Here is an excerpt that places Dutch art in context:
The emergence of the Dutch school of painting in the early seventeenth century is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of the visual arts. The Dutch Republic, a small country that had only become a political entity in 1579 and was still suffering from the effects of a long and arduous war with Spain, would hardly seem to have had the resources to nourish and sustain its artistic traditions. Nonetheless, in every respect, the Dutch seem to have drawn strength from adversity; they profited in terms of trade, political awareness, religious tolerance, wealth, and above all, self-esteem. They were proud of their achievements and were determined to provide for themselves a broad and lasting foundation that would define their unique social and cultural heritage.For further resources, check out some of the links on the "old" course web page.
The political and religious attitudes of the period are not readily apparent in the work of Dutch artists. The still lifes, portraits, landscapes, seascapes, and genre scenes that characterize this school of painting are surprisingly lacking in information on the major events of the day. Nevertheless, the philosophical bases from which artists worked are clearly the same as those governing decisions in contemporary political, military, and religious activities. This ideology was essentially threefold: that God's work is evident in the world itself; that, although things in this world are mortal and transitory, no facet of God's creation is too insubstantial to be noticed, valued, or represented; and that the Dutch, like the ancient Israelites, were a chosen people, favored and blessed by God's protection.
Underlying the essential realism of Dutch art, thus, is an allegorical view of nature that provided a means for conveying various messages to contemporary viewers. The Dutch, with their ingrained Calvinist beliefs, were a moralizing people. While they thoroughly enjoyed the sensual pleasures of life, they were aware of the consequences of wrong behavior. Paintings, even those representing everyday objects and events, often provide reminders about the brevity of life and the need for moderation and temperance in one's conduct. Subjects drawn from the Bible, mythology, and ancient history, likewise, were often chosen for their moralizing messages or for establishing parallels between the Dutch experience and great historical, literary, and political events of the past.