This marvelous exhibition, and its handsome and informative catalogue, have succeeded in bringing alive a fascinating period in Pieter Saenredam’s life, his twenty-week sojourn in Utrecht from mid-June to late-October 1636. In assembling the large corpus of drawings Saenredam made during this period, and the paintings he later executed in Haarlem on the basis of these studies, the exhibition’s organizers, led by Liesbeth Helmus, created a well-conceived and beautifully-installed exhibition. The catalogue’s careful assessments of the exhibition’s sixty-seven paintings and drawings have created a convincing picture of Saenredam’s working methods and artistic achievements that contributes significantly to the extensive literature already existing on this artist.
In large part aided by Saenredam’s almost neurotic concern about signing and dating his drawings, one had the sense, while walking through the exhibition, that it was possible to look over the artist’s shoulder as he patiently recorded a number of Utrecht’s most memorable churches. Of the 35 architectural drawings he made of the Mariakerk, the Buurkerk, the St. Jacobskerk, the St. Pieterskerk, the St. Catharinakerk, the Dom, and the St. Janskerk, only four are undated. The installation, which included scale models of the churches, made it possible to ponder the relationship of the composition drawings, the measurement drawings, and the construction drawings to each other and to the paintings, some of which were made some twenty-five years later.
Just why Saenredam came to Utrecht in June 1636 and why he stayed so long is uncertain. Of course, Saenredam had by then established a career as a painter of churches, and it would have been logical for the artist to visit Utrecht, a city renowned for the architectural beauty and variety of its ecclesiastical structures. As Arie de Groot notes in his essay “Pieter Saenredam’s Views of Utrecht Churches and the Question of their Reliability,” Saenredam may have stayed so long because in Utrecht he encountered types of churches that he otherwise would not have known in the Netherlands. As for his initial motivation to travel to Utrecht, De Groot plausibly suggests that Saenredam would have been intrigued by reports of the recently completed renovation of the organ in the Mariakerk. De Groot notes that the craftsmen who restored the Mariakerk’s organ in 1635 had also restored the organ in St. Bavokerk in Haarlem, an instrument that Saenredam frequently depicted. Saenredam began his stay in Utrecht by concentrating his energies on this Italian-appearing Romanesque collegiate church, and, in fact, he made far more drawings of this church than he did of any other Utrecht structure. In any event, De Groot’s extremely informative essay is filled with such information about the history and character of the Utrecht churches. He also examines the patterns of Saenredam’s working methods and explains the choices of views he made within each of these structures.
One of the fascinating issues concerning Saenredam’s depictions of these architectural spaces is that the proportion and scale of a building can be radically different from one drawing to another. De Groot discusses a number of reasons for the proportional anomalies to be found in his work. Some derive from the character of the perspective system he used, some from his tendency to contract space in ways that would allow him to include elements for which there was not enough room on the sheet, and some from his efforts to simplify and idealize space. Saenredam also occasionally made mistakes, particularly when constructing ground plans that affected the character of his images. As De Groot emphasizes, however, when taken as a whole, the drawings provided Saenredam with a remarkably accurate impression of the character of a church when he came to paint its image some years later.
Michiel Plomp’s complementary essay “Pieter Saenredam as a Draughtsman” adds a somewhat different dimension to our understanding of Saenredam’s legacy. He explains much about the physical character of the drawings, about the papers, the pen and chalk lines, white heightenings and washes. On the basis of Saenredam’s use of materials, one drawing in the exhibition was reattributed to the artist (cat. 53). Plomp’s description of Saenredam’s working method also includes a discussion of the artist’s perspective system, which he largely derived from the research of Rob Ruurs. One interesting aspect of Plomp’s essay is his examination of drawings that were ‘finished’ by later hands. The most remarkable of these is The Mariaplaats and the Mariakerk in the Teylers Museum (cat. 6), where Plomp argues that the eighteenth-century artist Isaac de Moucheron added the figures and two trees at the right. Curiously, however, the catalogue entry on this drawing does not mention this hypothesis, proposing, instead, that different species – elm and lime trees – accounted for the difference in the handling between these trees and the others on the sheet. Plomp also studied Saenredam’s extensive collection of drawings, and concluded that Saenredam kept his own drawings as part of that collection. Plomp came to this conclusion from a hitherto unidentified numbering system that he found on the verso of many of Saenredam’s drawings.
Geraldine van Heemstra’s essay “Space, Light and Stillness: A Description of Saenredam’s Painting Technique” shifts the focus of discussion to Saenredam’s manner of creating his paintings. She not only describes the various ways in which Saenredam transferred his drawings to the panels, but also the sequence of his paint layers. She is particularly sensitive to the aesthetic decisions Saenredam made in such matters, as, for example, when he applied a particularly thin ground layer to allow the warm color of the wood, and even the wood grain, to affect the appearance of the image. She also discusses how Saenredam often scumbled his paint to add textural effects to the walls, columns and capitals. A particularly interesting aspect of her essay is her discussion of the various gilding techniques Saenredam used to accent organs, chandelier and tapestries in paintings that span his career. Her essay also provides a useful overview of material included in a thin volume of essays from a symposium organized by the Centraal Museum in Utrecht in 1998: The Paintings of Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597-1665): Conservation and Technique, ed. by J.R.J. van Asperen de Boer and Liesbeth M. Helmus (128 b&w and col. illus. ISBN 90-73285-68-2).
As with all good exhibitions, the material is so rich and evocative that inevitably questions arise that are not necessarily addressed in the essays or catalogue entries. Patronage is not really discussed here, in large part because of the assumption, mentioned in Helmus’s introductory essay, that since Saenredam was financially independent he did not paint on commission. That may well often have been the case, but, as Gary Schwartz has argued, Saenredam does seem to have painted a view of the nave and choir of the Mariakerk for Constantijn Huygens in 1641 (cat. 22). As in this instance, it is striking that Saenredam painted images of Utrecht churches long after he had returned to Haarlem. Were these works sold to individuals who had personal associations with Utrecht churches or were Saenredam’s paintings so admired that it made no difference to a potential collector if the work represented a church from Haarlem, Utrecht, Alkmaar, or ‘s-Hertogenbosch? The extended time period over which Saenredam continued to make his paintings of Utrecht churches suggests to me that, as with Huygens, he made at least some of these painting on demand. He may well have shown potential patrons the carefully detailed drawings he made in Utrecht in the summer and fall of 1636 to give them an idea of the composition he would create.
Another question that the exhibition raises concerns the nature of Saenredam’s adjustments to the pictorial space of his scenes. He often enlarged columns and heightened vaults to create a more imposing impression of interior spaces than those recorded in his composition drawings. Nevertheless, despite all of the emphasis in the catalogue on Saenredam’s systems for creating perspective effects, the question whether he created his works to be seen from a specific vantage point is never raised. In some instances, as, for example, the view across the nave in the Mariakerk, now in Kassel (cat. 16), the spatial effects, created primarily by overlapping of forms and differences in lighting, can be appreciated from virtually any viewing point. On the other hand, the rapidly receding barrel vault in St. Anthony’s Chapel in the St. Janskerk in Utrecht, in the Centraal Museum (cat. 67), only works spatially when the viewer is situated at the proper distance point and directly opposite the vanishing point. That Saenredam consciously created this effect is evident in a comparison with the composition drawing (cat. 66), where the recession of space is far less pronounced. Although answers to these questions may never be found, the Utrecht exhibition invites the viewer to ponder some of the mysteries that still surround this remarkable artist.
National Gallery of Art, Washington