National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 3 (II:1), 1964

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Notes on an Eighteenth-Century Dutch Painting

by William A. Blom, Research Curator

Résumé en français

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In 1957 the National Gallery of Canada acquired the painting A View in Amsterdam by Isaak Ouwater (Fig. 1). This is the only eighteenth century Dutch painting in the permanent collection. Eighteenth-century Dutch artists are not as celebrated as their predecessors of the seventeenth century, certainly not beyond the borders of Rolland. It is for this reason that the Ouwater painting in Ottawa is of particular interest.

During the seventeenth century Rolland reached a climax of artistic expression, the quality of which was impossible to sustain or to equal again. The eighteenth century could at best only carry forward a tradition of technical competence, as the spirit of the country had changed and lacked the vigour of the previous century. In Rolland it was one of gestation, preparing the way for the nineteenth.

The first half of the eighteenth century was still a continuation of the seventeenth: Rolland remained a colonial power and continued to prosper economically. During the second half of the century the incompetence of the government (in particular that of the two stadtholders, Willem IV and Willem V) contributed to the decline of the country's fortunes. The activities of the Patriots ( 1775-87) almost led to civil war, and French revolutionary armies easily overran the country. French influence had, in fact, penetrated Rolland at a much earlier date. During the 1660's French fashions held sway not only in dress and manners but in architecture and interior decoration. It was Daniel Marot who introduced the style of Le Nôtre in Rolland.

Despite the political setbacks of the eighteenth century, architecture at tests for the country's prosperity at that time. Many new merchants' houses were built in Amsterdam and in smaller provincial towns. Not withstanding this outward prosperity, native creative powers seemed drained, and the country grew inward and somnolent. The Dutch were living on their capital, and a distasteful complacency appeared in Dutch society for the first time. It is this complacent and slightly tired face of Rolland that is reflected in the work of her eighteenth-century painters.

The decline of Dutch painting had already begun towards the end of the seventeenth century when the Rembrandt-Hals era was over and French Baroque painting was being imitated. The eighteenth-century painters' repertoire consisted of history painting, conversation pieces, flower-painting, painted wall-paper, and topographical views. The history painting was highly appreciated in its own time, but today we find it dull. The conversation piece (gezelschapstuk) had remained popular since the sixteenth century. (1) Despite claims by its much-documented English counterpart, this particular genre was of Dutch origin. Flower-painters continued the conventions of the previous century, though somewhat lighter and looser in style. Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) was one of the more renowned flower-painters of that time and represents the link with earlier traditions. Painted wall-paper was something new and the topographical view was very popular and in great demand. There were many competent painters and draughtsmen who travelled all over the Law Countries and left an accurate and lively record of the towns and villages as they appeared during the eighteenth century. Large and richly illustrated topographical books were published at that time, with the majority of illustrations by artists such as Jan ten Coillpe (1713-1761) who was perhaps the best of them, Cornelis Pronk (1691- 1759), Jan de Beyer (1703-1785), Paul van Liender (1731-1797), Jan Ekels (1724-1781), his son of the same name, and others. Their drawings in particular are of great interest.

Dutch topographical painting of the latter half of the eighteenth century is characterized by its scrupulous attention to detail and precise observation of nature and does not strictly imitate earlier painting. A striking feature of these eighteenth-century views is a predominant lack of activity: the light falls clearly on open squares and canals, a few people are about who seem to stand still and have nothing to do. The effect is rather that of the intimate Dutch interior, but here the well-ordered lives of the citizens move out into the street. In front of the pleasant Dutch houses there seems to hover an endless, almost unreal, quiet.

These characteristics are perfectly exemplified in the work of Isaak Ouwater. He was born 16 March 1750 in Amsterdam and died there on 4 March 1793. During his comparatively short life he was active in Utrecht, Haarlem, and Amsterdam, and chiefly painted views of these towns with figures. (2) Little else besides these few facts is known about him. (3) The painting in the national Gallery, A View in Amsterdam (Fig. 1) , signed and dated 1778, (4) depicts the West Church (Westerkerk) which is the largest and perhaps the most monumental of the Renaissance churches in that city. (5) The church was built around 1620 from plans by Hendrick de Keyser, who died in 1621, and the steeple was completed in 1638 based on an altered design. In this painting the West Church is seen across the Keizersgracht and the houses beyond the church are on the Prinsengracht. The house to the right of the church was a merchant's house constructed in 1618. (6) The impressive building on the left was a guard-house built in 1619 and was called the West-Hall. (7)

This view in Ouwater's painting is almost identical to that painted by Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) during the previous century, View of the West Church at Amsterdam, in the Wallace collection (Fig. 2). The figures are by Adriaen van de Velde (1635/6-1672). (8) Van der Heyden's painting is not dated but it is known that his townscapes containing figures by van de Velde date from the decade before van de Velde's death in 1672. (9) In van der Heyden's later works the figures are by Eglon van der Neer (1635/6-1703). Van der Heyden, called the Dutch Canaletto, is often regarded as the first artist in Arnsterdam to paint townscapes, although Job Berckheyde (1630-1693) and Gerrit Berckheyde (1638- 1698) were already active in Haarlem, at that time a provincial town of moderate size which showed a marked interest in art.

The great difference between the two Berckheydes and van der Heyden is that towards the end of the seventeenth century the latter adopted an entirely personal style in townscape painting. He appears to have been a follower of Leyden artists such as Gerard Dou (1613-1675) and Frans van Mieris (1635-1681), which probably accounts for his depicting every building in minute detail, and achieving exquisite finish. Van der Heyden's paintings of Amsterdam are important as in these works are to be found exact renderings of urban scenes, whereas his topography of other towns is sometimes wayward, presumably based on sketch books. Despite this, his painting has had a continuous influence on Dutch artists as late as the nineteenth century.

Next PageView of the West Church at Amsterdam

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