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

View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam

c. 1660
Oil on oak, 91 x 114 cm
National Gallery, London

A prolific Dutch specialist of the newly developed theme of townscape, van der Heyden was in his day better known as an inventor: he organised municipal street lighting in Amsterdam and patented the first fire engine equipped with pumpdriven hoses. With seemingly endless patience and a talent for technical drawing, he painted architectural vistas, real and imaginary, in the greatest and most minute detail. In this picture, for example, one can read some of the tattered posters on the wooden hoardings protecting the young trees in the foreground; one of them advertises a sale of paintings. At the same time, however, he was able to subordinate detail to the whole, and what makes this painting so especially magical is the luminous sky, the light of which reflects from the rosy brick and yellow cobblestone as much as from the sluggish water and, glinting through the leaves, permeates the entire scene.

The picture is exceptional in van der Heyden's work by virtue of its large size, about three times the scale of similar compositions by him. It was commissioned by the governing body of the Westerkerk to hang in their meeting room in the church, and the patrons must have specified the dimensions.

Unlike older Netherlandish churches, the Westerkerk was purposely built to accommodate Protestant worship. It was designed by Thomas de Keyser, father of the painter, and completed only in 1638. By choosing a viewpoint from across the canal, van der Heyden simultaneously locates it companionably along the city street and isolates it, screening neighbouring buildings and closing off the edges of the painting with foliage (the mature tree on our side of the canal on the left was an afterthought). Lively incidents are added for human interest, although the scale of the figures is less secure than the architectural composition, and they, like the reflectionless swans, may have been painted in by another artist. Such collaboration between a view painter and a figure specialist was quite frequent at the time. An additional point of interest for the modern viewer is that Rembrandt was buried in the Westerkerk in 1669.