Applying Modern Dutch Design Backwards in Time (Re-write of Week 2)

By: Sungwoo (Scott) Cho

According to Aaron Betsky and Adam Eeuwens, in False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good, Dutch design is “so good” because of the thought and innovation that goes into the planning of Dutch cities such as Amsterdam. Dutch design is known for being innovative and purposeful. Can this pattern of innovation and purpose also be applied to Dutch Golden Age paintings? During the Dutch Golden Age, paintings were distinctive and eye-catching because the painters used different perspectives and interesting scenes to grab the viewer’s attention. The paintings can be analyzed and better understood if we apply the framework of Dutch design to the Golden Age paintings; we start to grasp that the art was carefully thought-out and innovative for its time through the use of multiple perspectives.

Dutch design is unique is because important cities in the Netherlands, such as Amsterdam, were initially built on swampland. Dutch designers and architects have to plan and wisely use the space they have available. The Dutch have to continuously innovate, or look for creative but efficient methods, to survive. For instance, Betsky and Eeuwens mention that if the dikes and the underground pumps did not hold back the water, then Betsky’s house would currently be under water. The city’s planners constantly need to find ways to keep the water contained and use this unique landscape to their advantage because two-thirds of the Netherlands is below sea level.

Dutch design can only be one of the best because the swampland in the Netherlands makes it so everything must be carefully planned out and have a purpose whether building roads in a specific way to accommodate pedestrians or generally laying out a city and its buildings. For example, the roads in the Netherlands are distinct and serve another purpose than for just automobile travel. In the Netherlands, bike use is prevalent, and is often the primary form of transportation. The roads have to be altered to accommodate the bikers. Specific roads and junctions in the Netherlands are designed for bike use and must account for the safety of the bike users and pedestrians.

There are many little things that are incorporated into the roads to ensure the safety of non-drivers. For example, roundabouts are very common among roads in Europe and in the Netherlands. However, city planners in Amsterdam added extra qualities to make sure the bike users are safe. As seen in the image below, the circle in the roundabout is small and has a sharp entry angle, forcing the cars that enter the roundabout to slow down before entering and unable to accelerate. The crosswalks for the roundabout are also put at the entrances and exits where the speed of the cars must be the slowest. This purposeful design makes for the safe crossing of pedestrians and for few accidents in the roundabout. Little additions like these show that the roads were planned out with the safety of drivers, bikers, and pedestrians in mind.


Example of Dutch roundabout


Innovative methods like the careful way roundabouts were may seem recent but is not a modern part of Dutch history. We can find similar types of careful planning in the paintings of the Dutch Golden Era. Dutch painters of that era did not want their paintings to be bland or passed by with just a glance so they had to come up with a way to capture their audiences. While Dutch paintings by themselves are interesting to look at and can be looked at from different perspectives, there are always little details that are not very noticeable but fit really well in the painting. Similar to Dutch design, the details in Dutch painting might not always be immediately noticeable but makes the art more attention grabbing because it will be easy to miss important details of the painting if not looked at more closely.

Celeste Brusati in her article, “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real-Time,” says that Dutch artists at the time used different angles to engage their audience and to make a painting seem more in depth. Brusati states that perspective are a pictorial construction of space is a symptom of a modern view based on the perception of space (Brusati 912). However, Dutch perspectives are different because they are fragmented and used to multiply pictorial spaces to bring multiple aspects of the painting into view. This allows Dutch artists to represent three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface and to reflect on the visual experience of the viewer (Brusati 912). What Brusati is essentially saying is that Dutch use multiple perspectives of interior paintings of homes and buildings to put the viewers in the artist’s shoes and make it seem as if they are not just viewers but actually in the rooms with the artist.


Frederick Henry and Ernst Casimir of Nassau-Dietz at the Siege of ’s Hertogenbosch by Pauwels van Hillegaert


One great example is the painting shown above, Frederick Henry and Ernst Casimir of Nassau-Dietz at the Siege of ’s Hertogenbosch, the painting is of Prince Frederick Henry and his cousin Count Ernst Casimir on their horses at the siege of Hertogenbosch. At first, this painting looks different from the interior paintings Brusati refers to in explaining multiple perspectives. However, I chose this painting because the painter Pauwels van Hillegaert also used this same technique of perspective. In the painting, the primary focus is, of course, the two men on their horses. With another look, the landscape of the painting makes it seem like the viewer is one of the soldiers walking along the path. There are details that are not noticed at first but were put there to naturally transport you into the scene. For example, the downward slope of the path or the horses in motion makes the viewer’s eyes follow the path and see the city in the background. More specifically, the lifted position of the legs of the horses and the careful placing of the city below the path that the men are standing on pushes the eyes to naturally follow the path to the city. The viewer can understand not that the men are just soldiers but that they have a purpose and are headed to a specific place. This is exactly what Brusati is trying to convey in the article. The viewer’s eye is encouraged to see from the painter’s point-of-view and wander down the hill, following the path of the two men, toward the city (Brusati 923).

Another technique new perspective is the color used in the painting. The area around the city are bright and colorful but as the scene drifts away from the city, the colors dull considerably. For example, the sky is bright and blue near the city but above the city, the sky slowly becomes grayer and darker the further away it gets from the city. The same detail pertains to the ground; near the city, grass is green, but on the hill far way from the city where the men are situated, the grass is brown. This subtle change in color naturally attracts the viewer to the city and adds to the impression that the men are heading towards the city. These perspectives are incorporated intentionally to make it look like the artist painted the scene as he marched alongside the other men. We see that the Dutch painters used perspective to invite the viewer into a “simulated” experience (Brusati 920).

The key takeaway from Brusati and Hillegaert’s use of the landscape and the colors was that the Dutch painters were purposeful (Brusati 922). This is easily linked to Betsky’s framework for Dutch design. Just like in the painting, Dutch architecture is carefully planned and although it might seem like a regular building or road, everything has a purpose. Going back to the previous example of the roundabouts, the additions are not noticeable when the main focus is the cars. However, changing the perspective to focus more on the pedestrians, it is easy to see that the roundabout was carefully, purposefully designed with the safety of the pedestrians in mind.

Overall, Dutch design has to be innovative because a lack of space forces the Dutch to carefully plan and give everything a purpose no matter how small. Similarly, Dutch painters during the Dutch Golden Age wanted to express a scene with much more then just a square canvas. Therefore, they used numerous perspectives and carefully planned what they wanted to put into a painting. They then were able to put more into the limited space of a canvas just like the limited space of Dutch landscape and give the viewers an experience of being at the scene in real-time. Although the two art forms are hundreds of years apart, it is easy to appreciate how the originality of Dutch painters in the Golden Age coincides with that of Dutch design to allow the Dutch to thrive and conquer with the limited space they have available. We often try to learn about the present by looking at the past, but there is value learning about Dutch art styles by applying modern urban design backwards in time to the Dutch Golden Age.




Betsky, Aaron and Adam Eeuwens. False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good. New York: Phaidon Press Inc. 2008. Print.

Wagenbuur, Mark. “Explaining the Dutch Roundabout Abroad.” Bicycle Dutch. N. p., 2015. Web. 18 June 2017.

Frederick Henry and Ernst Casimir of Nassau-Dietz at the Siege of ’s Hertogenbosch, Pauwels van Hillegaert, c. 1629 – c. 1635 Rijksmuseum. Web. 18 June 2017.

Brusati, Celeste. “Perspective in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real-Time.” Association of Art Historians. 2012. Web. 18 June 2017.


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