A View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam by Jan van der Heyden

Today I am going to leave 19th century French art and Impressionism, which has featured in my recent blogs, and look at some 16th and 17th Dutch and Flemish art and artists.  Dutch art has always been very popular and admired for the realism it portrayed of everyday life and it has always proved to be highly collectible.  Before I look at some of the art of that time it may be interesting to look at a brief history of the region which has a bearing on the style of art.   I am probably laying myself open for criticism from Dutch historians for my understanding of this period of the history of the Netherlands and Holland but all I am trying to do is give you a brief insight into Flemish and Dutch art of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Netherlands back in the fifteenth century was a conglomerate of the Seventeen Provinces often referred to as the Burgundian Netherlands, which included part of today’s Germany, Belgium, France and Luxembourg.  It was controlled from 1506 by Charles V who was the Holy Roman Emperor and also the King of Spain.   In 1556, Charles V abdicated and the power passed to his son, Philip II.  With Spanish rule came the imposition of the Catholic religion on the people of the Netherlands.  This policy of strict religious uniformity was imposed by the Inquisition with enormous amounts of brutality.  However the rise of the Protestantism in the forms of the Lutheran and Anabaptist movements and Calvinism were starting to gain ground with the populace.   The beginning of the break-up of Philip’s control of the Seventeen Provinces started with the Dutch people being unhappy at the high level of taxation levelled on them by Philip and his brutal repression of anti-Catholic movements.  To subdue the unrest, Philip sent his Spanish troops to the area under the leadership of the Duke of Alba and their presence and their cruelty further fanned the flames of rebellion.  Control of the vast area was becoming more of a problem for Philip, added to which there was now a threat coming from the French along the southern borders.  Philip II’s troops were moved from the north to the south leaving the north less well controlled and this led to the start of the Eighty Years’ War often termed as the Dutch War of Independence.   After the initial stages, Philip II deployed his armies and regained control over most of the rebelling provinces. However, under the leadership of the exiled William of Orange, the Northern provinces continued their resistance and managed to oust the Spanish armies, and established the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, Holland, in 1609. The Dutch Revolt had officially ended and the Dutch republic of Holland was officially recognised by France and England. The end of the Eighty years War however did not end for another forty years.

The Netherlands was now split along an almost North/South divide.  The north, Holland, became a haven for Protestantism with Calvinism becoming the main religion.  There were no Catholic churches in this northern territory.   It soon became one of the world’s most economically powerful and wealthy maritime nations in the world and Amsterdam became its capital.   As far as far as art was concerned there was also a north/south divide.   The Spanish Catholic south, Flanders, with its capital Antwerp, still had most of its art commissioned by the Catholic Church or the Spanish Catholic rulers and would more often than not therefore depict religious scenes, whereas now the Dutch north where religion was mainly a Reformed Calvinistic one would not allow church’s money to be spent frivolously on the commissioning of art.   Dutch art had new patrons.  Now works were commissioned by the territory’s wealthy merchants and ship owners.  Often the subjects they commissioned had little to do with religion and more to do with their wealth and their status in society.

Today I want to feature an artist from the southern region, Flanders.  Jan van der Heyden was born in 1637 in Gorinchem, which now lies in south west Holland.  In 1650, when he was thirteen years old, the family moved to Amsterdam and lived in a house on Dam Square.   Sadly however, his father, who was a follower of the ethno-religious Mennonite group, died the year of their move.  Jan’s early artistic training began in Gorinchem with drawing lessons at his elder brother’s studio.  He also learnt, from a local artist, the reverse technique of glass painting.  Although we are looking at van der Heyden as an artist his overwhelming love was not art, although he continued to paint all his life, it was his love of engineering and inventions.   He was an artist but he also was an inventor and an engineer.  He designed many things such as the street lighting system in Amsterdam.  Shortly after he and his family moved to Amsterdam he witnessed a fire at the old town hall and the futile efforts that were made to hold back the flames.   He probably never forgot that incident for later, along with the help of his brother Nicolaes van der Heyden, a hydraulic engineer; he invented a fire engine fitted with pump driven hoses which was to change the effectiveness of fire fighting.

