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: Jan van Goyen’s River Landscape (Pellekussenpoort near Utrecht)


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The River Landscape now in the collection of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is one of Jan van Goyen's most distinguished works and is of particular importance because it illustrates the paradoxical nature of seventeenth-century Dutch realism. At first glance, the painting appears to be a landscape at evening, rendered with special attention to the unusual medieval architecture of a river town. Close analysis of the architecture, however, has revealed that the scene is a fabrication. The Pellekussenpoort, in reality a freestanding medieval tower guarding the towpath on the River Vecht, has been set amidst a completely imaginary village. On one hand, Dutch artists produced still lifes and landscapes that startle the viewer with their realism. On the other, painters like van Goyen rearranged the physical world to suit their purposes. To discover what those purposes might have been, we must consider the influences—both aesthetic and political—that shaped van Goyen as an artist.A radical transformation began to occur in Netherlandish art during the second half of the sixteenth century, when the Dutch Republic emerged as a political entity and began to develop a distinct culture. In 1579 the Calvinist northern provinces formed the Union of Utrecht, declared their independence from Spain two years later, and split from the southern provinces, which remained Roman Catholic and loyal to the Spanish Hapsburg crown. During a twelve-year truce with Spain (1609-21), the new Dutch Republic enjoyed a period of material prosperity and unprecedented cultural growth.The changing nature of landscape art illustrates the shift in artistic perception that accompanied the birth of the Dutch Republic. It is useful in understanding the work of van Goyen (1596-1656) to trace the development of the landscape tradition that he inherited. Dutch artists of the early seventeenth century broke with the cosmic landscape tradition of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and focused their attention on the actual countryside of Holland. This new realism is apparent in the work of Esaias van de Velde (1587-1630), who assumes particular importance not only for his central role in redefining the orientation of landscape art, but also as the teacher of Jan van Goyen.1A painting from 1614, Riders in Open Country in Enschede, embodies Van de Velde's concept of realism.2 This subject is matter-of-fact, and his interpretation of nature avoids hackneyed pictorial formulas, thus recording more of the intrinsic quality of the Dutch countryside. He represents a landscape ruled by the primary forces of nature: changing seasons, wind, and clouds that filter sunlight. Unlike Bruegel's cosmic landscapes, which encompass all aspects of the world in one image, Van de Velde's intimate glimpses of Holland may be interpreted as a microcosm reflecting a divine order. Human activities are largely governed by the weather and the changing seasons. Van de Velde makes no attempt to romanticize nature. His Riders in Open Country is a candid depiction of a nondescript, open landscape on a hazy, overcast day.Between the years 1614 and 1616, van de Velde produced several etchings notable for their economical and seemingly simple exposition of basic principles of composition. The double diagonal composition of the riverbank, which recedes from the left foreground to the right center distance in The Brewery, became fundamental to much subsequent landscape painting in Holland during the seventeenth century and was frequently employed by Jan van Goyen and Salomon van Ruysdael throughout their careers. A prime example is the River Scene of 1656 by Ruysdael in Minneapolis.3 In the classic formulation of the double diagonal system, the strong perspectival thrust of the wedge of land is stabilized by the reflecting water from which it rises. This bold formula for partitioning space was immensely popular.In A Path Leading to a Farm the sky fills nearly two thirds of the composition. The wonderful counterpoint between the slightly rising flat land, the luminous sky, and the tracery of clouds rising from the horizon at the right to the upper left reflects pictorial principles that strongly influenced the celebrated panoramas of Jan van Goyen, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Philips Koninck much later in the seventeenth century.In a series of ten etchings that date from about 1616, Esaias van de Velde clarifies his landscape idiom.4 The views of Spaarnewoude and the Road to the Right of a Field are subtle variations on fundamental principles of composition in which the Dutch countryside near Haarlem becomes an intimate realm to be explored by the observer under the skillful guidance of the artist.These prints enabled Dutch aesthetes to enjoy the beauty of their native land. In their struggle for independence, the Dutch sacrificed much to defend themselves against Spanish mercenary armies. It is perhaps