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Genteel Jungle

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Dutch Cityscapes Paint Urban Picture of Perfection

In 17th-century Dutch city life, everything seemed to be in its place. The streets were tidy, rooftops perfectly aligned, and pedestrians all well dressed and seemingly courteous. At least that’s the impression one takes away from a meticulously organized new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

“Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age” is an unabashed homage to the relative sophistication and prosperity that was 17th-century Holland. But while the cityscape — an artistic genre introduced during the booming Dutch economy — is idealized in many of the works, it also paints a convincing picture that makes the viewer yearn for a time when life was less of an urban jungle and more of a genteel playground, without so many hard edges.

Dozens of exquisitely detailed paintings, maps, atlases and illustrated books celebrate the Dutch cityscape, its panoramic skylines, its iconic windmills, and the civic pride of a thriving people. Light and water — usually soft and still, respectively — figure prominently in many of the paintings, often set in familiar settings such as Amsterdam, Hague and Haarlem.

About 40 Dutch master artists are represented in the exhibition, including Gerrit Berckheyde, Aelbert Cuyp, Carel Fabritius, Jan van Goyen, Jan van der Heyden, Pieter de Hooch, Jacob van Ruisdael, Pieter Saenredam and Jan Steen. Many of the paintings were commissioned for city halls or municipal buildings, as evidenced by the grand scale of the canvasses.

Perhaps the most imposing, if not necessarily the most impressive, is Van Goyen’s 15-foot-long “View of The Hague from the Southeast,” which he painted in the mid 1650s for the town hall. The painting offers a profile view of the downtown area as seen from the plains of the surrounding countryside. Boats and people traveling along the waterway leading to Delft lend a sense of vitality to the massive work.

Churches, not surprisingly, figure prominently in lots of the panoramic views. One of the more arresting is “St. Bavo in Haarlem.” The foreground of the painting is actually of a quiet, modest farm but far in the distance the majestic St. Bavo Church looms large. The surrounding development suggests the always tentative relationship between rural and agrarian life.

A more complete depiction of the church is offered by Haarlem native Gerrit Berckheyde, whose “St. Bavokerk in Haarlem” is his most extraordinary depiction of the church. It fills the entire panel, with a remarkably accurate rendering of architectural details spanning the impressive structure, which even today defines the central market square.

Jan van der Heyden’s series of Amsterdam streetscapes offer another striking visual perspective using near-flawless symmetry and light. But it turns out, according to wall text, that his replications weren’t always true to real life. He was not averse to leveling a crooked doorway, for instance, or combining parts of buildings from different areas of town if it resulted in greater aesthetic pleasure.

Gabriel Metsu’s “Vegetable Market in Amsterdam,” meanwhile, is one of the more lively and personal works in the gallery. The subjects are the focus as opposed to buildings, and in the bottom right section of the frame a playful dog — perhaps a Britney Spaniel — seems engaged in a staring contest with a rooster perched atop a carrying cage.

Humor also turns up in “Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft,” as a Puritanical couple stands with several younger couples (in-laws perhaps?). The staid, almost black-and-white focus of the painting is thrown slightly askew by the matron’s red slip, peeking out from underneath her skirt.

According to the National Gallery, the origins of the cityscape genre may stem from the cartography skills of the Dutch, who created impeccably decorated maps and city plans that meticulously recorded the streets and squares at the core of their urban life.

Though intrinsically Dutch, the works also share an American connection. “The paintings depict vibrant cities which would soon be paralleled in the new world colony of New Netherland, which later developed into New York,” said Dutch Ambassador Renée Jones-Bos at the “Cityscapes” press preview. She noted that the exhibition coincides with the quadri-centennial of Henry Hudson’s voyage on a Dutch ship to that nascent American colony, marking 400 years of friendship between the Netherlands and United States.

But above all, the cityscapes reflect a time of progress and pride for the Dutch. Jozias van Aartsen, mayor of The Hague who was also at the exhibit debut, said, “These cityscapes reflect the power and wealth of 17th-century Dutch cities.”

They also offer viewers a quiet, profound reflection on one of the world’s great urban histories. And even if the rough edges are, at times, polished a bit too smooth for this viewer’s taste, the sense of calm and even prosperity is somehow reassuring in these tumultuous times.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014