We live in the picture, we walk about in it, we look into its depths, we are tempted to raise our heads to look at its sky.1

In the 17th century, landscape art in the northern provinces went through a dramatic transformation. A new realistic approach to the genre began to emerge as Dutch artists returned to close observation of their country's terrain to express their pride and cement their national identity. In the 16th century, paintings had rarely focused on the environment, and when religious paintings had included scenery, artists had drawn details from their imaginations or the work of earlier artists. They also adhered to schematized conventions of composition and color that dictated that the foreground be brown, the middle ground green, and the background blue.2

By the beginning of the 17th century, artists in the northern provinces were creating landscapes independent of biblical or mythological stories that celebrated the nation. Pleasurable activities such as rabbit hunting, skating, and walking in the woods; animals such as cows and fish; and man-made features such as windmills all cohered to form a vision of what it meant to be Dutch.3 Artists were also developing a new compositional unity by subordinating details to the whole, communicating an overall mood, using diagonals that stretched into the distance (in the form of rivers or paths), and imbuing the entire canvas with subtly changing tones of ochers and grays rather than the strictly divided color scheme that had come before. A scientific interest in light led landscapists to experiment with its effects on the canvas.4 Dutch interdependence with the sea-economically, geographically, and militarily-compelled artists to create seascapes, and a growing exploration of faraway lands led others to paint colonial discoveries like Brazil for European eyes. Later in the century, in what is known as the structural or monumental phase, landscapes became more dramatic and were marked by stronger colors and firmer structure.5

Jan van Goyen (1596—1656) was a leading landscape painter who helped develop what is known as the tonal style in the 1630s in which he created pictorial harmony with a limited range of colors.6 Van Goyen was adept at atmospheric perspective-implying distance by painting objects fuzzier or duller-and was adept at painting water in a variety of circumstances. His technique of painting wet—on—wet created ridges on his surfaces that animated them with texture. He was an early master of depicting the vast sky that is often associated with Dutch landscapes. By making it take up a large proportion of picture space, he accentuated the flatness of land.7 Landscape with Path through the Dunes (1629), for example, emphasizes the sky but also displays a characteristic compositional pattern-a heavy structure on one side, open space on the other-all to emphasize the vastness and great power of nature.

1Eugene Fromentin, The Masters of Past Time  (1876  quoted in Alpers, The Art of Describing: Ducht Art in the Seventeenth Century. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
2Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century. 2nd ed. (New York: IconEditions, 1993), p. 48.
3Ibid., p. 55.
4Ibid., p. 210.
5Ibid., p. 211.
6Ibid., p. 206.
7Ibid., p. 208.


  • Ask students to think of a time when they have been in a natural setting. What were the most interesting elements of the landscape? What might be a challenge to capture in art?
  • Now ask students to look at van Goyen’s painting Landscape with Path through the Dunes (1629). Ask them to track how their eyes move across it and where they settle. What do they notice first and last? Ask them to consider the relationships between elements in the painting, such as figure and landscape, sky and land, light and shadow, near and distant. Which elements are prominent, fuzzy, dark, or balanced?
  • Van Goyen used several important techniques in this painting. He added human-sized elements like houses, animals, or people to emphasize the grandness of nature. He also created the illusion that objects were in the distance by making them smaller, their outlines hazier, and their tones lighter. Can they find examples of these techniques in the work?
  • This painting is called Landscape with Path through the Dunes. A dune is a ridge of sand created by wind. Ask students to imagine what it would be like to inhabit this landscape. How would it smell, sound, or feel? How do elements like figures, sky, land, or light and shadow contribute to these sensory impressions?
  • Dutch artists during this time period observed landscapes from nature, especially from their own country in which they had much pride. Van Goyen spent years traveling the Netherlands sketching his observations in his sketchbooks. Previously, artists had painted from their imaginations or based on the landscapes in earlier artworks. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these two approaches? Which do you think you would prefer as an artist? Which would you prefer as a viewer?