not surprising that this struggle generated interest in the land which the Dutch defended at such great cost.Esaias van de Velde also sketched the Dutch countryside, first in a series of pen, or pen and wash, drawings, and subsequently in chalk studies. Shortly after his move to The Hague in 1618, Van de Velde produced his first surviving chalk sketchbook, which had tremendous impact on the subsequent development of Dutch landscape art. For the first time in the seventeenth century an artist produced a series of rapid chalk sketches drawn from life. Abandoning the more laborious medium of quill pen—which was often supplemented by wash—in favor of chalk, the artist rendered nature with a new directness. Each subject recapitulates the principles found in the series of ten oblong etchings. Riverview with Farms and Village Road capture the essential character of the Dutch countryside in a sensitive and innovative manner.5 Virtually all of the most important Dutch landscape artists of the following generation emulated his example and produced chalk sketches.6The tenor of Esaias van de Velde's art began to change after his move to The Hague, residence of the Stadholder, Maurice, Prince of Orange. Courtly taste tended to be conservative, and Van de Velde's work reflected the new influences. This is embodied perfectly in his most celebrated etching, The Square Landscape with Trees, in which individual details become more conspicuous relative to the whole. The artist compartmentalizes space boldly by breaking it up into a series of overlapping units. Foreground details such as the trees at the right screen out large sections of the landscape beyond and become powerful coulisses. By emphasizing individual components of the landscape, the artist creates a more complex spatial order, which the viewer must integrate in his imagination.Similar pictorial features figure prominently in the painting Landscape with a Courtly Procession, signed and dated 1619, recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. A large tree at the left frames a vista to Abspoel Castle near the village of Oegstgeest outside Leiden. The artist flanks this view at the right by an allée of trees bordering a path from which the courtly procession emerges. In the left foreground the retinue of Prince Maurice encounters members of a gypsy family, which introduces into this painting an anecdotal element not evident in the landscapes that Van de Velde produced during his Haarlem years.During mid-1618, Jan van Goyen studied with Esaias van de Velde in Haarlem. Subsequently van Goyen settled in Leiden where he remained active throughout most of his career. The contact with Esaias left an indelible impression on the younger artist. In paintings such as the companion tondos representing Summer and Winter (1625, now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam),7 van Goyen manifests his earliest characteristic manner. The somewhat archaic yet vividly characterized trees and the brightly costumed figures reveal van Goyen's debt to Esaias van de Velde.A crucial shift in van Goyen's art occurred during the late 1620s when he developed a new concept of landscape in which tonal and atmospheric effects predominate. In place of the strong local colors of earlier work, his palette became monochromatic and the development, which he and other artists sustained into the 1640s, is generally termed the monochrome phase. In effecting this stylistic change, van Goyen was influenced by his Leiden compatriot Jan Porcellis (ca. 1584-1632), one of the most remarkable Dutch marine painters of the seventeenth century. In the tondo in Antwerp, Porcellis formulated a concept of marine painting that superseded the large-scale history subjects of Hendrick Vroom and his generation.8 Porcellis focused on the restless dialogue between the wind, cloudy sky, and sea. The activities of the sailors in their small boats are governed by the harsh and tempestuous North Sea.Porcellis's attention to atmospheric effects suggested to van Goyen a new way of looking at landscape. No part of Holland was far from the sea: the high ridges of dunes along the North Sea coast protected a landscape filled with rivers, inland seas, lakes, and a network of canals and ditches crisscrossing the flat terrain. Van Goyen was a skilled sailor and explored much of the Netherlands in his small sailboat. During these travels he produced several sketchbooks some of which survive intact.9 The first of these, now in the British Museum, consists of sketches of farms on the dunes or in open country.10 Van Goyen produced many notable paintings of related subjects in the late 1620s and early 1630s; two beautiful examples are in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt.11During the 1630s and into the early 1640s van Goyen's palette became even more monochromatic. However, in the early 1640s his style showed a perceptible change. The colors became stronger and more resonant, and the compositions more august. Though van Goyen never forsook tonal painting, these changes reflect a shift in Dutch landscape art that became increasingly apparent