POEL, Egbert van der
(b. 1621, Delft, d. 1664, Rotterdam)

View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654

1654
Oil on wood, 36,2 x 49,5 cm
National Gallery, London

On Monday, October 12, 1654, shortly after half past eleven in the morning, one of Delft's powder magazines exploded and devastated a large part of the city. The "Delfische Donderslag" (Delft Thunderclap) was said to have been heard as far away as the island of Texel, seventy miles north of Delft. The magazine, known as the Secreet van Hollandt, had been established in the former Clarissenklooster (Convent of Saint Clare) in the northeastern corner of Delft in 1572. When the magazine, large parts of which were underground, exploded, it contained about ninety thousand pounds of gunpowder. The force of the blast was so great that most houses in the immediate vicinity were destroyed and buildings throughout the city were damaged. The two major churches, the Oude and the Nieuwe Kerk, were also damaged. Although the number of people killed is not known, it has been estimated that deaths were in the hundreds. Among the casualties was one of Delft's most famous painters, Carel Fabritius. News of the event spread rapidly throughout the country. The States General sent a note of condolence; Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia, paid a visit; and many other people came to survey the devastation.

While we do not know whether Van der Poel witnessed the explosion, it is possible that he was personally touched by it: one of his children may have died in the catastrophe. Certainly, the event had a great effect on his work. About twenty versions of the present composition survive, showing either the explosion itself or the devastated townscape that was left in its wake. Toward the right of the picture is the area of the former magazine. All that is left are a crater filled with water, some charred trees, remnants of houses, and piles of rubble. In the foreground people are busy helping the wounded, consoling one another, and trying to salvage whatever belongings may have survived. The low vantage point accentuates the depth of the space and the extent of the devastated area. Van der Poel unifies the space with a diagonal line that starts at the bridge on the left and reaches into the far background.

Although the depiction is devoid of much of the atmospheric quality for which Delft painting has been known since the late 1640s - a quality present in the works of Fabritius, Paulus Potter, Adam Pynacker and Daniel Vosmaer - Van der Poel employs pronounced light effects to counteract the plunging perspective. The receding space is carefully structured as alternating areas of light and shade, with some of the most brightly illuminated walls placed immediately behind the looming remnants of former houses in the left foreground. The rather dense mass of buildings on the left, accentuated by the two churches rising at the horizon, is balanced by the wide-open area on the right, to which the eye is automatically drawn. The canal running parallel to the picture plane creates a stage-like area in the foreground upon which the figures display the human dimension of the tragedy.

Most of Van der Poel's paintings of the event bear the precise date of the explosion. It may be assumed, however, that this date is a record of the momentous occasion rather than of the execution of the painting. Having discovered a market for these pictures, Van der Poel seems to have continued painting them for several years, despite his departure for Rotterdam in 1654 or early 1655. The notion that the artist concentrated on this subject in order to overcome the trauma of the tragic event is one more at home in the twentieth century than in Van der Poel's day - yet the experience may have inspired his choice of "brandjes", paintings of blazing fires dramatically set against a nocturnal sky, as the principal undertaking of his Rotterdam period.