Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2007
Peter C. Sutton Jan van der Heyden (1637–1712) Exh. cat. Yale University Press, 2006. 256 pp.; 110 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. $65.00 (0300119704)
Exhibition schedule: Bruce Museum, Greenwich, CT, December 16, 2006–January 10, 2007; Rijkmuseum, Amsterdam, February 1–April 30, 2007
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Jan van der Heyden. View of the Dam with Town Hall in Amsterdam (1668). Oil on canvas, 73 x 86.5 cm. Musée du Louvre, Departement des Peintures, Paris, inv. 1337. Photo credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

Of the diverse artistic specialties that developed in the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century, architectural painting was the last, fully emerging only during the 1650s. Interior and exterior views of major local buildings—real or imagined—along with depictions of the larger built environment of the rapidly growing Dutch cities allowed artists to celebrate national power and prosperity while examining aspects of visual experience also explored in many landscapes and genre paintings of the period: space and the interaction of solids and voids as revealed within varying conditions of natural light. Particular artistic problems are posed, however, by the need to render such large and complex three-dimensional forms as small two-dimensional images. Thus, the works of architectural painters inevitably address technical problems such as perspective, often revealing the complex and fascinating blend of empirical observation and theoretical thinking commonly encountered in both the art and scientific illustration of the Age of Observation.

The recent exhibition of Jan van der Heyden’s works at the Bruce Museum, curated by Executive Director Peter Sutton, is also being shown in a slightly abridged form at the Rijksmuseum. The exhibition is an important contribution to an understanding of this category of painting and to a painter, draughtsman, and printmaker who has come to be recognized as one of the most gifted and original practitioners of townscape painting. It is also the first monographic exhibition on Van der Heyden since the Amsterdams Historisch Museum commemorated his three-hundredth birthday in 1937. If Van der Heyden has been given less than his individual due in the exhibition hall, he has, however, been the focus of scholarly attention in monographs by Helga Wagner (Jan van der Heyden, 1637–1712, Amsterdam and Haarlem: Scheltema and Holkema, 1971) and Lyckle de Vries (Jan van der Heyden, Amsterdam: Meulenhoft and Landshoff,1984) as well as in articles by Wagner ( “Jan van der Heyden als Zeichner,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 12 (1970): 111–50) and Peter Schatborn (“Tekeningen van Jan van der Heyden,” Leidse Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 10 (1995): 225–34) dealing specifically with his drawings.The present catalogue builds strongly on these foundations and on related research on Dutch cityscapes, and it offers full analysis of each of the thirty-seven paintings and sixteen drawings in this show, with supplemental material relating to Van der Heyden’s illustrated book on firefighting. Of special interest to both catalogue reader and museum visitor are the demonstrations and discussions of Van der Heyden’s novel working methods.

Even in a period in which individuals were commonly involved in widely divergent professions or areas of interest (Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, the pioneering microscopist, was a cloth draper; the artists Jan Steen and Vermeer were innkeepers, etc.), Van der Heyden emerges as an extraordinary figure. Sutton’s extensive and engagingly written introductory essays include a full account of the artist’s family—Mennonites from Gorinchem who manufactured fine goods such as cabinets, mirrors, and frames and settled in Amsterdam where Jan apparently apprenticed as a glass painter. This very blend of commerce and art would characterize Van der Heyden’s double life as an artist and inventor whose ingenious devices for safe and effective streetlighting and firefighting would make him extremely wealthy during the 1670s.

Van der Heyden’s major patron, Joann Huydecoper II, the Amsterdam Burgomaster who owned extensive property in the Vecht region, represents the kind of client who particularly valued his highly detailed views of specific sites (the artist painted at least fourteen depictions of Huydecoper’s estates around Marsseveen). Jonathan Bikker’s essay on the original owners of Van der Heyden paintings notes, however, that the details of only one purchase are known: that of his stunning View of the Amsterdam Town Hall and the Dam (1667, now in the Uffizi), acquired by Cosimo de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, on his visit to Amsterdam in 1667–68. Many other buyers were apparently fellow Mennonites or municipal colleagues, but a notable lack of evidence indicates that Van der Heyden was unusually inactive in the art market. Indeed, the fact that he never joined the Amsterdam guild and that seventy-three of his paintings were still in his possession at the time of his death in 1712 shows that art was not his primary career and that he clearly did not have to support himself by painting. Nonetheless, the fact that several still lifes exist with inscriptions stating that the artist was seventy-four (and in one case seventy-five) years of age when he painted them proves that he continued to be seriously involved with his painting into the very last year of his life.