after 1645. The young Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682) contributed notably to this shift with his paintings from the later 1640s of forest interiors and dune landscapes.A paradigm example of the change in van Goyen's art is the River Landscape of 1648,12 one of the artist's most imposing and notable inventions. The recent munificent gift of Bruce B. Dayton to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, River Landscape is wonderfully preserved and is one of the most important Dutch landscape paintings in the United States. To understand this picture, we must recognize the importance of its architectural elements. Resonant shades of warm brown shifting to gray dominate the painting, and the artist contrasts the weight of the architecture with the radiant light of the glowing, cloudy sky. The foliage of the trees rising up beyond the buildings at the right oscillates in the light. The vista along the river into the left distance is a magnificent recording of shimmering light on water. The tranquility of this passage, with the luminous silvery gray of the reflecting water, is in striking contrast to the impetuously painted reflections of the sailboats.Although van Goyen occasionally included significant topographical features in paintings of the 1630s, in notable works of the following decade the architectural emphasis predominates.13 He frequently represented certain Dutch cities: Arnhem, Dordrecht, The Hague, Leiden, Nijmegen, and Rhenen. Each of these cities contains important monuments that symbolize the historical roots of the Dutch Republic. Dordrecht was traditionally considered the oldest and most venerable city in the province of Holland. The Hague, dominated by the tower of the Jacobskerk, was the center of government and the official residence of the stadholders. Leiden was the chief university city of the Dutch Republic. Rhenen was the site of the newly erected residence of Frederick V, elector of the Rhenish Palatinate, the “Winter King,” whose losses in 1620 at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor made him a martyr in the eyes of Dutch Protestants. Four of the cities are picturesquely situated along the great rivers of the delta that defines much of the landscape of the Dutch Republic.A numerical and chronological breakdown of van Goyen's most frequently depicted topographical subjects sheds light on the Minneapolis painting and enables us to interpret it more closely. The frequency of these representations rises sharply during the 1640s and tapers off markedly during the 1650s (see chart). Later in this study I suggest that the increase during the 1640s is linked to the Dutch quest for political recognition. These pictures become, therefore, a kind of visual metaphor for political aspirations.Van Goyen's Paintings of Architectural and Topographical Subjects14
City and Monuments Number of Paintings per Decade
  1630s 1640s 1650s Undated Total
ARNHEM 2 13 none 3 18
St. Walburgiskerk          
DORDRECHT 1 20 6 3 30
Grote or Onze-Lieve Vrouwekerk          
THE HAGUE 2 3 3 1 9
Grote or Jacobskerk          
LEIDEN none 2 6 none 8
St. Pancras or Hooglandse Kerk          
NIJMEGEN 5 21 3 2 31
RHENEN 3 15 5 4 27
Palace of the “Winter King”          
St. Cunerakerk          
UTRECHT (environs) none 8 none none 8
TOTALS 13 82 23 13 131
As a subject, the city of Utrecht apparently did not attract van Goyen but individual buildings in and around the city did: the Cathedral of Saint Martin, the Church of Our Lady (Mariakerk), the castles of Ijsselstein, Montfoort, and Wijk bij Duurstede, not to mention the town of Rhenen, site of the palace of the exiled “Winter King,”15 all appear in van Goyen's work. Last and certainly not least is the Pellekussenpoort, a freestanding medieval tower guarding the towpath near the village of Zuilens along the River Vecht between Utrecht and Muiden on the Zuiderzee.16 It is clear that in the Minneapolis painting, van Goyen's representation of this monument diverges from topographical exactitude.We have an accurate notion of the actual appearance of the Pellekussenpoort. Anthonie Waterloo sketched this tower in a chalk drawing now in Amsterdam. Moreover, Abraham Rademaker, an eighteenth-century etcher and topographical chronicler, produced two views of the Pellekussenpoort after drawings putatively dating from about 1620.17 He published these etchings in his Cabinet of Architectural Antiquities of Holland and Cleves in 1732.18 The captions underneath these prints indicate that the gate was freestanding and that it was owned by the Pellekussen family in the middle ages. Subsequently its name was often shortened to Pelkus-poort. The tower was torn down early in the eighteenth century prior to the publication of Rademaker's Cabinet. The salient characteristics of the Pellekussenpoort are a four-stepped gable, a hexagonal attached tower, and a wooden element projecting over the water. The transverse section at the lower level also ends in stepped gables.Van Goyen painted many representations of medieval ramparts, towers, and castles shortly after 1640, though he rarely