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

View of the Herengracht, Amsterdam

c. 1670
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Jan van der Heyden, one of the leading architectural painters of this generation and a man of more parts than most Dutch painters, was born in 1637 at Gorinchem (Gorkum), a town near Dordrecht. 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. He took more than a pictorial interest in the city. In 1668 he presented Amsterdam's municipal authorities with a plan to light the entire city with glass lanterns and oil lamps he invented. Acceptance of his plan in 1669 to install more than 2,500 of his lamps made Amsterdam the first European city to enjoy street lighting. The city fathers also appointed him superintendent of municipal lighting at the handsome annual salary of 2,000 guilders per year for life. His lamps were soon installed in Berlin, Leipzig, and other cities - they even found their way to Japan. Those in Amsterdam continued to serve the city until 1840. His lamps also serve art historians today; when they appear in undated paintings by van der Heyden himself, Gerrit Berckheyde, Jacob van Ruisdael, and others, they establish 1669 as a terminus post quem for the work.

Van der Heyden and his brother made an equally significant contribution to urban life in 1672 when they constructed an improved fire engine with pump-driven flexible coupled hoses, devices that replaced less efficient bucket brigades. Subsequently, Jan was appointed an overseer of Amsterdam's fire department and established a factory to manufacture the pump. In 1690 he and his son published their Description of the Newly Discovered and Patented Hose Fire Engine and Its Way of Extinguishing Fires. The book is richly illustrated with prints after van der Heyden's own drawings and he himself etched and engraved some of its plates. Van der Heyden's inventions and activities related to them made him a very wealthy man. After his death in 1712, the estate of his widow, who died in the same year, was valued at over 80,000 guilders. His estate also included more than seventy of his pictures and a sizeable library.

Most of van der Heyden's paintings were done in the 1660s and 1670s - his work as inventor, entrepreneur, and city official probably slacked his pace. But he continued to paint until the very end.

Van der Heyden always manages to achieve refinement without prettiness. He is an exquisite composer who keeps great structural clarity. While every brick in his numerous cityscapes is readable, the total impression still dominates through a broad as well as minute disposition of lights and darks, and atmosphere is felt as pervading the whole space and softening the exact definition. In his view of a great bend in the fashionable Herengracht (this picture) lined with huge lime trees that virtually hide the patrician houses that flank the broad canal he combines his gifts as city painter and landscapist, and captures an aspect of the Venice of the North that bewitched seventeenth-century visitors.

As he frequently does, van der Heyden took liberties with the site. To emphasize the grand curve of the Herengracht he shortened the length of the embankment, thereby eliminating some houses, and he also exaggerated its upward sweep. By judicious selection and adjustment, and choosing unusual points of view, he gives a remarkable feel for the character and atmosphere of urban spaces as well as meticulous portraits of buildings.