The Dutch golden age of art, which took place in the seventeenth century, is renowned for the wide variety of subject matter it features in its paintings. At a time when religious altarpieces and large scale history paintings were at the forefront of the art world, Dutch artists took another route. This era in the Netherlands is marked by subjects such as landscapes, group portraits, and what is known as “genre painting.”
In the seventeenth century the Netherlands was a small country with only two million residents and few resources, yet it still managed to become a world power. This is due in part to their success in fishing and industry, as well as in finance and trading. The location of the Netherlands was also extremely beneficial to the Dutch, making them the middlemen between northern Europe and the mediterranean, creating the perfect locale for maritime trade.
On top of this, the class system was changing and morphing into what we would see in the rest of Europe centuries later. A large portion of the inhabitants of Dutch society were urban townspeople, including “well-off burghers who were involved in trading and who were
not particularly pretentious, despite their comfortable lifestyle.” (Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, 3) This new class signaled a change from an aristocratic lifestyle to a bourgeois one that most of the rest of Europe was still awaiting, there were actually only twelve aristocratic families left in the whole of the Netherlands and they held very little power. In France this middle class group would not
come into power until the French Revolution over a century later.
This emerging middle class in the Netherlands, as well as the now more prosperous peasants, would create a great deal of stimulation for the economy, that includes the art market. A first in Europe, the art market proved more prosperous than patronage. There was a growing private demand for art and this was directly affected by the amount of money the collectors now had at their disposal and the decrease of need for devotional paintings; this led to a new function of art as decoration in the Dutch household. Buyers wanted artwork they could relate to, this is why subject matter such as still lifes, genre paintings, and portraits became so popular during this period.