had depicted such subjects prior to that date. This development in van Goyen's art was symptomatic of a more general interest in medieval monuments among other landscape painters. Van Goyen was not alone in expressing interest in the Pellekussenpoort; Salomon van Ruysdael painted it on several occasions in the 1650s and 1660s.19Van Goyen painted the Pellekussenpoort no less than eight times, yet never in the same setting and never in its actual placement along the River Vecht.20 Salomon van Ruysdael was only slightly more willing to strive for topographical accuracy. This seems curious particularly in view of the Dutch penchant for exactitude in cartographical and topographical publications and in botanical, zoological, and optical treatises. Two related questions arise: was van Goyen's manipulation of the visual information an aberration? What motives might have prompted this departure from actuality?Transposition of familiar monuments into imaginary settings did, in fact, occur frequently in Dutch art. The paradoxical nature of realism in seventeenth-century Dutch art becomes increasingly apparent when we examine van Goyen's various renderings of the Pellekussenpoort. His most “accurate” representation is the painting of 1646 in New York. He painted the tower as freestanding and viewed from the south, whereas in the Minneapolis painting we see it from the north. In an extremely late picture, now in Bordeaux and dating probably from 1656, the year of the artist's death, van Goyen still represented the tower in isolation. The most remarkable conflation is the Winter Scene of 1645 in Lille, in which the Pellekussenpoort is incorporated into the medieval ramparts of Utrecht.21In the River Landscape in Minneapolis van Goyen again departed from actuality. Not only did he incorporate the Pellekussenpoort into the ramparts of a river town, but he also created before it a bridge that doubles as a jetty. This aspect is adapted from a city gate in Utrecht, the Wittevrouwenpoort, whose features are clearly identifiable in an etching by Herman Saftleven. If we did not know these facts, it would never occur to us that van Goyen's representation was not accurate, especially since the sheer beauty of the brushwork renders it all the more convincing. Van Goyen's contemporaries, however, surely knew the difference, yet they were prepared to accept his mingling of fact and fantasy. Their willingness to do so raises significant questions concerning the meaning that such landscape paintings held for the seventeenth-century viewer.I suspect that the pictorial and topographical liberties evident in these and related paintings were linked to historical issues. Van Goyen and his contemporaries rarely represented contemporary Dutch architecture nor did they choose to depict architectural subjects with any frequency before 1640. Soon after 1640 van Goyen painted many monuments of the medieval past. Moreover, his architectural views were almost inevitably of cities that contained major Romanesque and Gothic churches, familiar to all Dutchmen. Such artistic activity is symptomatic of a need.22 With its stress on architecture, this development probably reflects a yearning on the part of the Dutch intelligentsia to establish a link between the still politically unrecognized Dutch Republic and its ancient heritage. Emphasis on the great medieval monuments, which came to symbolize the roots of Dutch civilization, would have had immense appeal to a population craving a sense of political legitimacy and official international recognition.In the case of the Pellekussenpoort we face a singular situation: seventeenth-century Dutch artists almost invariably represented this monument in an imaginary, albeit perfectly convincing, setting. In all probability an artist like van Goyen chose to transform its backdrop to call further attention to the unique characteristics of the building itself and its original function, which was to regulate the flow of traffic along one of the main rivers of the northern Netherlands. Such an approach to this type of subject anticipated the picturesque, but that artistic phenomenon belongs to the following century.It is no coincidence that van Goyen painted the Minneapolis River Landscape in 1648, the year in which the Peace of Westphalia was signed. In that treaty, which ended the Thirty Years' War, the Spanish king, Philip IV, formally recognized the independence of the Dutch Republic. Van Goyen, in his view of the Pellekussenpoort near Utrecht, celebrates the rich heritage of the new republic, both natural and architectural—the land itself, shaped by the forces of nature and hard won on the fields of battle, and a venerable edifice, built by human hands and rooted in the history of a people.George Keyes is Curator of Paintings at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.Endnotes
  1. Of the artists with whom Jan van Goyen studied, Van de Velde had the greatest impact on his style. For further discussion of the probable date of van Goyen's apprenticeship with Esaias van de Velde, see G.S. Keyes, Esaias van de Velde (Doornspijk, 1984), 14, 73-74.
