September 13, 2004
A picture of success

At the home where I was brought up, in the dining room, was this painting. Well, a copy. But quite a nice one. In a frame and everything.


It's called View of Delft, and it was painted by Vermeer, in 1660-61.

I am amazed how much it resembles a lot of the photos I now try to take, across the Thames, with light striking some buildings but not others.

I was reminded of this painting by reading, as I have been, a book called Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind. Chapter 4 is about "The Dutch Golden Age", and here's how it starts:

The prosperity of the United Provinces in the mid seventeenth century was evident to all visitors. They marvelled as much at the freedoms its citizens took as their birthright. Descartes, acknowledged as the first modern philosopher, since he admitted the new principles of science into his system, wrote his seminal works in Holland, because of the unique intellectual and religious freedoms he found there; there was no other country in which one could enjoy such complete liberty, he declared.' The English ambassador at The Hague, Sir William Temple, who travelled incognito through Holland, afterwards expressed his admiration for the liberty 'the Dutch valued so much' - in particular, 'the strange freedom that all men took in boats and inns and all other common places, of talking openly whatever they thought upon all public affairs, both of their own state, and their neighbours'.

Temple was equally struck by the religious freedoms. Calvinism was the official Protestant denomination, and no one could hold office in the republic without affirming membership of the Calvinist Reformed Church, yet a large Catholic minority and innumerable dissenting sects practised their own rites in their own places of worship and published their own sacred texts. Even Jews lived freely among the populace without being confined to ghettos; later they were permitted a synagogue in Amsterdam, which was opened in 1675. Such essentially pragmatic indulgence in an age of extreme religious intolerance so impressed the fourth Earl of Shaftesbury he recommended that England follow suit, in order likewise to attract and retain skilled workers.

I never really learned about the Dutch when I did history at school. They were merely a vague interlude between the French (bad) and the British Empire (good, mostly). Yet for a while, they were the leading mercantile power of Europe and a beacon of life, liberty and property for all, secure against the depradations of the old aristocracy, who struck fear into the autocracies of the rest of mainland Europe.

And they celebrated all this by producing lots and lots of great oil paintings.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
Category: HistoryPainting