It is actually not surprising that Van der Heyden produced still lifes with fine kunst/wunderkammer-like imagery (approximately ten within a total oeuvre of about one-hundred-and-eighty paintings); for his architectural paintings, which also evoke a sense of wonder, have something of the quality of still life—meticulously painted groupings of motifs whose varied shapes and volumes and assorted surface textures are recreated in oil paint with eerie exactitude. These townscapes are indeed very still, although the artist did increasingly seek ways of enlivening his scenes through the addition of staffage figures (often inserted by other painters such as Adriaen van de Velde), the use of unexpected viewpoints and dramatic foreshortenings, and the incorporation of complex plays of light and shadow.

The experience of seeing an exhibition consisting entirely of Van der Heyden’s paintings is unexpectedly demanding, even taxing, since these small-scale, minutely finished works require uncommonly close and persistent scrutiny. A small quibble with the handsomely mounted exhibition at the Bruce is that very low light levels in small galleries without natural light created an effect of intimacy but also made this viewer tire rapidly and wish that she had brought her own magnifying glass, as another visitor had wisely done. Van der Heyden’s exceptionally detailed approach (in comparison to his contemporary Gerrit Berckheyde who painted in an accurate but somewhat more summarizing fashion) often creates a haunting effect of hyperreality that has been noted for centuries as one of the most distinctive qualities of his art.

As Arnold Houbraken observed in 1753, “He painted every little stone in the buildings so minutely that one could clearly see the mortar in the grooves.” (De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, vol. 3, The Hague (1753), 80; quoted in the exhibition catalogue, 239). This and similar comments, of course, raise the difficult question of how he did it. Arie Wallert’s catalogue essay addresses Van der Heyden’s technique and use of special tricks (what Jan Campo Weyerman called his “art secret”), demonstrating that he employed a similar working method to produce both the prints in his firefighting book and his paintings. While the use of drawings to establish geometric perspective is hardly uncommon among architectural painters, Van der Heyden worked through successive preparatory studies, making extensive use of counterproofs transferred directly onto his etching plates and onto the white grounds of his paintings. By this method difficult perspective problems could be worked out before the painting was even begun, giving the artist an unusual degree of control and allowing him to work gradually into finer and finer details, virtually without self-correction.

More surprisingly, the same counterproofing technique allowed him to produce convincing brick patterns, as fresh impressions of etched brickwork were also transferred to his paintings, often from small pieces of cut-up paper, while stamps made by sponges or pieces of plant material—lichen or moss pressed onto a painting’s surface—could create the minute textures of foliage. Figures would be added only at the very end of this process. Such methods, which encourage repetition of the same motifs, the use of mirror images, and free combinations of various buildings, mean that Van der Heyden’s cityscapes often convey a startling blend of extreme realism and outright fantasy as, for example, when the Jesuit church of St. Andreas at Düsseldorf with its distinctive double towers pops up in various manifestations within very different settings, or when the church at Veere materializes in the midst of an invented Amsterdam canal view. Though Van der Heyden was a master of creating plausible realities, one wonders what Dutch viewers of his time thought of the kind of scene that, in today’s terms, might place the Empire State Building on the Washington Mall. Were such imaginative combinations recognized and simply admired for their inventiveness? Or was the incongruity of the juxtaposition a cue to look beyond the surface appearance and reflect upon some further meaning?

In the Bruce Museum’s installation, which included scientific books from the period, Van der Heyden’s relationship to the scientific and technological devices of his period was also demonstrated through the recreation of a perspective box along with a to-scale reproduction of Cosimo de’ Medici’s View of the Amsterdam Town Hall and the Dam (cat. 9) with a metal ring attached to the right side of its frame, creating a monocular viewing point to correct distortion of the Town Hall cupola. The juxtaposition of this Uffizi version of the scene of 1667 (cat. 9) with the corrected Louvre version made in the next year (cat. 10) reveals the extent of Van der Heyden’s sophisticated mastery of optical effects and his familiarity with the camera obscura.

Last but not least, a smaller section of the exhibition focusing on drawings and prints relates to Van der Heyden’s development of street lighting and his invention of modern pressure pumps and flexible firehoses (preparatory studies for the prints in influential manuals published in 1679 and 1690). Here one appreciates how the artist used drawings to work through his ideas in images that also project their own intense visual power: many represent buildings or even entire cityscapes imperiled by fire, but largely saved by the new firefighting equipment his book promoted. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that the two sides of Van der Heyden’s career were really not so separate, for both give evidence of his deep involvement with architecture, all the more as the ruined state of buildings reveals much about their construction. In the end, of course, what counts most with any artist is the extent to which individual images can engage and enthrall the viewer. This Van der Heyden exhibition offers many such experiences, for he was an artist capable of capturing all the minutiae of visual experience without losing the clarity and satisfyingly solid structure of the larger view, practicing his magic in handsome city and country views, in and beyond the Dutch provinces, and even within the realms of landscape and still life.

Susan Donahue Kuretsky
Sarah Gibson Blanding Professor of Art, Art Department, Vassar College

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