The Zaanse Schans and Its Windmills through Dutch Art and History

Windmills in Dutch art have an important role. But why so predominantly in Dutch art and less in other parts of Europe?


The Zaanse Schans and Its Windmills

Through Dutch Art and History


The other day we jumped on our bikes and rode out to one of the main touristic highlights of The Netherlands: the windmills at the Zaanse Schans. If you are only familiar with the central parts of Amsterdam, you will be surprised to learn how easy it is to get to a totally different world just by a short bike-ride away. All you need to do, is cross the river Ij by ferry to the northern part of the city, Amsterdam Noord. From there just keep on biking. Soon enough you will find yourself among farmlands and the famous Dutch ‘polder‘, the land the Dutch reclaimed from the sea.

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Zaanse Schans

Thanks to the traditional windmills lining up nicely along the Zaan river, the windmills at Zaanse Schans are a popular destination for tourists from all over the world. It is admittedly a spot visited mainly by tourists, while we locals only visit at rare occasions. For us this was one of those rare moments. As with all secret pleasures in life, it turned out to be quite enjoyable. You have nice views, a long stretch of good spots for fine-tuning your landscape photography, all while enjoying the fresh breeze of the Dutch summer.

Yes, like all touristy spots there are the obligatory tourist nuisances. Take for example the photographer guy with his team guarding the entrance, briskly taking your picture upon entering, like it or not (just say no).

There are however also the more enjoyable ‘tourist traps’. One of these is a Dutch farmhouse. Here you can buy homemade chocolate. The city of Zaandam on the other side of the river is after all the cocoa capital of The Netherlands. Also, the sweet smells of Dutch ‘koekjes‘ at the Bakery Museum will simply make you drool. And let’s be honest, the windmills are pretty spectacular too.

Thus, concluded, touristy or not, the windmills at Zaanse Schans are certainly worth the 20 kilometers’ one-way bike ride, more than just for the exercise.

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Almost like a trip back in time to the Dutch Golden Age

If you live in Holland, and especially if you’re Dutch, it takes a while to actually realise how special windmills are for far-flung visitors. What’s exotic for others is normal for us, just like it’s the other way around when we go to remote places. Maybe thanks to this change of perspective it was almost inevitable not to ask ourselves some questions:

How come that The Netherlands specifically got so closely associated to windmills and not any other country?

Could it be that the explanation is to be found in the arts?

Windmills through Dutch history

A clear explanation is the popularity windmills gained in the Lowlands, ever since this construction started to revolutionise the European way of living. Windmills, in any case, aren’t a Dutch invention at all. In fact, at the time The Netherlands wasn’t even the country with the most windmills around.

Likely originating from Persia, the first windmills that reached Europe were established on both sides of the English Channel. From the 12th century onward they got especially popular in Normandy and the Flanders. As the early models of them were fixed constructions, far from flexible and fairly small, their main purpose was for grinding grain and not much more.

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A working timber-cutting windmill in Zaanse Schans

As soon as practical-thinking farmers started to improve the windmills drastically, they became a more and more popular necessity all across Europe. In the Netherlands specifically it turned out to be the life-changing invention, that brought a never-before seen prosperity to the country. Until the 16th century the living conditions in this part of the world were among the most difficult thinkable. The wetlands and swamps – only protected from the sea by dunes – were often flooded. Often much was destroyed during the harsh winter months.

When the technological inventions of the time improved the windmill constructions – making them bigger, flexible, more efficient and especially used for new purposes, such as production of flour, paper, oil and timber – they gained a revolutionary importance. Still, the most important area of application was the ability to drain the lakes, creating the path for the Dutch conquest of the sea. Without the windmills, the expression ‘God created the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands’ would surely never even have been coined.

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The prosperity that resulted following the drainage of the swamp-lands, gave rise to a development unmatched around Europe at the time. Combined with the emergence of the Dutch West Indies Company, The Netherlands soon became the world-dominating power in Europe. Further inventions and patents secured meant that the Dutch windmills gained an edge over the international competition. With such an important comparative edge, it’s no surprise that the windmill became the symbol of the prosperity brought to the Dutch people.

It could easily be assumed that this part of Europe was the only dominant region for windmills. A closer look at the statistics quickly shows that at least in numbers the Dutch windmills were not that dominant. At its peak it is assumed that there were around 200,000 windmills spread out across the continent, from Normandy to Spain, from the British islands all the way to Eastern Europe. Out of this large number of mills, it is thought that only 10,000 were in the Dutch territories.

How come then that this five percent of the windmill population of the “civilised” world ended up becoming such a dominant symbol for the country? Quality and a dependence on them surely had an important role in this equation. But it could also be said that the answer is to be found in the arts, as the mean for creating a mythical image around this symbolic construction for Dutch society.

Windmills – The Dominant Motif in Dutch Painting

Much of the fascination with the windmills for the Dutch is the symbolic power it had on their day-to-day life. As observed above, the prosperity the Dutch society experienced starting at the end of the 16th century was all due to the conquest of the sea, thanks to this huge machine with its harmoniously turning sails. It’s no wonder that the windmills became a beloved construction, almost treated like a temple of deities. The windmills were seen as guardians of the land and of the people living on and off it. The windmills also had a spiritual meaning: the movements of its sails drew parallels to the animation of the human soul.

