The most recommended books on the Dutch Golden Age

Who picked these books? Meet our 3 experts.

3 authors created a book list connected to the Dutch Golden Age, and here are their favorite Dutch Golden Age books.
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Book cover of Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection

Richard Stemp Author Of The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art

From my list on recent exhibition catalogues.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have always enjoyed looking at art, and love it when I can help others to enjoy it too. Curators and academics are incredibly knowledgeable, but sometimes theory gets in the way, and academic precision can lead to turgid texts. I’d rather write in a way that is as simple as possible – without being condescending – and so help people to understand art more fully. That’s why I love it when exhibitions bring art together in new ways, encouraging us to look afresh at familiar images, or startling us with something we haven’t seen before.

Richard's book list on recent exhibition catalogues

Richard Stemp Why did Richard love this book?

The exhibition dedicated to Johannes Vermeer at the Old Master Picture Gallery in Dresden last year was one of the best I have ever seen. Inspired by a recent discovery – a crucial detail in one of the Gallery’s own works had been painted over – the exhibition set out to explore the artist’s work in-depth focusing on this one image. The restoration of the painting and the revelation of the hidden detail led to a re-evaluation of Vermeer’s art. Each room of the exhibition, and chapter of the book, introduces a different aspect of the painting so that, when you finally get to see it and read about it, you have a thorough understanding of its meaning and development, and even of the society in which it was produced.

By Stephan Koja,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Johannes Vermeer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer is one of the most famous works of seventeenth-century Dutch art. Preserved at the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, the painting has been restored, in an elaborate process lasting from 2017 to 2021. The removal of a large section of overpainting dating from a later period has profoundly altered the work's appearance and revealed the original composition. To showcase the discovery, the Dresden Gemaldegalerie is now presenting the Girl Reading a Letter along with other masterpieces by Vermeer and a selection of exceptional Dutch genre paintings that reveal…


Book cover of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Author Of Dutch Light

From my list on understanding the Dutch Golden Age.

Why am I passionate about this?

In my writing about science, I am always keen to include the artistic and literary dimension that links the science to the broader culture. In Huygens, a product of the Dutch Golden Age, I found a biographical subject for whom it would have been quite impossible not to embrace these riches. This context – including painting, music, poetry, mechanics, architecture, gardens, fashion and leisure – is crucial to understanding the life that Huygens led and the breakthroughs he was able to make.

Hugh's book list on understanding the Dutch Golden Age

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Why did Hugh love this book?

The Dutch Golden Age produced some of the world’s greatest art, but – less known – it was also a period of astonishing scientific and technical innovation. Snyder gets to the heart of the intrinsic connection between the worlds of art and science when she examines the lives of two of the greatest innovators who were born in the same month of 1632 and lived and worked in the same tiny city of Delft, and yet who may never have known each other or even met: the painter Vermeer and the pioneer of the microscope, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.

Although it is frustrating that there is no record of the two men having met – we can only conjecture the kind of conversation they might have had, with their common interest in the use of light and the understanding of optical phenomena – this in a way is the point of…

By Laura J Snyder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eye of the Beholder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On a summer day in 1674, in the small Dutch city of Delft, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek-a cloth salesman, local bureaucrat, and self-taught natural philosopher-gazed through a tiny lens set into a brass holder and discovered a never-before imagined world of microscopic life. At the same time, in a nearby attic, the painter Johannes Vermeer was using another optical device, a camera obscura, to experiment with light and create the most luminous pictures ever beheld.

"See for yourself!" was the clarion call of the 1600s. Scientists peered at nature through microscopes and telescopes, making the discoveries in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and…


Book cover of Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Author Of Dutch Light

From my list on understanding the Dutch Golden Age.

Why am I passionate about this?

In my writing about science, I am always keen to include the artistic and literary dimension that links the science to the broader culture. In Huygens, a product of the Dutch Golden Age, I found a biographical subject for whom it would have been quite impossible not to embrace these riches. This context – including painting, music, poetry, mechanics, architecture, gardens, fashion and leisure – is crucial to understanding the life that Huygens led and the breakthroughs he was able to make.

Hugh's book list on understanding the Dutch Golden Age

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Why did Hugh love this book?

Perhaps no one object was more demonstrative of the Dutch thirst for beauty, novelty and showing-off-but-not-showing-off riches than the tulip. The famous mania for these exotic bulbs, bred to produce ever more exotic flowers and to command ever higher prices, supposedly produced the world’s first economic bubble, which burst spectacularly in February 1637.

