HEYDEN, Jan van der
(b. 1637, Gorinchem, d. 1712, Amsterdam)

Still-Life with Rarities

Oil on canvas, 74 x 64 cm
Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest

Jan van der Heyden was one of the leading architectural painters of his generation and a man of more parts than most Dutch painters. When he was a boy of thirteen his parents settled in Amsterdam; apart from trips to the Rhineland, the northern, and the southern Netherlands he spent his life there. He painted some imaginary cityscapes based on studies done in Germany, which at first blush appear to be true-to-life views, and lovely capriccios which show expert knowledge of the principles of classical architecture. His oeuvre also includes about forty landscapes that reveal a debt to Adriaen van de Velde, who is credited with painting figures in some of his pictures, and a few intriguing still-lifes that can be justifiably categorized as interiors. Van der Heyden is best known for his views of Amsterdam.

Most of van der Heyden's paintings were done in the sixties and seventies - his work as inventor, entrepreneur, and city official probably slacked his pace. But he continued to paint until the very end. His latest firmly datable picture, Still-life with Rarities, now in Budapest, shows the corner of a 'Kunstkamer' in strong even light with meticulous depictions of rarities from the natural and man-made world, but not the collector who assembled them. It is proudly inscribed with his monogram and states he painted it when he was seventy-five years old; he attained that age in 1712, the year he died.

Among the objects displayed in the Kunstkamer, which is most probably a fictive one, are a hanging armour of an armadillo, a copy after an etching of Pietro Testa's Suicide of Dido above the marble mantle, an inlaid cabinet used for housing treasured coins and natural specimens, oriental weapons, and on the bright red Chinese embroidered cloth that covers the table globes, one terrestrial and the other celestial, and an open Blaeu atlas. Next to the table there is a red damask covered chair that supports a folio Bible open at the favourite passage of Dutch moralists: Ecclesiastes, Chapter I, which begins with 'The words of the Preacher . . . vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?' The biblical reference to transience is reinforced by Testa's Suicide of Dido, a subject taken from Virgil's Aeneid which can be read as an exemplum of love's ephemeral nature.

Van der Heyden's message is obvious and familiar. It is one we have heard from other still-life specialists: preparation for salvation is of greater importance than all the treasures, pleasures, and knowledge that can be derived from this world.