The myth about Dutch light started circulating in the 19th century. In the 1850s, the Netherlands became popular with painters and writers. Monet, Manet, Liebermann, Whistler, Boudin, Fromentin, Mirbeau and the Goncourt brothers all came to see Holland’s famous 17th-century paintings and the typical Dutch countryside for themselves. And along with them came writers, painters and photographers from America, Germany, France and Britain. From their diaries and journals it seems almost as if the Dutch countryside was discovered through 17th-century paintings, as if the landscapes and the light were the inventions of artists.
The French writer Octave Mirbeau remarked that the ‘real Holland, the land of water and sky… the pearl grey realm’ started at the confluence of the country’s large rivers, about 10 kilometres north of Breda. The German painter Max Liebermann wrote that ‘the mists that rise from the water and shroud the world in a translucent veil give that country its extraordinarily picturesque quality … everything is bathed in light and air.’
Eugène Fromentin, the author of a study of 17th-century Dutch art, said that one could identify the very spot where 17th-century artists like Willem van de Velde and Jan van Goyen had painted their pictures along the coast of Scheveningen. It was as if nothing at all had changed. The Goncourt brothers described Holland in their famous journal as ‘a country lying at anchor’, where light shimmers as if it were filtered through ‘a carafe of salt water’, and in the sky, the constant presence of ‘Ruisdael’s swollen, leaden clouds’.
The French philosopher Hypolite Taine had this to say: ‘Holland’s flat horizons have little to offer. The air is always hazy, which makes all the contours blurred and indistinct. It’s the small touches that matter most. A cow grazing in the landscape is simply tones among other tones. What we notice are the nuances, the contrasts, the values and tonality of the colours. The shades of brightness and the gradations of colour are astonishing… a delight to the eye.’
Descriptions of this kind, contradictory as they were, gave birth to the myth that Dutch light was special.