  2. Ibid., 28-29, 46-47.
  3. For the importance of the double diagonal composition as formulated in The Brewery, see W. Stechow, Dutch Landscape Paintings in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1966), 52.
  4. For further discussion of these prints, see Stechow, Dutch Landscape Painting, 19-20, 52; and Keyes, Esaias van de Velde, 31, 52, pls. 46-59.
  5. Keyes, Esaias van de Velde, 34-35, 55-57, pls. 97-111.
  6. Ibid., 73-74.
  7. H. U. Beck, Jan van Goyen (Amsterdam, 1973), vol. 2:7, cat. no. 9; 57, cat. no. 108, repr.
  8. For Jan Porcellis, see J. Walsh, Jr., “The Dutch marine painters Jan and Julius Porcellis I: Jan's early career,” and “The Dutch marine painters Jan and Julius Porcellis II: Jan's maturity and 'de jonge Porcellis,” Burlington Magazine 116 (1974): 653-662, 734-45.
  9. Beck, Jan van Goyen, vol. I: 254-315, cat. nos. 843, 844, 845, 846, and 847.
  10. Ibid., vol. 1: 257-64, cat. no. 844.
  11. Ibid., vol. 2: 446, cat. no. 991, repr.; 477, cat. no. 1077, repr.
  12. Oil on oak panel, 64.8 X 94 cm. Provenance: Culham House, Oxfordshire, Collection John Shaw Phillips; London, auction J.S. Phillips (Christie), May 12, 1866, lot 31, bought by Halloway; London, auction E.N.F. Lloyd (Christie), April 30, 1937, lot 102, repr., bought by Katz; Dieren, Gallery D. Katz (1937); The Hague, Collection J. Walter; Amsterdam, Gallery K. & V. Waterman (1981-83)References: Beck, H.-U., Jan van Goyen, Amsterdam, 1973. Vol. 2, p. 316, cat. no. G 693, repr. p. 317.Stechow, W. “Die Pellekussenpoort bei Utrecht auf Bildern von J. van Goyen und S. van Ruysdael.” Oud Holland 50 (1938): 202-8. Exhibition: Amsterdam, Gallery K. & V. Waterman, “Jan van Goyen, 1596-1656, Conquest of Space,” 1981, pp. 126-27, repr.
  13. Van Goyen's great interest in topography is apparent in his Dresden Sketchbook of about 1648. These drawings show many celebrated architectural monuments in the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands. (Beck, Jan van Goyen vol. 1: 271-83, cat. no. 846.)
  14. My statistics are based on Beck's catalogue raisonné of van Goyen's paintings. The chart does not include either the winter landscapes or certain river views cited by Beck in which the urban topographical features are subordinated to the landscape. Since the appearance of this book in 1973, several pictures have come to light, certain of which are topographical representations of the cities cited in my chart.
  15. For van Goyen's representation of these subjects, see Beck, Jan van Goyen vol. 2: cat. nos. G 48, 210, 414, 675, 691, 692, 697, 742, and 768, virtually all reproduced.
