The Netherlands, an outsider's view.

The Netherlands, an outsider's view.


Dealing with history. Golden Age? I would prefer not to.

Currently on view at the Hermitage in Amsterdam are 30 group portraits which have abandoned one of the most famous definitions for the seventeenth Dutch century – that of the “golden age”. Until a few years ago, an exhibition like the one held in the rooms of the Hermitage in Amsterdam would have been unthinkable.

Not so much for the quality of the incredible works on view, but for the exhibition’s very title: shouldn’t the aseptic Group Portraits of the 17th Century give way to the more grandiose Group Portraits of the Golden Age? In fact, in 2014 when the world’s largest permanent collection of collective portraits was inaugurated, the two magic words Golden Age were highlighted as elsewhere in the country.

copyright@Tom van der Molen

The 30 portraits on display at the Hermitage

30 colossal group portraits from the 17th century from the Amsterdam Museum and the Rijksmuseum have been brought together for the first time ever at the Hermitage in Amsterdam: “brothers and sisters” from Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch, they are unique pieces in the world and rarely exhibited because of their considerable size.

Burgomasters and regents, civic guards and merchants of all ranks appear next to each other. Together they illustrate the history of collective citizenship typical of the Netherlands at that time. At the same time, they are a mirror of contemporary Dutch society: the relationships between the people of the time formed the basis of the relationships and social conventions of today.

The local captains of the various companies and militias were in competition with each other in commissioning the most complex and emblazoned portraits: between the lines of the postures, the expressions of the faces and the political symbolism, one can guess whom was more or less in vogue. In the paintings, the groups are often seated around a table and each of the guests looks at the viewer. At the time, much attention was paid to the details of clothing and furniture and other signs of a person’s position in society. Later, over the course of the century, the groups became more lively and the colors brighter.

Often, in the paintings as well as in actuality, charities – such as the one in Spinhuis -or leprosariums were administered jointly by men and women, albeit with different tasks. 

The 30 panels on display, plus a large number of views of the various Dutch cities, offer a valuable cross-section of time: in an era when admiration for Amsterdam was at its peak (writes the Milan scholar Gregorio Leti in 1690: “there is no freer city, nor better organized city”), when Dam Square was built, the proud citizens were looking for portraits of the new square. The landmark was always portrayed with some oriental and exotic elements – often featuring merchants with a fez or a turban – to represent its being the center of the world.

In 17th century Amsterdam, there were also many anecdotes and curiosities about everyday life: in the center of the square stood the Waag, a building intended for the weighing of goods which arrived by ship. In the city of the seventeenth century, a tax had been imposed on the movement of vehicles on wheels. For this reason, the carriages were converted into heavy horse-drawn sleighs.

A suspicious change in sensitivity?

In the last five years a lot has changed: the many criticisms received from visitors and the collaboration between the curators of the exhibition and some intellectuals – the historian of slavery Leo Balai, the documentary filmmaker of Surinamese origin Ida Does, the Winti priestess Marian Markelo and the director and actor Jörgen Tjon a Fong – convinced the museum’s management of the need for the operation.

To discuss the greater intercultural inclusiveness no longer crushed by Dutch colonial rhetoric, last October, the opening of the exhibition was anticipated by a “symposium” open to museum curators, intellectuals interested in the issue and the press. On that occasion, The Dutch Masters Reviewed was also presented the unpublished history through photographic portraits of 13 colored inhabitants of Amsterdam and not only of the 17th and 18th centuries.

That it might be, or at least in part, a clever “history-washing” operation to promote a facade of inclusiveness for the use and custom of the many international tourists and the second and third new Dutch generations who (do not) crowd the halls of Amsterdam’s museums, is a fascinating hypothesis precisely because it is malicious. As if to say, the new Hollanders will decide on the “revisionist” intentions and aims promoted at the institutional level.

Why did the museums give up that convenient label? The chronicle is relatively short but interesting. A few months ago, the Amsterdam Museum, the Hermitage and the Frans Hals in Haarlem decided to abandon the words “Gouden Eeuw” and remove it physically from all the spaces they manage. The result was a pandemonium of controversy and mutual accusations.

Who’s afraid of the Golden Age?

In the Netherlands, the term “Golden Age” is widely used to indicate the period that roughly coincides with the 17th century. 

