of us. I loved the book, “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” because it explained part of the history of that time, especially as it related to everyday society. And, of course, during my recent trip to Amsterdam I had to buy a little jar with the authentic Delft painting. Thanks for this post, Joe!

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    • Thank you, Ann! You are so right about the novel “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. The story is very well told, but what stood out to me were the descriptions of daily life in Delft during the Dutch Golden Age. The book helped transport me back to the 17th century, and provided me with a better historical perspective when visiting the town of Delft. Delft Blue pottery is a perfect souvenir from your travels to the Netherlands. Perhaps, you might visit Delft on your return. It is a very easy day trip from Amsterdam, or it would be a quaint and atmospheric place to stay.

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  4. It must really be something to see these paintings right THERE in the Netherlands, Joe. I saw a Vermeer exhibition many years ago at the National Gallery in Washington, DC when I lived there. I had no idea who he was, and l was merely lucky enough to be able to walk in on my lunch hour and look. I went back the next day… and then the following one too. Good on you for taking the time to see all those museums. Great post. – Marty

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    • Thank you, Marty. It was a real thrill to see all the great works of the Dutch Golden Age. We are not big museum junkies, preferring to walk around new cities, or hike and bike in nature. We made a point; however, to visit the Mauritshuis Museum. It is relatively small, and can be completed in detail in a half day. Living in Washington DC, and being close enough to the visit the National Gallery on your lunch break sounds like a wonderful opportunity to discover artists like Vermeer and learn about art history.

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  5. “more than the world’s current top ten corporations combined.” Wow. I suspect there are current corporations that would like to return to those days, and well funded politicians that would like to grease the wheels.

    Amazing what a society based on tolerance can achieve.

    It must have been great, seeing some of those masterworks in person.

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    • Hey Dave, I am sure that Apple, Microsoft, JP Morgan, and the world’s other top ten corporations would love to have monopolies like the Dutch East India Company enjoyed. Having control of markets and the ability to set prices is a powerful and dangerous financial combination. It is interesting to see how financial success, artistic creativity, and scientific discovery all took off as soon as religious intolerance was removed. The 17th century Dutch artists are so renowned. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to experience their works.

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  6. Joe, this post would be an excellent travel planning tool for first-time visitors to the Netherlands. There’s so much important history and culture there that it takes a bit of prioritizing to see what’s most important.

    And if there was ever a country to illustrate the ebb and flow of wealth and power it’s the Netherlands. They impacted the globe in so many ways well beyond their miniscule size, and the VOC was one of their most powerful engines of influence. You probably visited Hoorn to see their HQ. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’m always surprised that we don’t hear more about the company’s history – both good and bad. Very informative post as your comments demonstrate. ~James

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    • Thank you, James. I would love to return to the Netherlands some day to explore their history in more detail. Even though we only scratched the surface, we did come to realize how much more there is to see and understand. We did visit Hoorn during our first month in North Holland. I marveled at the Dutch Renaissance revival architecture in the historic center and the traces of VOC merchant class wealth. It was also interesting to learn that Hoorn was the inspiration for the naming of Cape Horn, especially since the first navigator to sail around the cape was named Schouten, my wife’s maiden name. The Westfries Museum in Hoorn is a good source of Dutch Golden Age information, but there is only so much room in one blog post. Thanks again for taking the time to comment and for sharing your interesting insights. ~Joe

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