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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Saenredam, Interior of Saint Bavo, Haarlem

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, Interior of Saint Bavo, Haarlem, 1631, oil on panel, 82.9 x 110.5 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Christopher D. M. Atkins, Agnes and Jack Mulroney Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(pleasant piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a gallery devoted to 17th century Dutch painting, looking at a painting titled, Interior of Saint Bavo, Haarlem, painted by Pieter Saenredam, who is known for his church interiors, his very meticulous perspective. This was a moment in Dutch art where artists often chose specialties. Somebody might be a flower painter. Somebody might paint seascapes, or somebody might paint church interiors. This helped in the marketing of their work. You go to this artist because he paints this type of painting. - [Christopher] The Dutch Republic at this time was about the size of the state of Maine, and one economic historian has estimated that five million paintings were produced in this area. So, even while there's a lot of interest in buying these types of works, artists, and there were a large number of them, had to create their own identity. They did this by aligning with a particular type of art. - [Steven] And the city where this was painted was both an economic and a cultural center at this moment in 1631. - [Christopher] Haarlem was, in many ways, the cultural heart of the country. Amsterdam, which we think of more popularly, wasn't a major engine yet. Haarlem doubled in population during the first couple of decades of the 17th century. The printing industry was located here. A number of the most important artists were located here. There's a rich cultural tradition and a lot of people really interested in art. - [Steven] I feel as if I'm standing in the church in a way that is unusual, in part because, not only am I seeing deep into the church, but I have a sense of my peripheral vision as well. - [Christopher] Saenredam constructed the scene to make you feel as if you are in the space. There's no impediment in the foreground to block your entrance. You see down the space. The horizon line is quite low. So you get the sense of being in the place. Today, we're used to being in very large spaces, but this space must have seemed monumental to someone in the 1630s. - [Steven] You mentioned the word horizon line and, in this particular painting, that would be defined by our eye level or the eye level of the people depicted in this painting. - [Christopher] Saenredam carefully constructed his interior space using scientific linear perspective, which was based on the idea of the horizon line, but also recession to a single point back in space. - [Steven] In most perspectival studies, the space that is depicted is narrower. What the artist has done here, though, is to push the depicted space close to the edges of our peripheral vision. - [Christopher] Saenredam has widened out the view and, as realistic as it appears, you could never actually achieve this viewpoint standing inside the church. To get this widening of our viewpoint, you would have to stand outside of the church. Saenredam is very aware and attuned to what one can do with linear perspective. So much so, that he manipulates it to widen it out to give you this almost panoramic view, which enhances your idea of what it would feel like to be in the church, but you can't actually see this viewpoint. - [Steven] Perspective really is the star of this painting. It's as if the artist is showing off his technical ability, but also pushing linear perspective to its limits. - [Christopher] So, large-scale work, and it would've been very difficult to execute. Even just to conceive of the perspective scheme would require knowledge of mathematics, architecture, science. - [Steven] And it speaks not only to the artist's skill, but it also speaks to the sophistication of his audience, of residents of Haarlem at this moment. - [Christopher] It is meticulously painted. You can't find a single brushstroke, and that would have been appreciated by his audience. This probably was not a commissioned work of art. So he had to really show off to try and attract a sophisticated viewer and client. - [Steven] But it's not just the perspective that's such a knockout. Look at the use of light. Look at the use of shadow. Look at the use of tone. This is a white interior, but there's not a trace of pure white in this painting. - [Christopher] Using a restricted palette to show off what one can accomplish in a limited amount of tones and hues, a variety of grays and some yellows all to create the sense of atmosphere. - [Steven] And a sense of the luminousness of all of the light that the great gothic windows allow into this interior. - [Christopher] And you get a real sense of a bright sunny day, which is also a fascinating thing because, most of the time in this area, it's rainy and cold and gray. So he's exaggerating this effect, too. - [Steven] When I look down toward the end of the church, past where the altar would be, I'm seeing very faint representations of stained glass windows, but they've been de-emphasized by the artist. - [Christopher] This was a largely Protestant country which had recently gone through all kinds of religious upheaval, which included iconoclasms of going into churches, going into locations, and removing the religious imagery. And Saenredam, here, presents us with a really stripped down church. There are some vestiges of representation, as in the stained glass, but there's no pulpit, there's no pews, there's very little interior decoration other than the architecture itself. - [Steven] The one exception can be seen just to the right. There's a small painting of the exterior of this church. - [Christopher] And that's an actual painting that, in 1631, was hanging in the church, and at the time was believed to be by the Haarlem artist of an earlier generation, Geertgen tot Sint Jans. - [Steven] So, he's putting himself in the great lineage of Haarlem artists. - [Christopher] He's asserting his own ambition, his own talent, his own abilities in what is a grand, magnificent painting, and even includes his own name, appearing as if it is a gravestone near that painting to let us know who exactly it was who painted this picture. - [Steven] This is Saenredam's first painted version of this view, but it's not the first image that he produced of it. - [Christopher] About three years earlier, a very similar image appears in a printed book which was a history and description of the city of Haarlem. We might think of it as a guidebook, something that trumpeted what one could see, what one could do, as well as valorizing this civic monument. And so, Saenredam was commissioned to present an image of the interior for this very purpose, which speaks to the civic pride in the building and the architecture. But it was also Saenredam trying to work through how to do what was a new way of picturing. - [Steven] And he followed that with a drawing, and finally, this painting. But what I find most interesting about these three variations is that there are changes. - [Christopher] The earlier image includes people and pews, and makes it clear that a religious service is going on. In the painting, we have people, but there's a different type of activity, so he seems to be wanting to say different things in these two versions. - [Steven] We have in the foreground, three figures who are lavishly dressed. - [Christopher] These figures, traditionally, have been understood to help the viewers understand how monumental this space is, but recently we have identified these and these are representations, if not portraits, of actual people. So, the figure in brown in the middle, he's Frederick V who was known as the Winter King of Bohemia, which is the modern-day Czech Republic. To his right is his wife, Elizabeth Stuart. They have different garments than the others, traditional Dutch garments in a black with white collars, which is what you see in all the other figures, but he in the brown and she, in particular, in her rich blue garments stands out. And they're accompanied by Johan Schatter who was a member of the city council, a leading figure in the city of Haarlem. And so, he's giving these visiting dignitaries, who were living in exile nearby in The Hague, a tour of this civic monument. - [Steven] And look at the way he seems to lead them forward, pointing out features of the church. And in a sense, it gives us, the viewer, a role as we walk through this church, that we might listen in to some of his comments. - [Christopher] Schatter strides forward, he's animated, he's pointing, he's turning towards them. The part that I love is that Frederick and Elizabeth are turning in as if listening to what he has to say. - [Steven] These are, in a sense, mini-portraits, but the panel as a whole is a portrait as well. It's not so much an interior, in my mind, as it is a portrait of a building. (pleasant piano music)