Last modified on December 4, 2019, at 03:00

Dutch Golden Age

Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, Arrival of a Dutch Three master at Schloss Kronberg, 1614.

The Dutch Golden Age or the Dutch Century is a period in Dutch history in which the Dutch Republic had a phenomenal rise to prosperity. It was over the course of the 17th century that great advancements in the economy, military, trade, arts and sciences took place. The Dutch nation became one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world, employing its naval prowess to dominate international trade and create a vast colonial empire.[1]

In just over one hundred years, the provinces of the Northern Netherlands went from relative obscurity as the poor cousins of the industrious and heavily urbanized Southern Netherlands provinces of Flanders and Brabant to the pinnacle of European commercial success. Taking advantage of a favorable agricultural base, the Dutch achieved success in the fishing industry and the Baltic and North Sea carrying trade during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries before establishing a far-flung maritime empire in the seventeenth century.[2]

Golden Age, 1600-1720s

Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde, The Great Market in Haarlem, 1696.

During the 17th century, the Netherlands, with just two million people, enjoyed its "Golden Age" of economic success, world power, and tremendous artistic output. The Netherlands, with a rapidly growing trade and worldwide empire, boasted Europe's greatest number of cities and highest literacy rate, many world-class artists and generous patrons, religious tolerance, and a highly structured and wide-ranging social network.

The underpinnings of the golden age involved a very strong economy based on international trade and colonies, along with advances in textiles, brewing, glass-making, shipbuilding, printing, canal and irrigation works, land reclamation, and energy (using peat, not coal or wood). Holland was the vanguard of Europe, leading the way in productivity-enhancing economic advances. The per-capita income remained steady and high, as the population grew 50%. Urban workers saw their wages grow 50% from 1570 to 1670.

Protected inland waters such as the Zuider Zee and the waters around Zeeland attracted fishermen, who built small towns. The demand for food from the growing cities encouraged them to build dikes and reclaim arable land for commercial agriculture. Gradually the sea was conquered and the northern provinces of the Netherlands rose out of the water. Agricultural output grew steadily at 4% a decade.[3]

The Dutch, proud of their Republicanism used a strong sense of civic pride to improve the infrastructure, setting a model for the world. Once the Eighty and Thirty Years' Wars ended in 1648, the accumulation of grandiose and ambitious schemes that had been postponed because of war led to a frenetic burst of building and refurbishment throughout the Netherlands. Numerous large public buildings were erected in the 1650s and 1660s, far more than in the previous three decades. Those cities which grew fastest between 1648 and 1672, especially Amsterdam, Leiden, Rotterdam, The Hague and Haarlem, laid out whole new urban quarters, constructed new canals and roads, and planned new housing as part of integrated urban development schemes. Delft though it grew at a slower pace, was extensively rebuilt following the great gunpowder explosion of 1654 which devastated the city center. Even Utrecht, a relatively stagnant stagnant city, drew up far-reaching plans, hoping by means of investing in redevelopment to attract more immigrants and activity.[4]


Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, The Harbour in Amsterdam, 1630.

By the mid-1660s Amsterdam had reached the optimum population (about 200,000) for the level of trade, commerce and agriculture then available to support it. The city contributed the largest quota in taxes to the States of Holland which in turn contributed over half the quota to the States General. Amsterdam was also one of the most reliable in settling tax demands and therefore was able to use the threat to withhold such payments to good effect.

Amsterdam was governed by a body of regents, a large, but closed, oligarchy with control over all aspects of the city's life, and a dominant voice in the foreign affairs of Holland. Only men with sufficient wealth and a long enough residence within the city could join the ruling class. Many were from noble families, who were successful in maintaining their power within the supposedly bourgeois Republic; they formed the elite in administrative, political and economic systems. The first step to joining the regents for an ambitious and wealthy merchant family was to arrange a marriage with a long-established regent family. In the 1670s one such union, that of the Trip family (the Amsterdam branch of the Swedish arms makers) with the son of Burgomaster Valckenier, extended the influence and patronage available to the latter and strengthened his dominance of the council. The oligarchy in Amsterdam thus gained strength from its breadth and openness. In the smaller towns family interest could unite members on policy decisions but contraction through intermarriage could lead to the degeneration of the quality of the members. In Amsterdam the network was so large that members of the same family could be related to opposing factions and pursue widely separated interests. The young men who had risen to positions of authority in the 1670s and 1680s consolidated their hold on office well into the 1690s and even the new century.[5]

Amsterdam's regents provided good services to residents. They spent heavily on the water-ways and other essential infrastructure, as well as municipal almshouses for the elderly, hospitals and churches.

Amsterdam's wealth was generated by its commerce, which was in turn sustained by the judicious encouragement of entrepreneurs whatever their origin. This open door policy has been interpreted as proof of a tolerant ruling class. But toleration was practiced for the convenience of the city. Therefore, the wealthy Sephardic Jews from Portugal were welcomed and accorded all privileges except those of citizenship, but the poor Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe were far more carefully vetted and those who became dependent on the city were encouraged to move on. Similarly, provision for the housing of Huguenot immigrants was made in 1681 when Louis XIV's religious policy was beginning to drive these Protestants out of France; no encouragement was given to the dispossessed Dutch from the countryside or other towns of Holland. The regents encouraged immigrants to build churches and provided sites or buildings for churches and temples for all but the most radical sects and the native Catholics by the 1670s (although even the Catholics could practice quietly in a chapel within the Beguinhof).

Culture of the Golden Age

Willem Kalf, Still life, ca. 1660.

Baruch de Spinoza (1632–77) was one of the most important philosophers of the era, and certainly the most radical. His works were published after his death. Spinoza was excommunicated from Amsterdam's Sefardic synagogue at the age of twenty-four; he then changed his first name to Benedict. The immediate reasons for the "cherem" pronounced against him are unclear, although it seems he was already propounding the heretical views that are found in his later writings.[6]

Painting of the Dutch Century. In this period, a proliferation of distinct genres of paintings is conducted. With a small amount of religious painting, other genres like scenes of peasant life, landscapes, townscapes and cityscapes, seascapes, and still lifes of various types, specially flower paintings, all were enormously popular.

Seventeenth century Netherlanders had a passion for depictions of city and countryside, either real or imaginary. Local scenery asserted Holland's national pride, while vistas of foreign sites recalled the extent of its overseas commerce. Holland's ocean ports teemed with fishing and trading ships, and the tiny country's merchant fleet was almost as large as all the rest of maritime Europe's combined.[7] Maritime painting was enormously popular in Dutch Golden Age. Amsterdam was the largest artistic center.

During this time, The Dutch Old Masters began to prevail in the art world, creating a depth of realistic portraits of people and life in the area that has hardly been surpassed.[8]

External links


  1. The Dutch Golden Age.
  2. The Dutch Economy in the Golden Age (16th – 17th Centuries). by Donald J. Harreld, Brigham Young University.
  3. Jan de Vries and Ad. van der Woude, The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500-1815.(1997)
  4. Jonathan Israel, Innovation in Dutch Cities, 1648-1720 (1994)
  5. Elizabeth Edwards, "Amsterdam and William III," History Today, (Dec 1993), Vol. 43, Issue 12 in EBSCO
  6. Steven M. Nadler, "The Excommunication of Spinoza: Trouble and Toleration in the 'Dutch Jerusalem'" Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 19#4 Summer 2001, pp. 40-52 in Project Muse; Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (1999)
  7. Dutch Landscapes and Seascapes of the 1600s.
  8. History of Dutch Golden Age.