The truth is less spectacular (few people were involved in the trade and even fewer were ruined) but, in Goldgar’s skilful telling, much richer and more nuanced than the myth. The episode tells us about the growth of maritime trade and the emergence of the modern financial industry (including the important concept of risk) as well as the cultural interests of Dutch people at this exciting time in their history when the accumulation and subtle display of wealth vied in importance with the quest for aesthetic novelty and genuine curiosity about the natural world. One fashion-conscious doctor…

By Anne Goldgar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tulipmania as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 1630s, the Netherlands was gripped by tulipmania: a speculative fever unprecedented in scale and, as popular history would have it, folly. We all know the outline of the story - how otherwise sensible merchants, nobles, and artisans spent all they had (and much that they didn't) on tulip bulbs. We have heard how these bulbs changed hands hundreds of times in a single day, and how some bulbs, sold and resold for thousands of guilders, never even existed. Tulipmania is seen as an example of the gullibility of crowds and the dangers of financial speculation.But it wasn't like…


Book cover of Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Geoffrey Parker Author Of Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century

From my list on the 17th Century.

Why am I passionate about this?

I teach history at The Ohio State University. This project began when I listened in 1976 to a radio broadcast in which Jack Eddy, a solar physicist, speculated that a notable absence of sunspots in the period 1645-1715 contributed to the “Little Ice Age”: the longest and most severe episode of global cooling recorded in the last 12,000 years. The Little Ice Age coincided with a wave of wars and revolution around the Northern Hemisphere, from the overthrow of the Ming dynasty in China to the beheading of Charles I in England. I spent the next 35 years exploring how the connections between natural and human events created a fatal synergy that produced human mortality on a scale seldom seen before – and never since.

Geoffrey's book list on the 17th Century

Geoffrey Parker Why did Geoffrey love this book?

Brook uses artifacts portrayed in six paintings by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer to show how, several centuries before the World Wide Web, the local and the global were intimately connected. He surprises his readers by showing that people and goods and ideas moved around the 17th-century world in ways that – rather like us – their ancestors would have considered impossible. Perhaps because Brook is a Canadian historian of China who is familiar with Europe, he provides a truly global history and almost every page contains a “gee whiz” fact. I also love the idea that “Every picture tells a story.”

By Timothy Brook,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Vermeer's Hat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the epicentre of Delft in the Netherlands Brook takes the paintings of Johannes Vermeer and uses details of them as a series of entry points to the widest circles of world trade and cultural exchange in the seventeenth century. An officer's beaver hat in 'Officer and the Laughing Girl' opens up the story of Champlain's dealing with the native peoples of Canada and the beaver trade. A china dish on a table in another painting uncovers the story of the Chinese porcelain trade. Moving outwards from Vermeer's studio Brook traces the web of trade that was spreading across the…


Book cover of Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life and Sudden Death

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Author Of Dutch Light: Christiaan Huygens and the Making of Science in Europe

From Hugh's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author

Hugh's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Why did Hugh love this book?

I love the painting of the Dutch Golden Age for its humanity. All of life is there in its calm domesticity.

In Dutch hands, even a tied bunch of asparagus attains the luminosity of an Assumption, as Laura Cumming reveals as she weaves a memoir of her father, also a painter, with the story of Carel Fabritius, the artist of The Goldfinch, most of whose work was destroyed in the same sudden moment as his life in an accidental munitions explosion in Delft in 1654.

Thunderclap offers a salutary reminder that life comes at you fast – and death too – and that we should use the little time we have to look at our world.

By Laura Cumming,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thunderclap as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Brilliant ... rush out and buy it' Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes

A stunning new memoir of a life in art, a father and daughter, and what a shared love of a painting can come to mean.

'We see with everything that we are'

On the morning of 12 October 1654, a gunpowder explosion devastated the Dutch city of Delft. The thunderclap was heard over seventy miles away. Among the fatalities was the painter Carel Fabritius, dead at thirty-two, leaving only his haunting masterpiece The Goldfinch and barely a dozen known paintings. The explosion that…


Book cover of Rembrandt's Eyes

Simon Worrall Author Of Star Crossed: A True WWII Romeo and Juliet Love Story in Hitlers Paris

From Simon's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Investigative reporter Writer with National Geographic Travel and book lover Passionate reader Cooking enthusiast

Simon's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Simon Worrall Why did Simon love this book?

I loved this book because of its larger-than-life main character, Rembrandt van Rijn, the Golden Age Dutch painter who took the world by storm with his bravura artworks, like Night Watch. And who better to write about this great artist than the scholar Simon Schama?

