Northern Renaissance Painting: Hals, Steen, Vermeer
Baroque art in the Protestant North — without the patronage of popes and kings — reflected the practical values of the merchants who paid for it. Steen, Vermeer, and Hals painted slices of regular life and group portraits of city bigwigs.
Complete Video Script
[60, Bruges] While southern Europe favored traditional Catholic rule and the theatrical Baroque style, the Protestant countries of the North, while still a part of the Baroque age, were forging a different path. Without the lavish patronage of popes and nobles, Protestant art was more secular…reflecting the values of a new market: the no-nonsense merchants who paid for it.
 Painters captured an industrious spirit. Northern cities were bustling…with hard-working craftsmen and businessmen, while sea traders headed off to distant lands.
 And, along with seascapes, idyllic landscapes of fertile fields — often land reclaimed from the sea using ingenious windmills — celebrated Dutch industriousness. And in the flat Netherlands, a landscape was also a dramatic skyscape.
[63, Grote Kerk, 1674, Berckheyde, Haarlem] The lively market town of Haarlem, near Amsterdam, looks much like it did when it was painted back in Holland's 17th century Golden Age…an age captured vividly on canvas.
[64, The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia Company, 1616, Frans Hals] Its most famous son, Frans Hals, made a nice living painting portraits of a new kind of customer… merchants. He produced ego-boosting portraits of city big shots…the citizens who epitomized the independent and upwardly mobile Dutch of the time. Like these businessmen — closing a deal — they worked hard and were proud of it.
 In this woman's portrait, her elegant dress and jewelry are painted with as much care as her face…confidently affirming the materialistic values of the people who made the Golden Age golden.
 Amsterdam — a city practically built on water — was one of the busiest seaports in the world. Wealth poured in from overseas, fueling a booming society…and its art.
[67, various still life paintings by Pieter Claesz] The Dutch enjoyed showing off the fruits of their labor in exquisitely detailed still lifes of good food. No preachy church art or Greek myths here, but a canvas reminder that this household ate very well. And this family boasted some fine pewter ware. Paintings were intimate, with muted colors and less drama. Virgin Marys and Apollos were out — cheese was in.
[68, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] Perhaps for the first time, art catered to the tastes and budgets of middle-class people, too. Smaller canvases by no-name artists that a regular merchant could afford and hang in his living room.
[69, Jan Steen, 1626–1679; The Topsy-Turvy World, 1663, Steen, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] Jan Steen offered a delightful slice of 17th-century Dutch life. Entertaining, sure…but Steen loved to slip in a dose of folk morality. Here, children teach a cat to dance — mischief on their delighted faces — but their father's upset that they're wasting time.
[70, Merry Family, 1668, Steen, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, ] And these parents party while the kids copy their irresponsible behavior: the girls learn to drink and the little boy picks up smoking. The note warns, "Parents beware: your children are learning from your bad behavior."
[71, Johannes Vermeer, 1632–1675; Kitchen Maid, c. 1658, Vermeer, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] Here, Johannes Vermeer, the master of tranquility and stillness, shows an intimate street from his hometown of Delft. In his quiet painting of a humble milkmaid, Vermeer creates a scene where we can almost hear the trickle of the pouring milk…capturing the beauty of everyday things.
[72, The Art of Painting (aka Allegory of Painting), 1668, Vermeer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] And here, Vermeer draws the curtain to reveal the artist at work. The floor tiles lead the viewer in to where he's painting a model. The studio is a small world unto itself, filled with beautiful and symbolic details: the map of Holland celebrating its trading power…the golden chandelier — a mark of new wealth…his fine clothing…. Everything is crystal-clear, lit by a soft cool light. The model's caught in a candid pose…while the artist — his back to his audience — is just another hard-working Dutchman plying his craft.