Works in this gallery reflect the divergent artistic cultures that developed after a protracted civil war left the Low Countries divided into the nominally Protestant Dutch Republic in the north and a Catholic south, governed by a regent of the Spanish monarchy.
In the southern Netherlands, religious institutions and the nobility were the principal patrons. The scale of the paintings they commissioned often required the services of a large workshop, such as that operated by Peter Paul Rubens. His oil sketches, which we admire today for their inventive compositions and bravura technique, formed the basis for vast pictorial programs executed by his assistants. Rubens was the most renowned European painter of his generation. During his lifetime, Antwerp, the commercial and cultural capital of northern Europe in the previous century, remained a vibrant artistic center, even as its economy stagnated under the conservative Spanish regime and the Dutch dominated maritime commerce.
Innovative finance, naval power, and agriculture and manufacturing sustained the Dutch Republic’s global trading empire. Economic growth generated unprecedented wealth, providing many private citizens with sufficient disposable income to purchase works of art. Dutch painters mostly produced modestly scaled pictures to hang in patrician and middle-class homes. Competition fostered specialization and the development of original pictorial imagery and techniques. With some exceptions, most notably Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch painters depicted secular subjects grounded in the visible, material world, such as landscape, still life, and narrative scenes with figures in modern dress. Their works were valued then, as now, for their close observation of nature, compelling depictions of daily life at different levels of society, and skillful rendering of textures, light, space, and atmospheric effects.