As Pieter Lodewijk Muller writes in the book “Onze Gouden Eeuw” of 1897: “Is there one civilized Dutch person who doesn’t know those words can only apply to that period of our history bounded by Leicester’s departure in 1587 and the Peace of Utrecht in 1713?”

Civilization and exclusivity, then. At that time the Republic of the Seven United Provinces was a world economic and military power.

Tom van der Molen, one of the curators of the exhibition and author of the pamphlet Whose Golden Age? On A Term That’s Not Fit For Purpose, recalls that the term Golden Age became fashionable during the nineteenth century. At that time, history was bent to nationalistic interests and the Netherlands had to develop more cohesion and coalesce a relatively young nation. Pride in heroes and periods of prosperity were the key concepts to build up such a new feeling.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the definition of the Dutch national identity began – “civilized”, il va sans dire – the rhetoric of a propaganda narrative had already reached its peak: “the vigour and the fame of Florence and Venice appear to have combined in the Netherlands” and only the Athens of Pericles could be a mythical example to be inspired by.

Precisely because it spread to such a small but economically rich country, that rhetoric has been more emphasized: the Dutchmen not only built a vision of idealistic and unifying history- something common to many national stories at the time – but it is as if some of that gold could still embellish the identity of a Dutch citizen and justify his supposed civilizing superiority.

As historian Johan Huizinga writes in his 1941 essay Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century, the problem is the very name given to that century. The Golden Age recalls in fact the Aurea Aetas of Greek mythology recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But it is not an appropriate name – according to the famous historian – because the economic and cultural prosperity of that century is not linked to the calm of the classic forms but to the industriousness of “timber and steel, pitch and tar, paint and ink, daring and piety, spirit and imagination”.

What characterizes the description of the golden century is precisely the classical recovery of the ideals of peace and ethical and moral progress. Instead of describing the harshness of conquest, conflict and repression, the language has been sweetened so much so that it seems that trade has come spontaneously to the ports of Antwerp and Amsterdam.

In a time of wars – especially those with the powers of the time: Spain, France and England – the rhetoric of the innocent David against Goliath was more than justified. But today it only appears a distorted and false reconstruction. The Golden Age is on the lips of all Dutch people and not only: it is taught in schools of all levels and is proposed again everywhere to push the self-promotional Dutch marketing.

Marketing of the Golden Century

In 2019 we’ve commemorated the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. All the events placed the name of the famous artist alongside that of the Golden Age, from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to the Maurithuis in The Hague.

Cities like Middelburg and Hoorn, traditionally outside the big touristic tours, have smelled the power of the brand and have thrown themselves headlong into the organization of their celebrations. On its website, the city of Middelburg on the one hand refers to slavery as “a black spot in its history”, and on the other hastens to define itself as “a strenuous advocate of human rights, awarded the Four Freedoms Award by the Roosevelt Foundation”. But slavery was obviously not an unhappy parenthesis in the rosy riverbed of progress and innovation, a mole in the naive image of which the Dutch can be proud.

In Hoorn – the birthplace of Jan Pietersz Coen (1587-1629), distinguished Dutch general, governor of the Dutch East India Company in Java and founder of the Batavia colony in 1619 – Coen’s legacy is ambiguous: a capable and competent administrator and architect of the new Dutch commercial monopoly, he was responsible for the depopulation of the Banda Islands, during which thousands of people lost their lives. In 2012, the population of the coastal town voted to remove the statue of the national “hero”: both events, the genocide of Banda and the removal of the monument, are described in the municipality’s brochure as “aspects of a dark side”. That’s it.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the “Golden Age” label – beyond the legitimacy of cultural promotion strategies for the economic sustainability of museums and cultural institutions – is precisely that of forcing history into a monolithic vision. Methodologically, the reversal of perspective could be no less idealistic than the need of the last century to build an identity and a homeland history based on national pride. At least, however, categories such as fear, shame and guilt could develop new avenues of research.  

Is it worth replacing the term “golden age” with “17th century”? Would it not be possible to lose an important part of Dutch self-representation over the last two centuries? The diplomatic solution of renaming the exhibition at the Hermitage for the umpteenth time would only have one problem: “Group portraits of the golden age that we now declaim to the 17th century for ethical and social inclusion issues” would seem to be a boring word game, rather than the captivating title of one of Amsterdam’s most visited museums.

But not even the Hermitage can afford to lose a single visitor.

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