This painting evokes the pleasures of elegant country life. Gentle sunlight illuminates the façade of a handsome Palladian villa situated on a small rise in a park. Passing through the magnificent classical gateway, a master and his servant approach a waiting beggar woman with a child on her back. In front of the gate a man seated on a fragment of antique sculpture adjusts the collars of two sleek hunting dogs. The casual poses of the other figures—the two men who in eager discussion lean against the garden balustrade, the servant who lounges in the doorway of the villa, and the various dogs who sniff, urinate, or curl up and doze—contribute to the liveliness of the scene. Much of the painting’s appeal arises from the contrast between the easy informality of the figures and the restrained formality of the setting. Although the painting is not signed, its attribution to Jan van der Heyden is not in doubt; the broad areas of light and shadow, the minute detail, and especially the brick walls are hallmarks of his style.
While best known for his cityscapes, Van der Heyden was also the foremost Dutch painter of country houses. His depictions of these houses and their surrounding gardens reflect the importance of country estates in Dutch culture after mid-century. By then many, if not most, wealthy city dwellers owned land in the country. A number of Amsterdam burghers owned estates near the river Vecht, some of which Van der Heyden painted in the 1660s and 1670s. He also painted views of country estates in other areas, for example, Elswout outside of Haarlem, one of the grandest nonaristocratic properties in Holland [fig. 1]. Elswout was unusual not only for its elegance and its architectural design, but also because it was built on a high dune. In the late 1660s, Van der Heyden painted the Huis ten Bosch, a small palace outside The Hague built for Amalia van Solms, the Princess of Orange.
The identification of the country estate in the National Gallery’s painting has long been a matter of discussion. Smith and Hofstede de Groot both considered the subject to be the Castle of Rozendaal near Arnhem, but the villa bears no resemblance to the building represented in numerous views of Rozendaal. Recent scholars have rightly concluded that the scene, as is so often the case with Van der Heyden, is a fanciful construct, imaginatively created from motifs he had seen in real life and from printed architectural sources.
This assessment is supported by an analysis of the building’s architectural elements. The Palladian-style villa is striking for the apparent classicism of the building and the abundance of architectural and freestanding sculpture. While many features of the building are consistent with Dutch classical architecture after mid-century, the extensive sculptural elements are not. These, particularly the sculptured panels on the basement level of the façade, derive from decorative architecture such as tombs, designs for triumphal arches, and, above all, fantastic architectural compositions in book frontispieces.
The combination of paired pilasters and a triangular pediment enclosing an arched opening, used on the villa’s façade and repeated in the gateway, may also have been drawn from decorative architecture. A similar combination of elements is seen in an engraving depicting one of the stages erected in Amsterdam in 1642 at the time of the visit of Queen Henrietta Maria of England. This stage setting, with minor alterations, was used again in 1648 on the Dam, the city square, for the celebration of the Peace of Münster [fig. 2]. Finally, the concept for the gateway may well be derived from one of Serlio’s designs.
Whatever the source, Van der Heyden sought to render the building and its surrounding features with such extraordinary precision that he took the innovative step of using a printmaking technique to evoke their different textures. For the brick walls, a reddish-brown color was applied on top of the ground, and then the outlines of the bricks seem to have been printed onto the underlying paint, carefully registered in order to ensure that the outlines would match up correctly. The grass sprouting at the edge of the trench in the foreground was printed with a softer material, perhaps with sponge or lichen. Pinholes can also be found at the center of the arched gate, the building entrance, and the central window, indicating the use of a compass to create precise arcs. Like most of Van der Heyden’s works, this painting is difficult to date precisely. The architectural character of the scene compares closely with his depictions of the Huis ten Bosch, one of which bears the date 1668. Huis ten Bosch is a similarly classical building with a projecting central block situated in the midst of an elegant garden decorated with marble statues. The general compositional arrangement—a sunlit villa in the background, a gateway in the middle ground, and figures in the foreground—resembles Van der Heyden’s Harteveld on the Vecht from about 1670 [fig. 3]. Finally, the setting for Elswout could have been the source of Van der Heyden’s idea to site the house on elevated ground. The staffage figures have been traditionally, and probably rightly, attributed to Adriaen van de Velde (Dutch, 1636 - 1672), an artist with whom Van der Heyden frequently collaborated. It should be noted, however, that they do resemble figures Van der Heyden drew for his book on his invention of water pumps, Beschrijving der nieuwlijks uitgevonden en geoctrojeerde Slangbrandspuiten, published in 1690, eighteen years after Van de Velde’s death, so it is not inconceivable that they were painted by Van der Heyden himself.The figures, in any event, were painted after the landscape was completed. This is particularly evident in the figures of the beggar woman and the man with his hounds as traces of the architecture have begun to show through their fading forms. Another interesting issue is whether the beggar woman and other staffage figures have thematic implications. Schama has proposed that the beggar woman near the archway provided commentary on the social responsibility of the rich to the poor. The architectural fragments upon which is seated the man tending the dogs may allude to the mutability of earthly possessions.
Original entry by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., April 24, 2014.
Revised by Alexandra Libby to incorporate information from a new technical examination.
December 9, 2019