The flat, low-lying Netherlands does not boast the world’s most dramatic scenery, yet probably no place on earth was so often painted. Paradoxically, the most urbanized nation of the seventeenth century also invented the naturalistic landscape. As a subject in its own right—
something more than a backdrop for figures—landscape was still relatively new, a creation, largely, of the southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century. But those panoramic bird’s-eye views (called “world landscapes”) by artists such as Joachim Patinir (1480 – 1524) from Antwerp or Pieter Breugel the Elder, who died in Brussels in 1569, were quite different. They are crowded with ordinary detail as well as fantastic and sacral elements. Dutch painters began to produce a new view, one of the here and now—the world as experienced by real people. Their contribution is reflected in our very word “landscape,” which comes from the Dutch landschap.
The percentage of landscape paintings listed in household inventories rose dramatically from about 25 to 40 percent between 1610 and 1679. The overwhelming majority was painted for the open market, and the average price was modest, perhaps about the equivalent of two weeks’ wages for a skilled craftsman (though, of course, the best-known painters commanded higher prices). Images of the Dutch countryside had wide appeal for various reasons. They were, like the countryside itself, a source of refreshment and pleasure. Like paintings of flowers and food, they reminded viewers of the gifts of God’s creation. Landscape paintings were also a natural outlet for the pride the Dutch felt in their nation—“pictures” of their independence and well-being.