Painting: Merry Mimes

By 1600, European painters found themselves losing the Renaissance reverence for Greco-Roman antiquity. Following the Italian artist Caravaggio, they stopped looking backward and returned, as artists have done repeatedly throughout history, to the direct observation of the visible world. What they saw was a growing middle-class life in an ever more secular society, and they depicted it with theatrical relish.

Nowhere did the bourgeoisie bubble with more prosperity than in The Netherlands—and newly rich burghers invested much of their wealth in art. Patronage grew so great that as early as 1560 in Antwerp alone, there were more than...

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