Wishful Blinking

A Bird's Eye View of Amsterdam, Jan Micker (1652 or after). (All images courtesy the National Gallery of Art.)

In the 17th century, the Dutch republic was booming, and the public clamored for paintings celebrating the iconic forms of their cities. The art world’s response to that demand is on display in the National Gallery of Art’s Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age , a captivating collection of paintings that is less like a window on cities of the past, and more like a lens, distorting and idealizing its subject in fascinating ways.

Blurring the boundary between map and painting, Dutch artists produced meticulously rendered, three-dimensional aerial views of their cities, like Jan Micker’s “A Bird’s-Eye View of Amsterdam,” which sports a map’s legend but is dappled with trompe l’oeil shadows from imagined clouds overhead. Other maps are inset with simplified profile views of cities, miniatures that distill each city’s built form into its most defining characteristics, the shape of city’s skyline, the curve of another’s harbor.

Of course, there’s a fine line between simplification and idealization, and it’s one these artists unconcernedly stride across. Painted Holland is a much more placid, orderly place than real Holland: Grime and poverty are excised, roofs straightened, streets widened. These artists don’t just remove and rearrange, they also add, splicing a medieval tower into the background of a scene, for instance, to emphasize the modernity of the buildings in the foreground. And sometimes the deception is implicit. One painting by van Ruisdael puts us at the top of Amsterdam’s newly-built Town Hall, gazing out onto the city, and he exaggerates the tower’s height by shrinking the houses on the ground below.

Keep an eye out for other visual trickery, which the Dutch of this era seem to have had a particular penchant for. In Jan van der Heyden’s 1667 depiction, Amsterdam‘s stately new town hall appears warped and flattened, until you move to a particular spot near the lower right of the painting and gaze up at it, at which point the perspective snaps into place and the building towers over you, the scene morphing from unreal to hyper-real.

Leo Belgicus 1609, Claes Jansz Visscher

Detail from Leo Belgicus, Limburg, Claes Jansz Visscher

Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes in the Golden Age is on display at the National Gallery of Art, at Constitution Avenue on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. through May 3.

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