Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age

The Mauritshuis : 11 October 2008 - 11 January 2009

Interest in urban development was just as great in the seventeenth century as it is now. New ramparts were raised outside the city gates, squares and market places emerged, streets were laid and canals dug; in short, cities gained ever more ground. Many painters were captivated by the burgeoning metropolis, which became a new and appealing subject. Jan van der Heyden and Gerrit Berckheyde were the most consistent and best known practitioners of this genre. They depicted Amsterdam and Haarlem many times over. Landscape painters, such as Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan van Goyen and Aelbert Cuyp, also turned their hands to cityscapes.

Vermeer’s masterful

View of Delft,

one of the most impressive paintings in the Mauritshuis’s permanent collection, was the highlight of the exhibition. Among the cities ‘portrayed’ in the seventeenth century, and also on view in the exhibition, were Dordrecht, Hoorn, Nijmegen, Middelburg and The Hague.

Pride of Place was organized jointly with the National Gallery of Art in Washington were it was also on view.

Growth Spurt

In the course of the Golden Age, the Northern Netherlands evolved into a flourishing nation of traders. This resulted in social urbanisation. Cities were subject to an enormous growth spurt because of an increasing average life expectancy, a rising birth rate and the waves of immigrants flooding the mercantile nation. The population grew so exponentially and rapidly that cities were forced to expand beyond their walls.

Dutch Prosperity

Holland was by far the most urbanised region of the Lowlands, as is clearly evident in the many cityscapes of Haarlem, Delft and Amsterdam. Not only did these cities rank among the largest and most prosperous in the Golden Age, they were also among the most frequently portrayed. Amsterdam led the way, growing into a port and trading centre of international stature in the seventeenth century. Built in 1648, the Town Hall (the present Palace on Dam Square) is a commanding symbol of this rising prosperity. At the time, this phenomenal building was even considered the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, reason enough for Gerrit Berckheyde and Jan van der Heyden to memorialise it on numerous occasions.

Early Cityscapes

Cityscapes from the beginning of the seventeenth century often show cities in silhouette. This was related to the genre’s origin, which was closely related to the advent of cartography in the sixteenth century. Cartographers generally embellished their maps with the ‘skylines’ of cities, so-called profile views, which early cityscapes strongly resemble. A broad view of a city from outside its walls makes it seem part of the surrounding landscape with polders or stretches of water. This view must have tempted landscape painters to depict the city as well. For example, Salomon van Ruysdael presented Nijmegen gracefully merging into the landscape of the typical Waal River in his

View of the Valkhof.

A Bird’s Eye View of Amsterdam

One of the most spectacular cityscapes in the exhibition is the

Bird’s Eye View of Amsterdam (c. 1660) by Jan Christiaen Micker.

It shows the city from an elevated vantage point, which strikes a familiar note to us in the twenty-first century, since it resembles an aerial photograph. The painting is a copy of the very earliest bird’s eye perspective of Amsterdam made by the cartographer Cornelis Anthonisz in 1538. The city is depicted with the IJ River at the north and, curiously, the south at the top. Micker depicted shadows cast by the dark clouds playing over the sun-drenched city below. We look down at Amsterdam before its first expansions. The city’s former layout can still be discerned today in its ground plan.

Artful Deception

A cityscape can be understood as a type of ‘city marketing’ of the time. It presented a ‘portrait’ of the city and expressed a sense of civic pride. Characteristic monuments and occasionally new buildings were meticulously recorded in paint. Artists, though, did not always adhere to reality, and sometimes devised creative ways of showing off their city to best advantage. Accordingly, the most important structures, such as churches and towers were frequently depicted larger than life. That a topographically correct rendering was not always crucial for the successful presentation of a city is particularly clear in Vermeer’s View of Delft. In his renowned painting, Vermeer strategically placed the most important buildings in his native city closer to one another than they actually were.

More images from the exhibition:

Gerrit Berckheyde
The Zijlpoort in Haarlem, c. 1670
oil on canvas
89.5 x 151 cm (35 1/4 x 59 7/16 in.)
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Jacob van Ruisdael
Haarlem with the Bleaching Fields (c. 1670–1675) 

Gerrit Berckheyde (Dutch, 1638–1698), A Hunting Party near the Hofvijver in The Hague, c. 1690
oil on canvas, 58 x 68.5 cm (22 13/16 x 26 15/16 in.), Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

The Hague, the seat of government in the Dutch Republic, remains the political center of the Netherlands even though Amsterdam is the nation's capital. A sense of The Hague's 17th-century courtly life—princes, high-ranking officials, and foreign envoys all resided there—is evident in Berckheyde's scene of an elegant party departing on a falcon hunt. The Dutch parliament still meets in the governmental buildings lining the pond in Berckheyde's composition

Adriaen van de Venne (Dutch, 1589–1662), Middelburg with the Departure of a Dignitary, 1615
oil on panel, 64 x 134 cm (26 3/16 x 52 3/4 in.), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Salomon van Ruysdael (Dutch, 1600/1603–1670), The Valkhof at Nijmegen, 1652
oil on panel, 69.9 x 92.1 cm (27 1/2 x 36 1/4 in.), The Ivor Collection

Jan van der Heyden (Dutch, 1637–1712), The Keizersgracht and the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, c. 1667–1670
oil on panel, 54 x 63 cm (21 1/4 x 24 13/16 in.), Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo Collection

Completed in 1638, the Westerkerk stood between the Keizersgracht (the Emperor's Canal) and the Prinsengracht (the Prince's Canal). It was intended not only as a neighborhood church for the inhabitants of the elegant canal-side houses, but also as the principal Protestant church of the city. The church tower is still the tallest in Amsterdam.

Pieter Saenredam (Dutch, 1597–1665), The Old Town Hall of Amsterdam, 1657
oil on panel, 65.5 x 84.5 cm (25 13/16 x 33 1/4 in.), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from the City of Amsterdam

From an interesting review:

In reviewing the exhibition currently at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age, Blacke Gopnik writes in his Washington Post article The ‘Golden’ Compass that contemporary viewers may not know how to correctly look at classic Dutch landscapes and cityscapes.

He suggests that this is more than having a background knowledge of the artists or particular paintings, and in fact has to do with physical proximity to the painting, a reference to a kind of “sweet spot” from which the painting was intended to be seen, particularly in terms of being close enough to the image for it to fill a significant part of your visual field; but also, in some cases, requiring a vantage point from one side or the other.

A case in point is

Daniel Vosmaer’s Delft from an Imaginary Loggia, (image above, top) which looks “off” at first, but apparently resolves into a strikingly naturalistic scene when viewed from a position close to the bottom left of the painting. Some are more natural seeming in appearance when seen from a distance or in reproduction, like Adriaensz Berckheyde’s The Grote or St. Bavokerk in Haarlem (image above, bottom), but still evidently reveal their full force only when seen up close.


The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue with contributions by Ariane van Suchtelen, Arthur Wheelock and others, and an introductory essay by Boudewijn Bakker. This accessible publication includes colour illustrations of and entries on all the exhibited paintings. The catalogue is preceded by two essays elucidating urban development in the Northern Netherlands and the cityscape as an artistic genre.