Town and Country, Real and Imagined in Old Master Paintings


Lot 23: Attributed to Hendrik Mommers

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigour of Nature in us, that inspires that dream.” Henry David Thoreau

On a small wooden panel, about the size of an iPad or Kindle, life begins to bustle around a city’s gates (lot 21). The panel was painted in Amsterdam in Jan van der Heyden’s workshop in the 1660s and depicts locals and travellers milling around the Anthonispoort, the city’s gates dedicated to Saint Anthony. A dog looks on at the figures conversing by the side of the road, others strolling or giving alms to beggars; another figure appears to be leading his goat to the patch of grass on the right. In the distance, the city’s varied architecture rises up, surmounted by the tower of the South Church beyond.

By the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic, with Amsterdam at its economic centre, had risen to dizzying heights of prosperity. Urban sprawl had been underway for some time and the peripheries of the city often shifted over the course of the century. Van der Heyden specialised in city views of this sort - at least two versions of this composition exist in museums (St. Petersburg and Karlsruhe). The details are in part imaginary, in part based on actual observation of real sites, some of which can still be seen today. The figures in his paintings were likely the result of a collaboration with the artist Adriaen van de Velde who often contributed such so-called ‘staffage’ figures to paintings by other artists.

To behold this little panel of the gate of Amsterdam is to witness the boundary between town and country. The painting becomes a mediation on the distinctions between nature and culture, between the ‘civilised’ fast-paced world of the burgeoning city and the tranquility and ‘timelessness’ offered by the natural world beyond. These distinctions were much sharper than they are today, when it seems harder and harder to escape into an unpopulated - not to mention unpolluted - countryside. To us, Van der Heyden’s composition suggests a world on the cusp of change.  The eighteenth century, and the attendant birth of industrialisation, was just around the corner.

Of course, artists have been venturing into the forests, fields, mountains and meadows for a very long time. Yet in the eighteenth century, the development of cities and, inevitably, industry, created a renewed impetus to do so. In Britain, where the effects of industrialisation came to be strongly felt, the landscape in art evolved into a subject in its own right. Artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joseph Wright of Derby, Thomas Girtin, and later Constable and Turner celebrated the native landscape in their work.

Another small painting in the present sale, believed to have been painted in Gainsborough’s circle, poignantly evokes the calm found beyond the city gates (lot 32). The scene is centred around a country road, an open horizon on the left, and, on the right, a group of three figures reposing under the shade of a tree. The composition of these figures relates very closely to a drawing by Gainsborough now in the Morgan Library, New York. Apart from their puffy skirts and leather jackets, this trio of wanderers inhabit a timeless place; the painting, in turn, becomes a window with a centuries-old view onto the inimitable beauty of nature.

Landscape and fantasy go hand-in-hand in such works. In fact, Gainsborough spent many hours sketching nature as a construction, using rocks and broccoli to create the sweeping vistas and idyllic glades that fill the backgrounds of his paintings. Through such a constructed vision, nature was becoming a constructed ideal, the product of memory, artifice and, eventually, nostalgia. 

For many Dutch landscape painters of the sixteenth century, the lure of Italy, with its warm light and classical ruins proved irresistible. While some Dutch artists did in fact settle in Rome, Naples and beyond, those who returned to the Netherlands brought back with them a romanticised vision of the Mediterranean. The landscapes of the Utrecht-born Jan Both (1610-1652) created after his Roman sojourn in the 1630s are often suffused with the warm amber glow of a Mediterranean sunset. Both’s transported vision of this southern Arcadia made a lasting impact on later generations of artists eager to capture the intoxicating effects of a foreign light and a distant nature (lot 41).

Hendrick Mommers (1620-1693), like his compatriot Both, traveled to and fell under the spell of Italy. Back in the Netherlands, Mommers introduced into his work not only aspects of the Italian landscape such as warm light and rolling hills, but parts of the land’s ancient past - the marble fragments of antiquity which, at the time, veritably littered the countryside as well as the streets of cities. Taking a cue from the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, with its towering Egyptian obelisk at the centre, Mommers elaborated his depiction of this site with additional fountains and classical ruins in the distance, all inhabited by contemporary market vendors. In effect, Mommers’ Market Scene (lot 23, pictured top) is a fantasy, a pastiche of time and place permeated by a sense of nostalgia for history and travel.

Old Master Paintings, including Fine Frames & Property from the Library of the Late David Scrase, Tuesday 12 October, 11am.

View the catalogue here.