Places to visit | More background information

17th century Dutch & Flemish Art
and regional art galleries

Holland & Flanders in the 17th century
Art flourished in Flanders and the Low Countries in what is called the “Baroque” period in the arts, whenever violent conflict did not disrupt the region. The Netherlands were divided: the northern Protestant Dutch provinces fought for independence; whilst the southern catholic part remained under Spanish rule.

Influence of the Counter-Reformation
Faced with the threat of Protestantism, the Roman Catholic church spent lavishly on religious art to revive the faith of their congregations. Rich churches, abbeys and bishops commissioned leading artists such as
Rubens. Many trained in Italy, and were influenced by Michelangelo, Raphael and the whole history of Italian art. In Antwerp, they had to paint religious subjects - aiming at spectacular, grand effects, whilst looking very realistic, and conveying a simple emotional message to the faithful.

Baroque architecture
Architects like artists were also commissioned by the rich. Kings, nobles and bishops wanted elaborately decorated buildings. New churches, palaces and public buildings were richly decorated. Both art and architecture were “over the top”.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), worked in Antwerp: "Le Martyre de saint Etienne" . In the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes.

Other subject matter
17th century artists, whether Catholic or Protestant, explored a range of subject matter, from grand religious themes, to everyday scenes and portraits, both reflecting the lives of prosperous Flemish bourgeois families.

Contemporary philosophers such as Descartes and Newton were writing about the issues of "how we see the world". Artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer made great pictures as they explored these issues in apparently simple everyday scenes, portraits, and still-lifes of collections of ordinary objects. To those who were well-informed about the big issues of the day, some of these pictures had significant hidden messages, others had none at all.

Jacob van Es (c.1590-1666): Cheese and Dried Fruit". Still life paintings were a classic tradition, prized by middle class purchasers.
Antwerp as a centre for artists

MAP: Political upheavals affected commissions for artists
See 'History of Spanish Netherlands'


Dutch Republic - the northern Protestant provinces. Revolted in 1568 against religious repression by devoutly catholic Spanish king Philip II. In 1648 theTreaty ending the Thirty Years' War in Germany also recognised Dutch independence.


Remaining Spanish Netherlands - the southern Catholic provinces.
The red line shows the French frontier in 1714.


France in the early 17th century

From 1599 to 1648, Antwerp flourished under Archduke Albert, who was a patron to artists including Rubens, his official painter. This proved to be a remarkable interlude, between the upheaval of the 16th century rebellion against Spain, in which Antwerp's population fell by half; and the 1648 Treaty which ended Antwerp's properity by closing the Scheldt estuary to its ships.

Dutch artists
During the 17th century, the newly-independent Dutch Republic became an important naval power. Their merchant fleets sailed the world's seas and set up prosperous Dutch colonies in Asia, the Dutch East Indies, Africa and America (New York was "New Amsterdam" until 1664, when the English captured it).

Art flourished in this self-confident environment: Rembrandt was just one of the remarkable Dutch artists working in Amsterdam.

Art historians disagree about whether the political and religious divisions in the Netherlands are clearly reflected in the schools of art produced either side of the new borders.

Gerbrant van den Eeckhout, of Amsterdam 1621-1674: "Portrait of an Old Woman" 1651 in Arras Museum. The popularity of portrait painting amongst the socially successful was not affected by the Protestant ethic.

Georges De la Tour: "Le vielleur au chien" - first of a series of paintings of old men, started in 1620. In Bergues Municipal Museum

Jan Molenaer: "Enfant jouant avec un chat" in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Dunkerque

Improvements in oil painting
In the 17th century, newly-improved oil paints were used by the "Delft school" of artists. The key solvent linseed oil was made in Flemish windmills by crushing locally-grown lin-seeds.

Oil paints allowed artists to paint precise lines. This enabled them to experiment with fashionable ideas about light and shade, and perspective.

Pieter Bruegel the Younger (c.1564-1638) - a copy of his father's painting of "The Census Taking in Bethlehem". In the tradition of Flemish realism, it shows hungry peasants scratching in the snow for stray grain dropped off carts, as they struggle to survive the harsh frosty winters of the 16th century.
(Right): Cassel windmill - still makes linseed oil

Jacob Peeters, worked in Antwerp 1675-95: “Interior of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp”. This superb baroque church was built in 1615, and sumptuously decorated inside - including some ceilings painted by Rubens in 1620-1, and a Rubens painting of St.Francis over the altar. It was burned down in 1718. In Arras Museum.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), worked in Antwerp: “Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata” - painted 1610-15, from the collection of a convent in Arras. In Arras Museum.

Ambrosius Francken (1544-1618),: "The Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes" - a faithful rendering of the Bible story, with Italian influences. In Arras Museum.
Francken worked at Fontainebleau palace for French king Louis XIV, and in Antwerp.

Places to visit:
Arras Museum (Musée des Beaux-Arts), Arras
Hospice Comptesse Museum, Lille - Flemish art collection
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dunkerque
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes
Benoît de Puydt Museum, Bailleul - collection of Flemish works of art 15th-19th centuries
Municipal Museum, Bergues

Related background information
Regional Art Galleries - and Art MENU
Division of the Spanish Netherlands - history of Dutch independence and French conquests.
Salle des Mays - 17th century religious art on a grand scale, in Arras Museum
Retables - many leading artists also worked on elaborate baroque altarpieces
Church and religion - more about the Counter-Reformation.

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... and other painters.

Medieval Art
Les Mays
Flemish Art
18th-19th century French artists

Artists of Côte d'Opale

Modern Art




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