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

Amsterdam, Dam Square with the Town Hall and the Nieuwe Kerk

Oil on canvas, 85 x 92 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

When Jan van der Heyden portrayed the new Town Hall of Amsterdam in 1667, the exterior of the building had just been completed. Between 1662 and 1665 the dome had risen over the entrance, making it possible to see the majestic building from any point in the city. Amsterdammers were extremely proud of their Town Hall, a pride eloquently expressed in Van der Heyden's painting.

The middle distance is dominated by the Town Hall's bright façade, seen from the south. In the left foreground the house called De Vergulde Ploeg' [The Gilded Plough] is shown at the north corner of Kalverstraat and Dam Square. The Nieuwe Kerk and the adjacent house at the corner of Eggertstraat close off the composition. Spreading out in front of the Town Hall is the Dam Square itself, the open space at the heart of the city and the centre of its political, economic and religious life. (The figures populating Dam Square may have been painted by Adriaen van de Velde, who often provided staffage for the works of other artists.) The square's irregular shape allowed artists to depict it from a variety of view-points.

Van der Heyden subjected his composition to a rigorous central perspective construction with a single vanishing point, just next to the Nieuwe Kerk on the right. This resulted in a strict, diagonal arrangement of the image and also several remarkable distortions. The façade of the Town Hall is so foreshortened that the building seems to wobble, as if it might fall forward. This effect is primarily caused by the distortion of the lantern, which, while it is entirely correct as far as the perspective is concerned, is unacceptable to the eye. In constructing the perspective Van der Heyden may possibly have used a camera obscura, as central perspective constructions and lenses cause similar aberrations.

Cosimo de' Medici acquired Van der Heyden's picture in 1668 during a visit to Amsterdam. Correspondence has survived concerning Cosimo's efforts to acquire a second painting from Van der Heyden in 1672. From it we learn that the artist acknowledged a glaring 'imperfezione' in his rendering of the lantern in the first painting, one he had not been able to correct with his brush. Thus, Van der Heyden had attached a metal rod to the frame, indicating the point from where the painting could be seen without any distortion.

That Van der Heyden was well aware of the distortion becomes apparent from another version of the same subject (now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris) that he completed shortly after the first painting. Here the viewpoint is somewhat further to the right and the perspective is different; the foreshortening of the Town Hall's façade is less pronounced, and the lantern's distortion has been corrected.