Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Seventeenth Century Dutch Art – Recording the Visual World


Hendrich Avercamp's paintings were predominantly set in winter, on frozen ice. His works are charming scenes of life in which all members of Dutch society appear together, skating on the ice – an activity which has survived to this day on frozen canals in the Netherlands. There are elements in Winter Scene on a Canal which suggest that the scenes are not just recordings of life on a typical winter day. Rather, the appearance of all ranks of society together can be seen to represent the common mindset of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century. The setting of ice celebrates the triumph of the Dutch in reclaiming land from water. The appearance of a tricolour flag in the painting denotes the period. The orange-white-blue horizontal stripes represented the united flag, which remained until the 1630s, when the orange stripe was replaced with red.4

 Hendrich Avercamp's  Winter Scene on a Canal

Avercamp populated his paintings with a detailed milieu: carefully crafted individual figures whose likeness appeared repeatedly in his paintings. These stock figures would suggest that his painting style is based on composition rather than recording visible reality. However, the subjects of composition are elements which were rooted in the daily life and experience of the Dutch; they still present elements of seventeenth century life that are valid and recognisable as a traditional view of winter life. The buildings, the dress and manner of the people, the flatness of the land are features specifically describing how the Netherlands looked. However, placing this traditional scene within contemporary life allows the analogies between physical features and emergence of the Dutch Republic to become obvious. This is the artist's oeuvre and in this capacity, we get a recognisable set of values on which to base our perception of reality.

The city of Delft is a good case in point when considering the changes taking place in this period. It got its name from its oldest canal, Oude Delft, from the word delf, to dig. It received its charter in 1246 and a period of economic and material growth transformed the city growing up along the canal into an important commercial centre. Trade in the seventeenth century was characterised by a focus on luxury goods. The boom in this industry was aided by the numerous refugees arriving from the southern Netherlands. They entered into the Guild of Saint Luke, which contributed to the establishment of the Delft tapestry weaving industry. In the middle of the seventeenth century, local painters achieved international fame for their innovation in the handling of perspective, light, interiors and their representation of architecture and the sky. This was the first time in the history of Delft that there was a coherent group of painters addressing the same themes.5

The great landfill and water projects in the seventeenth century contributed to the demand for detailed maps. The flatness and openness of the Netherlands made it particularly suitable for mapping.6 With the focus of the Delft School of artists moving to high art, the traditional graphic form played a large part in the creation of that art in rendering architectural features within their natural situation.

 Vermeer's  View of Delft

Vermeer's View of Delft was based on this topographical tradition, but here we have a view situated between cloudy sky and bank across the canal to the city, which is mirrored in the water and becomes much more then a map. The presence of human figures, with their backs to us, share the view from a different perspective. We are conscious of looking and this in itself draws attention to the fact that this is a painting, a representation of a view. In Pieter Saenredam's St. Mary's Square and St. Mary's Church in Utrecht, (1662), the view is localised to a central area in the town. This painting is striking in its realism. We have a quiet evening scene outside the church where shadows of tree branches are cast onto the square from behind our vantage point. Gentle pink light adorns the brick of the buildings. The painting evokes a strong sense of presence. As the painter situates himself on the ground amidst the evening light, it feels as if the viewer of the painting could also be standing in the square on that evening in Utrecht.

 Saenredam's St Mary's Square and St Mary's Church in Utrecht

Vermeer's View may perhaps seem a strange study to equate with Saenradam's painting at this point but what is comparable between the two is the way in which both artists use light to describe. In the Vermeer painting we have a detached vista, created by the mirroring of the town's image in the canal, which is cast toward the viewer. It encompasses itself and excludes the onlookers as well as the paintings viewers. The Saenradam painting, by contrast, creates a view onto the square by casting sunlight and shadow which originates from the west, behind the viewer. In both examples a real place has been visually evoked, but the intention of each representation is different. Ernst Gombrich notes: &ldquoDutch art reflects the fact that we can never focus on everything in our field of vision. We must isolate and select, the object of attention must take place against a backdrop of inaction”.7 In the depiction of an architectural view, the backdrop itself becomes the &ldquoobject of attention”, which is viewed and defined within an atmospheric panorama.

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