Visual culture and identity

In Holland the visual culture was central to the life of the society. One might say that the eye was a central means of self-representation and visual experience a central mode of self-consciousness.1

In 1609, a truce with Spain halted hostilities from the 80 Years War and transformed the newly independent northern United Provinces of the Dutch Republic into a bustling center of trade, literacy, scientific development, and immigration for those seeking the tolerance the new Protestant nation promised. Just to the south, the lower provinces of the Netherlands continued to be ruled by Spain, dominated by Catholicism, and controlled by the aristocracy.

For the northern provinces, the 17th century has become known as the Golden Age, a time when Dutch forays into trade, science, and art were among the most acclaimed in the world, and Dutch citizens developed strong national identity and pride. The independent Dutch Republic was especially remarkable for the explosion of visual culture that expressed and reinforced its new, shared beliefs and aspirations. Man-made objects that communicated information visually, as opposed to solely textually, were everywhere. The Dutch printed on tapestries, on table linens, and in books. They painted on tiles. They created and distributed maps and atlases.2

The market for paintings boomed. Rather than having to rely on commissions from religious or royal sources, artists were a part of guilds that sold their works to the burgeoning middle class, which now had extra money to purchase more than necessities. Landscapes, still lifes, and genre paintings depicting the daily life of a Dutch citizen hung on the walls of modest homes and businesses. A wealthy citizen could "own ten to fifteen paintings in addition to prints and maps," but even middle-class bakers and cobblers owned art.3 As the citizens' wealth grew, so did the size of the paintings. Some may have been purchased as investments. While much of this visual culture was scientific in nature, more still was religious. Instead of relying on scenes from the Bible only, Dutch artists depicted everyday scenarios as a way to convey morals, beliefs, and examples of how to live a good Protestant life. Except for portraits, paintings were rarely commissioned. "Most artists sold from stock out of their studios," and some were purchased through barter.4 Most Dutch painters paid extreme attention to detail, as if the paintings were scientific documentation (and sometimes they were used that way). Artists were faithful to nature over their own experimentation with materials or painting style.

The Geographer (1669) by Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632—1675) is an example of this attention to detail. In the painting, the room is filled with details that describe the life of a geographer: maps, a globe on the cupboard, a compass in his hand, specialized literature throughout the space, and even a book propping him up. The brushstrokes are barely visible, the details highly exacting.5 The piece has been interpreted as an analogy for the painter's life. The artist must pay attention to the precise sciences of perspective but also draw inspiration from nature. To indicate the latter, the geographer pauses from studying his maps to gaze out of the open window.6 The painting can also be read as an expression of the northern provinces' new identity: the geographer is scientific, skilled, worldly, and interested in both visual culture and the landscape of the newly independent country.

1Svetlana, Alpers. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1983, p. xxv.
2 Ibid.
3 Carla,Brenner, Jennifer Riddell, and Barbara Moore. Painting in the Dutch Golden Age: A Profile of the Seventeenth Century. (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2007), p. 32. 16 August 2010).
4 Ibid., p. 39.
5 Alpers, The Art of Describing, p. 27
6 Städel Museum,


  • Ask students to look at Vermeer’s The Geographer (1669) without telling them the title. Challenge them to list and describe as many objects as they can find. What do these objects have in common?
  • Ask them to work together to describe the man in the painting. What is he wearing? What activity is he engaged in? Assess his posture, gaze, and facial expression. From all of these observations, can they guess his career?
  • Tell students the title and that a geographer is a scientist who studies the earth’s physical environment and human habitat. What do they think Vermeer wants us to understand about the geographer’s work? Some say that the geographer in this painting is an analogy for the artist himself. Ask students to compare the geographer to a painter.
  • Tell students that art played a significant role in the daily lives of 17th-century Dutch citizens. Even people of modest means bought art and hung it in their homes. What role does art play in our lives today? How do we consume it?
  • Think about and discuss the following quote:
    From the point of view of its consumption, art as we think of it in our time in many respects began with Dutch art. Its societal role was not far from that of art today.7

7Alpers, The Art of Describing, p. XII.