  16. Beck records eight paintings in which the Pellekussenpoort is represented (Jan van Goyen vol. 2: cat. nos. G 74, 640, 690, 693 [the Minneapolis painting], 760, 762, 765, 788).
  17. First discussed and reproduced by Stechow, “Die Pellekussenpoort bei Utrecht.”
  18. Stechow first recognized the importance of these two prints in Rademaker's Kabinet van Nederlandsche en Kleefsche Outheden—see “Die Pellekussenpoort bei Utrecht,” 203-204.
  19. For Ruysdael's paintings see W. Stechow, Salomon van Ruysdael Eine Einführung in seiner Kunst, rev. ed. (Berlin, 1975), cat. nos. 36A, 401A, 470B, 473, 489.
  20. Most of these paintings are reproduced by Beck; see note 16 above.
  21. The Pellekussenpoort is placed to the left of the Romanesque Mariakerk. In another remarkable departure from actuality, van Goyen represents the Mariakerk standing alone by an open expanse of water (Beck, Jan van Goyen vol. 2: 102, cat. no. 210, repr.)
  22. A great flowering of architectural painting occurred in Delft about 1650. Of the subjects represented, the tomb of William the Silent in the choir of the New Church in Delft was particularly popular. A. Wheelock first noted this phenomenon in “Gerard Houckgeest and Emanuel de Witte: Architectural Painting in Delft around 1650,” Simiolus 8 (1975-76): 167-85. For further discussion of architectural painting in Delft, see W. Liedtke, Architectural Painting in Delft (Doornspijk, Davaco, 1982).
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Esaias van de Velde
    Riders in Open Country, 1614
    Oil on panel
    Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede
  2. Esaias van de Velde
    The Brewery
    Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam
  3. Esaias van de Velde
    A Path Leading to a Farm
    Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam
  4. Salomon van Ruysdael
    River Scene, 1656
    Oil on canvas
    The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
    The William Hood Dunwoody Fund
  5. Esaias van de Velde
    Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam
  6. Esaias van de Velde
    Road to the right of a Field
    Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam
  7. Esaias van de Velde
    Riverview with Farms
    Black chalk
    Foundation Custodia (coll. F. Lugt)
    Institut Neerlandais, Paris
  8. Esaias van de Velde
    Village Road
    Black chalk
    Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen, Berlin
  9. Esaias van de Velde
    Square Landscape with Trees
    Katherine E. Bullard Fund
    Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  10. Esaias van de Velde
    Landscape with a Courtly Procession, 1619
    Oil on canvas
    The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
    The Ude Fund and Bequest of Tessie Jones, by exchange
  11. Jan Porcellis
    Sailboats in a Breeze
    Oil on panel
    Museum Smid van Gelder, Antwerp
  12. Jan van Goyen
    Country Inn
    Oil on panel
    Städelsches Kunstinstiut, Frankfurt-am-Main
  13. Jan van Goyen
    River Landscape
    (Pellekussenpoort near Utrecht), 1648
    Oil on panel
    The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
    Gift of Bruce B. Dayton
  14. Anthonie Waterloo
    Black chalk, gray wash
    Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam
  15. Abraham Rademaker
    Pellekussenpoort seen from the South
    Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam
  16. Abraham Rademaker
    Pellekussenpoort seen from the Northeast
    Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam
  17. Salomon van Ruysdael
    River Landscape
    (Pellekussenpoort near Utrecht)
    Oil on panel
    Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam
  18. Jan van Goyen
    Pellekussenpoort, 1646
    Oil on panel
    Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
    Gift of Francis Neilson, 1945
  19. Jan van Goyen
    View of Town (Pellekussenpoort), 1656
    Oil on panel
    Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux
  20. Jan van Goyen
    Winter Scene, 1645
    Oil on panel
    Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille
    Photo: Giraudon
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Source: Geroge Keyes, "Jan van Goyen's River Landscape (Pellekussenpoort near Utrecht)," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 66 (1983-1986): 49-65.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009