Ariane van Suchtelen and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (eds.), Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age. Exh. cat. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, October 11, 2008 – January 11, 2009; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, February 1 – May 3, 2009. Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2008. 256 pp, 150 col. illus. ISBN 978-90-400-8461-4 (hardback), 978-90-400-8460-7 (paperback).
Peter C. Sutton (ed.), Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712). Exh. cat. Bruce Museum, Greenwich, CT, September 16 2006 – January 10, 2007; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, February 1 – April 30, 2007. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. 250 pp. ISBN 0-300-11970-4 (hardback).
In 1977 the Amsterdams Historisch Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto mounted The Dutch Cityscape in the 17th Century and its Sources, the first and groundbreaking exhibition to feature Dutch seventeenth-century cityscapes as an independent genre. More than thirty years would pass before this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue would find a worthy successor. With fifty-two stunning paintings (six shown only in The Hague; sixteen only in Washington), Pride of Place – Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age, held at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, succeeded in presenting a splendid survey of the diversity of the portrayals of the beating heart of the urbanized Dutch Republic in the Golden Age.
In the exhibition, the art lover was taken on a journey through various cities in the provinces of Holland and Zeeland as well as in the east of the country, including Amsterdam, Delft, The Hague, Dordrecht, Haarlem, Hoorn, Middelburg, Nijmegen, Rhenen and Utrecht. An eye-opener in the Mauritshuis was that the View of Delft (cat. 45) by Johannes Vermeer could be evaluated within the context of the city view for the first time. The absence of this painting in Washington allowed attention to be focused on Jan van Goyen’s monumental views of The Hague (cat. 20) and Nijmegen (cat. 18), from the Haags Historisch Museum and the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen respectively, whose imposing formats prevented them from being exhibited in the Mauritshuis.
The strength of the presentation was that the compilers pushed the envelope of the modern definition of the genre. The Golden Bend in the Herengracht in Amsterdam seen from the Vijzelstraat (cat. 10), the almost timeless painting that the Rijksmuseum bought from a private collection shortly before the opening of the exhibition, fits every definition of the phenomenon of the city view. The magnificent View of Hoorn (cat. 46) attributed to Abraham de Verwer, which the National Gallery of Art acquired in 2008, is a no less fitting example of a city profile. That the topographical significance of a specific location, however, does not reside solely in architectural motifs is evident in Aelbert Cuyp’s The Maas at Dordrecht (cat. 15) from the National Gallery of Art, in which not only the towers in the background, but the river and the forest of masts of the many vessels were indissolubly linked to the city on the Maas River for the seventeenth-century beholder. Moreover, also interesting in this context is the painting in the Rijksmuseum, Adolf and Catharina Croeser on the Oude Delft (cat. 43), in which Jan Steen treads the line between city view, family portrait and genre scene in a rendering that is unmistakably staged along one of the oldest canals in Delft.
The exhibition catalogue builds on its 1977 predecessor mentioned above. Every painting is described in a well-documented entry, which includes its provenance and references to the most relevant literature. In his introductory essay, Arthur Wheelock outlines the historical context in which painted cityscapes originated. Naturally, the extensive urbanization taking place at the time and the accompanying civic pride played an important role in the emergence of this genre. The Dutch were proud of their patrimony and the beauty of their cities, as is attested by the many odes to and descriptions of cities written in the period. They had notable landmarks in the city recorded or bought paintings of recurring festivities, or historical events and disasters that took place against the backdrop of the city.
A second essay by Boudewijn Bakker explores the development of the genre as of the fifteenth century. Bakker correctly underscores the fact that only a few artists specialized in city views. The majority of the painters of cityscapes were masters in another genre, such as seascapes, landscapes, of perspective views. Therefore, it is not surprising that city views could assume so many different forms.
This genre can be roughly divided into several categories: profiles, in which the city is seen in its entirety from a distance; inner city views, which sometimes even zoom in on ‘portraits’ of individual buildings; and courtyards or interiors within the town walls, with views through gates and windows. It becomes clear that some painters, such as Gerrit Berckheyde, made fairly accurate renderings of the city, while others, including Jacob van Ruisdael, concentrated more on the atmosphere, or placed closely observed buildings next to imaginary structures, as Jan van der Heyden did regularly. The question is whether any aesthetic considerations underlay these liberties, or whether the painters also had other reasons for bending reality to their will.
One of the most important representatives of the seventeenth-century Dutch city view and one of the few genuine specialists in this genre was Jan van der Heyden, also known to many as the inventor of the fire hose and street lighting. He took center stage in the first post-war monographic exhibition devoted to a painter of cityscapes, initiated in 2006 by Peter Sutton in the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, a somewhat reduced version of which was subsequently on view in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The accompanying catalogue is a model of multi-disciplinary research. It substantially augments our knowledge of Van der Heyden, which up until now was derived primarily from Helga Wagner’s monograph Jan van der Heyden, 1637-1712 published in 1971. The life and work of this talented artist from Gorkum, who met with success in Amsterdam, is illuminated from various vantage points. Peter Sutton gives an account of Van der Heyden’s multifaceted life, his art and his inventions. Jonathan Bikker delves more deeply into the early owners of Van der Heyden’s work, many of whom, like the artist, were Mennonites. And, Arie Wallert clarifies Van der Heyden’s specific and highly refined technique and artistic devices. In addition, the paintings and drawings are extensively described and discussed in individual entries, which devote great attention to provenance and early literature. Marijn Schapelhouman took responsibility for all of the drawings. The book ends with an exceptionally useful historical anthology of authors’ biographies and comments about Jan van der Heyden. Interested readers, moreover, should take note of Jonathan Bikker’s article focusing on Van der Heyden’s views of Cologne, which he wrote for the Rijksmuseum Van der Heyden symposium and published in Simiolus (vol. 32, 2006, no. 4).
The two books reviewed here constitute important supplements to the existing literature on seventeenth-century cityscapes. They encourage further research. In particular, special attention should be given to prints and literary descriptions of cities as sources for the way in which painted city views were perceived and appreciated in their own time. Moreover, there is still ample room for studying the relationship between specific locations, architectural types and the narrative staffage in these extraordinarily fascinating paintings.