In 1661 Jan van der Heyden married and he and his wife moved to a house along the Herengracht, a fashionable area of Amsterdam.  As a painter, Jan van der Heyden, will always be remembered for his beautiful townscapes and his architectural designs certainly dominate these works.   Although he painted many townscapes he also painted scenes featuring village streets and country houses.  He loved to paint old and new buildings and paid particular attention to their facades.  He also completed more than forty landscapes although his landscape art was never in the same league as his contemporaries, Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael.   He worked in partnership with Adriaen van der Velde,  the Dutch animal and landscape painter, and Johannes Lingelbach, a Dutch Golden Age painter, who would often add figures to van der Heyden’ architectural scenes and add landscape effects as a finishing touch to the paintings.   His main subjects were Amsterdam and the region surrounding the Dutch-German border where he and his family visited on many occasions.

In 1672, Adriaen van de Velde died and Jan van der Heyden artistic output dwindled as he concentrated on his main employment that of superintendent of the lighting in Amsterdam and he also devoted much of his time as the director of the Amsterdam Fireman’s Guild.  He died a wealthy man in 1712, aged 75.

View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam by Jan van der Heyden (c.1660)
(National Gallery, London)

My featured painting today is entitled View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam.    The building work on the protestant church commenced in 1620 and was designed by the foremost architect of the time, Hendrick de Keyser, the father of the Dutch painter Thomas de Keyser.  The construction was completed eighteen years later and at the time its tower was the highest in the city.  Jan van der Heyden painting is of the church, seen from the east, across from the Keizersgracht, the new Emperor canal.  Buried within the church are the painters Nicolaes Berchem, Rembrandt and his son Titus.

There are two versions of this paintings housed in galleries in London.  Both were painted between 1660 and 1670.   In both cases these are, like many of his townscapes and landscapes, only loosely based on actual views as topographical accuracy was not in the forefront of his mind when he started to work on his paintings.  It was almost as if he wanted to bring into his painting all that was beautiful about the town, whether it be its landscape or its architecture.  It was simply an idealised townscape which I believe does not lessen the beauty of the finished work.  The difference between these paintings and others he did was that in View of Westerwerk, Amsterdam he has paid great attention to the detail of the buildings whereas in other townscapes the main buildings may look half finished with the emphasis being placed on surrounding structures and open spaces.

Let us look at the version which is at the National Gallery in London.  Look at the clarity of this work.  Marvel at the detail van der Heyden has put into this painting.  In the foreground we can see four wooden casings which protect the young tree saplings.  One can almost read the writing on the torn posters which have been affixed to the casings.   This version is much larger than the one in the Wallace Collection, measuring 91cms x 114cms and almost three times the normal size of van der Heyden’s previous works.  It is believed that it was commissioned by the governors of the Westerkerk, for their meeting room, where it remained until 1864.   I love the details of the red-brick buildings but look at the contrast in colour of them with how the artist has depicted the blue sky with all its luminosity, the yellow cobblestone path in the foreground which runs parallel to the stretch of the canal and the glass-like stillness of the water.  It is probable that another artist painted the people and animals shown in the work.

View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam by Jan van der Heyden (c.1665-1670)
(Wallace Collection, London)

I went to the Wallace Collection last week and saw this other version of the painting.  It is much smaller in size, measuring just 41cms x 59cms.  The artist’s signature can be seen in the lower right on the coping of the canal wall.  To the left of the church is the Westmarkt and if you look carefully between the trees you can just make out the Westerhal, which housed a meat market on the ground floor and above it was a guard house.   The house which we see to the right of the church is Keizersgracht no, 198 and was at that time the residence of Lucas van Uffelen a wealthy Flemish merchant and art collector.  What is very striking about this small painting is the sharp contrasts of colour, light and texture with shadows slanting across the front of the church.  Look at the contrast between the angular roofs and the luminous blue sky.  See how the artist has contrasted the trees heavy in leaf with the red brick buildings and in the case of the house on the right of the painting, its whitewashed frontage.  In this painting, unlike the one at the National Gallery, the artist(s?) have depicted reflections in the still water of the canal.  It should be remembered that this painting was completed after the one which now hangs in the National Gallery and is probably a re-working of the scene.  It could be that Jan van der Heyden was not completely satisfied with his first effort and wanted to make some artistic improvements.

If you are in London, why not take a chance to visit both galleries and compare the two paintings and decide which you like the best.