I loved the way he brings Rembrandt to life, weaving into his life story the creation of his great works. I felt it was a bit like reading a Shakespeare tragedy as Rembrandt, once rich and famous, gradually descends towards poverty and loneliness as his marriage to Saskia fails and his debts spiral out of control. I loved the extraordinary detail of Schama’s almost forensic account of the creation of the paintings and his sympathy with the great Dutch artist’s genius and life. 

By Simon Schama,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rembrandt's Eyes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This dazzling, unconventional biography shows us why, more than three centuries after his death, Rembrandt continues to exert such a hold on our imagination. Deeply familiar to us through his enigmatic self-portraits, few facts are known about the Leiden miller's son who tasted brief fame before facing financial ruin (he was even forced to sell his beloved wife Saskia's grave). The true biography of Rembrandt, as Simon Schama demonstrates, is to be discovered in his pictures. Interweaving of seventeenth-century Holland, Schama allows us to see Rembrandt in a completely fresh and original way.


Book cover of The Great Level

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Author Of Dutch Light

From my list on understanding the Dutch Golden Age.

Why am I passionate about this?

In my writing about science, I am always keen to include the artistic and literary dimension that links the science to the broader culture. In Huygens, a product of the Dutch Golden Age, I found a biographical subject for whom it would have been quite impossible not to embrace these riches. This context – including painting, music, poetry, mechanics, architecture, gardens, fashion and leisure – is crucial to understanding the life that Huygens led and the breakthroughs he was able to make.

Hugh's book list on understanding the Dutch Golden Age

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Why did Hugh love this book?

Fiction allows for the portrayal of a kind of absorption in the processes and materials of a historical period that is unusual in nonfiction. It can give a powerful sense of how time actually passed for people. Vermeer’s chaotic domestic routine as a painter was splendidly imagined by Tracy Chevalier in Girl with a Pearl Earring, for example. But the technical innovators of the Dutch Golden Age – the telescopists, the astronomers, the surveyors and engineers – are yet to be celebrated in this way. Sadly, nobody has written the story of Simon Stevin, who built a sand-yacht that could outrun a galloping horse as it whipped along the Dutch strand, or of Cornelis Drebbel, who demonstrated a submarine for King James I that mysteriously managed to stay underwater with its crew for several hours in the River Thames.

However, Stella Tillyard has performed this service on behalf of…

By Stella Tillyard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Level as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A 'magical, haunting' (Philippa Gregory) novel of a tragic love affair in a threatened world

In 1649, Jan Brunt, a Dutchman, arrives in England to work on draining and developing the Great Level, an expanse of marsh in the heart of the fen country. It is here he meets Eliza, whose love overturns his ordered vision and whose act of resistance forces him to see the world differently.

Jan flees to the New World, where the spirit of avarice is raging and his skills as an engineer are prized. Then one spring morning a boy delivers a note that prompts…


Book cover of Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Author Of Dutch Light

From my list on understanding the Dutch Golden Age.

Why am I passionate about this?

In my writing about science, I am always keen to include the artistic and literary dimension that links the science to the broader culture. In Huygens, a product of the Dutch Golden Age, I found a biographical subject for whom it would have been quite impossible not to embrace these riches. This context – including painting, music, poetry, mechanics, architecture, gardens, fashion and leisure – is crucial to understanding the life that Huygens led and the breakthroughs he was able to make.

Hugh's book list on understanding the Dutch Golden Age

Hugh Aldersey-Williams Why did Hugh love this book?

Baruch Spinoza was the philosophical flower of the Dutch Golden Age. Bertrand Russell called him the "noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers", and I am certainly not going to disagree. Like many of the innovators of the Golden Age, his ideas still seem fresh. Expelled from his Jewish community in Amsterdam for his ‘heresies’, we now find his conception of God as nature highly congenial. We probably share his dislike of ritual and perhaps aspire to his renunciation of materialism. His advice neither to fear nor to hope when it concerns things we can do nothing about is as good now as it was when it appeared in his most famous work, Ethics, in 1677.

Spinoza’s philosophy is hard to approach in the original – his arguments are rigorously constructed in the style of ancient Greek mathematics proofs. But Steven Nadler, as well as producing a towering biography…

By Steven Nadler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Think Least of Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Pulitzer Prize-finalist Steven Nadler, an engaging guide to what Spinoza can teach us about life's big questions

In 1656, after being excommunicated from Amsterdam's Portuguese-Jewish community for "abominable heresies" and "monstrous deeds," the young Baruch Spinoza abandoned his family's import business to dedicate his life to philosophy. He quickly became notorious across Europe for his views on God, the Bible, and miracles, as well as for his uncompromising defense of free thought. Yet the radicalism of Spinoza's views has long obscured that his primary reason for turning to philosophy was to answer one of humanity's most urgent questions: How…