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The Rijksmuseum Presents Jan van der Heyden
Jan van der Heyden, An architectural fantasy with an triumph arch, oil on panel, ca. 1660-1663. The National Gallery, London.

AMSTERDAM.- The Rijksmuseum presents the first monographic exhibition on Jan van der Heyden in the Netherlands since 1937. Van der Heyden was one of the leading 17th-century painters of Dutch cityscapes. He was also fascinated by firefighting and is still remembered to this day by many as the inventor of the fire hose. The Rijksmuseum exhibition focuses on the diversity of Van der Heyden, who became known as the Dutch Leonardo da Vinci. The first part features a selection of fourteen of his finest paintings, on loan from various museums and private collections in Europe and the United States. The second part concentrates on his dramatic sketches and prints of fires in the city. In addition, his famous book on firefighting, published in 1690, is displayed, alongside an early example of his fire hose. The show, compiled jointly with the Bruce Museum in Greenwich (Conn., US), can be seen through 30 April 2007 in the Philips Wing of the Rijksmuseum.

Idealised Cityscapes - Jan van der Heyden (Gorinchem 1637-1712 Amsterdam) was one of the leading pioneers of Dutch cityscape painting in the 17th century. His depictions of canals, churches, public squares, castles and courtyards reveal a remarkable eye for detail. He used sharp colours, with subtle nuances of tone and atmosphere to portray these scenes, often creating striking perspective constructions.

Van der Heyden’s paintings were already famous in his own day for their wealth of detail. Despite the apparent natural effect of the depiction, for which he developed innovative techniques, topographical accuracy was not Van der Heyden’s primary concern. He often took buildings out of their original setting and placed them in an entirely new context. A composition had above all to convey the atmosphere of the location. As the inventor of the architectural capriccio, a depiction of a fictional location, Van der Heyden was a major precursor of 18th-century Italian vedute artists such as the Venetian Canaletto and Bernardo Bellotto.

Besides cityscapes of Amsterdam and the Rhineland, Van der Heyden also painted landscapes and several still lifes, some of which are shown in the exhibition.

Drawings of Fire Hoses - While Van der Heyden’s paintings show the city in idyllic, sunlit settings, the prints and drawings provide powerful depictions of the dark, nocturnal side of Amsterdam. From the drawings it is clear that Van der Heyden would often turn up at the scene of a fire to sketch the burnt-out buildings. These drawings subsequently served as reminders and a basis for a larger depiction of the fire at its height, with dozens of figures populating the scene.

Almost all of Jan van der Heyden’s extant drawings relate in some way to his famous book about firefighting. This unique volume, which first appeared in 1690, describes the emergency procedures for fighting fires in the city of Amsterdam where firefighters used old, often dangerous and inefficient methods to douse the flames with leather buckets and old hoses. In addition, Van der Heyden discusses his own design for a firefighting hose. To show how effective, safe and above all economic his method was, Van dre Heyden concluded his firefighting book with a chronological summary of dozens of fires in Amsterdam that he claimed to have witnessed himself, starting with the conflagration that destroyed the old town hall on Dam Square in 1652, when he was a young lad of fifteen. His recollections of these fires are like journalistic reports and make fascination reading.

The prints form two categories: ‘technical’ illustrations, showing in precise detail how Van der Heyden’s firefighting machine worked, and ‘journalistic’ pictures depicting the full drama of successive fires and showing the sad after-effects. Although the two groups each have their own aesthetic appeal, it is the large scenes of nocturnal fires that leave an indelible impression on the viewer. They portray the burning city with its densely packed, often still wooden houses as a claustrophobic inferno.

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