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Summary: What Makes the Dutch Art so Special and Unique

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In 17th century during the era of Baroque art in Europe, the Dutch Art dared to introduce a new shocking subjectivism and style that was unique and challenging to traditional artwork. The Dutch Genre Art was characterized by small finely crafted details, often depicting simple things from day to day life, cityscapes, and common people. They are so realistic that you can almost smell the flowers, feel the fabrics, taste the oysters, and watch the caterpillars crawl right out of the frame. Even now, Rembrandt’s intense eyes, Vermeer’s quiet interiors, and the riot of blooms in a classic Dutch still-life excite and inspire the audience. The “Merry Company on a Terrace” is one of the masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age paintings, painted by one of the profound painter of his time, Jan Steen. The “Merry Company on a Terrace” not only signify chaotic and unstable life of the painter, but also represent the eve of the Dutch Golden Age that rejecting the tradition, choose its subjectivism from day to day life of ordinary citizens of the Netherlands. The “Merry Company on a Terrace” is painted in realist theme with real life disorder and is one of many paintings that ought to represent the Dutch household and subjectivism. The use of vivid colors, aligned composition, and symbolism signify the chaotic and unstable nature of the painter and the Dutch household. The composition, theme, and setting along with proper symbolism and subjectivism makes “Merry Company on a Terrace” an artful representation of the Dutch genre painting.

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The Dutch Golden Age art is unique and different from emotionally overcharged Baroque paintings of 17th century mainstream Europe. It is characterized by unusual characteristics, composition, and setting, it used shunned themes to break away from mainstream religious and secular art styles of medieval Europe. It was characterized by uncommon by massive humanism and subjectivism from day to day Dutch life. So, what makes the Dutch art from this time so special? The uniqueness of seventeenth century Dutch art can be explained in three ways; the religious, the political, and the economic. The medieval Europe, transformed by Renaissance and restructured by the Reformation of Martin Luther King, was birthplace of new ideas, where Holy Roman Empire was crumbling and so the authority of the church in state affairs. The first reason behind the Dutch Genre Art was the political, as the Dutch people get rid of their Spanish lords and founded an independent republic where first time authority was transferred from aristocracy to people. As a result of this political change the middle class emerged with more power and resources and started taking interest in genre art, and they were not interested to see some glorified aristocrat or flamboyant portrait of some king. So, they commissioned artists to represent them or their household in their portraits and landscapes and this way the Dutch Genre Art thrived in 17th century Dutch Republic. Unlike its European neighbors, the newly formed the Dutch Republic was a protestant state that recently broke away from its Spanish masters and established a new independent republic based on individual liberty. As, the medieval catholic church was adorned by iconography and artwork, the protestant church prohibited all kind of religious iconography. So, now artists had to turn their attention toward secular themes and human subjectivism. The third reason was economic; as the Dutch merchants were determined to expand their influence, they adventurously sailed to Asia and Australia and brought exotic goods to Europe, and this way the Dutch became the most prosperous, powerful and wealthy trading nation in Medieval Europe. Now, people had huge amount of money all around and they could buy art works to decorate their houses and workplaces. The Dutch Genre had winter landscapes, river landscapes, city landscapes, landscapes with cows, flowers, fruit, trunks, paper, dead rabbits, poultry, you name it, and there would be a Dutch artist who has specialized one of these. So there it is, a wealthy protestant independent people gave birth to one of most versatile art style, the Genre Painting.

Jan Steen, the creator of “Merry Company on a Terrace”, is 17th century unique Dutch artist who is best known for his humoristic themes and comedy of manners. In this regard, he was influenced by his contemporary French playwright Molière and Rederijkers. He may be less objective than his contemporaries Gerard Terborch and Adriaen van Ostade and may be far less sentimental than Mierises. But, in his representation of unstable and unorganized the Dutch household or imagery from inns, he is unique and altogether compelling. His use of vivid colors and unusual composition and themes not only gives its viewer a sense of shock but entice them to think and warn them stay away from inns and brothels.

Jan Steen was born in 1626 C.E in Leiden, in his early age he was trained by German master Nicolaus Knupfer and later was admitted to Leiden University in 1646, where he with Gabriel Metsu founded Leiden painter’s Guild of Saint Luke in 1648. During 1648-1654, he was trained and influenced by Jan Van Goyen and Adreian van Ostade in The Hague and Harlem. In 1648, he married to Margriet daughter of his tutor Jan Van Goyen, who bore him eight children. In 1654, he unsuccessfully opened a brewery at Delft that was bankrupted in 1657 due to consistent managerial neglect. Jan Van Goyen, Steen’s father-in-law, died in 1656 and left a huge debt that was paid by auctioning his work. During 1660-1671, Steen painted in Harlem, and these years are considered to be the most productive years of his career. During this productive period, he created his masterpiece “Merry Company on a Terrace” in 1670 at the zenith of his career. Margriet, Steen’s wife, died in 1669 and a few years later in 1673, he married again to Maria van Egmont. This marriage also could not bring him good fortune and six years later in 1679, he died in poverty at the age of just fifty-three. Above mentioned detail suggest that Steen faced financial crisis throughout his life and was influenced by Jan Van Goyen, Adriaen van Ostade, and Franz Hals in their genre art style and subjectivism. Steen had been a keen observer throughout his life, who spent an unruly and disorganized life, and could never enjoy the luxuries of the life even at the height of his career. It created a unique psychological arrogance in his personality about life, and he turned himself towards comedy of mannerism and unsteady disorganized shunned themes that were rarely addressed by genre masters like Goyen, Vermeer, or Rembrandt.   

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