At the same time as the prosperity of the country was driven by the introduction of the windmills, the Dutch people also rose up against the Spanish rule they were under. The country finally gained independence in 1648, when the Eighty Years War finally resulted in Spain recognising the independent Dutch Republic.

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Zaanse Schans

At the same time, the arts started to make important advancements. It slowly became a vital part in more and more people’s lives. In most other parts of the world the popular painting motifs were of exotic landscapes. However, in The Lowlands the newly expanding middle-class had a strong preference for paintings capturing the beauty and harmony of their own backyard. Without doubt there were enough nationalistic motifs of pride involved to create a market for this symbolism.

With economic prosperity came also an enlightening and an urge to satisfy not only the basic human urges, but also a need for the aesthetics. The result of it was the Dutch Golden Age, to this day considered as one of the most important art movements in human history.

It is estimated that around the mid-1600s there were some 700 active painters working in the Netherlands. This would roughly mean one artist for each 2,500 inhabitants. If only considering the leading cities of the era, like Leiden and Utrecht this ratio would be even higher. In fact, it was even higher than what the Florentine Renaissance mastered a good century earlier. With such a competitive market, it comes as no surprise that the quality of the paintings became the best of the time in Europe. Soon it would also be among the most sought-after items also for foreign collectors.

With the spreading of the paintings, it’s little wonder that for the foreign observers the windmills also became the symbol of this harmonious-looking country in the northwestern corner of Europe.

From the Dutch Golden Age to Mondrian

While the Dutch Golden Age for the arts covers a wide range of motifs, the windmills remain at the centre of the movement. Some of the most important pieces from the time feature one of these constructions. Perhaps the most famous windmill-featuring paintings from the time is Rembrandt’s ‘The Mill’, finished in 1648. These days it can be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

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Rembrandt van Rijn – The Mill – 1645/1648, (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

Rembrandt’s Mill is a clear example of the idealistic painting of the time. Painted just around the period the Dutch republic gained its long-awaited independence, it could almost work as propaganda.

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Arent Arentsz – Polderlandscape with Fishermen and Farmers – ca 1611 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

However, it didn’t stop there. Windmills remained a popular object in the Dutch landscape and just as much in the arts. With time styles evolved and new artistic movements took over. The windmills, however, remained a solid symbol for the ‘Dutchness’.

Almost all big artists – be it Van Gogh or even Mondrian – at some stage during their careers sought out Dutch windmills. Foreign artists visiting the Lowlands also frequently found their ways to the windmills. Claude Monet was likely one of the most famous ones. When leaving these artists took the windmills with them, to spread the message of this Dutch symbol further over the world.

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Windmills near Zaandam – Claude Monet (1871)

Eventually a different era reached Dutch society as well. Belatedly the Industrial revolution from England also reached the polder. By the end of the First World War windmills became of a secondary importance. Slowly they started to be replaced by more efficient machinery. Out of the 20,000 windmills once around the country some 900 to 1,000 still stand. Most of them have been saved by culture enthusiast who still caress this Dutch symbol, the mean by which this country became what it is today. Some of the windmills are still active, but it’s not out of necessity. We would like to think it’s more for sentimental reasons.

Occasionally it’s easy to forget what once was and why we are in our fast-paced world. Technological advancements kind of make us blind. Thus, it is nice to know that thanks to tourism and some enthusiasts we can keep an eye on the past to know better where we’re heading. And of course, through the works of art left behind.

Visiting The Windmills at Zaanse Schans

If you would like to see the windmills at Zaanse Schans by yourself, it’s very easily done.

By bus:

From Amsterdam take Bus 391 from the harbour-side of Amsterdam Central Station, from the platform on the first level. The bus ride takes about 40 minutes through the neighbourhoods of Amsterdam Noord. The bus runs every 15 minutes (departing at 07, 22, 37, and 52 past the hour). Please note that only the bus departing at .22 and .52 takes you all the way to Zaanse Schans, if you take the other one you get to Zaandam and from there you have to walk some 15 minutes across the bridge over the Zaan river.

The one-way cost is around Euro 3.50 with the Dutch public transport chip card without any discounts. These days it’s not possible to buy your ticket on the bus.

By train:

You can take the train from Amsterdam Centraal to Zaandam and walk from there. Make sure you take a train that takes you to the ‘Zaandam Koog-Zaandijk’ station. From the main station in Zaandam the distance is five km. One-way journey with chipcard is about Euro 3.

For time tables across the entire country as always use 9292.nl.

By bike:

Do just like we did: take a bike. Rent a bike from your preferred bike rental in the city and follow the route provided here. Our recommendation is to take the ferry across from Amsterdam Centraal to ‘Amsterdam Noord Buikslotermeerplein‘ and follow the slightly longer route via Landsmeer and Oostzaan. It’s way nicer, more picturesque. The alternative route is via Zaandam the city itself, which involves a ferry at Hemburg (runs every 20 minutes). Yes, it is a bit shorter, but it’s mainly through industrial areas without much of feelgood factor along the route.

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