'Landschap te Giethoorn' is a fine and rare finished painting from the artist's early career and strikes by its intense poetic beauty and harmony. Lost from sight since 1906, the reappearance of the painting is of importance as this is one of only a few known finished paintings of Giethoorn. Furthermore, this is now probably the only remaining picture of this specific subject after the tragic loss of the picture of circa 1896-1907 owned by the Dordrechts Museum, in the fire at the Armando Museum, Amersfoort on 22 October 2007 [fig. 1].
Tholen made his first visit to Giethoorn with his former teacher Hans Belmer in 1880. He himself had just returned to his native town Kampen from Brussels where he had been apprenticed with Paul Gabriel (1828-1903). Tholen was immediately enchanted by the area, as he writes: 'Een vijftig jaar geleden was Giethoorn een geliefkoosde streek om te gaan visschen. Mijn oude leermeester Belmer had daar ook veel gevischt. Ik heb niet gehoord of Belmer toen veel gevangen had, maar wel, dat Giethoorn veel indruk had achtergelaten. Hij haalde zijn oud-leerling over om eens met hem daarheen te gaan. In die dagen was Giethoorn moeilijk te bereiken en om een goed logies te vinden nog moeilijker. Voor een en ander zou Belmer zorg dragen met de hulp van een kennis die daar woonde. Een stoomboot van Zwolle afgevaren, zette ons ergens aan land en daar konden wij overstappen in de punter van den kennis, die ons naar Giethoorn zou brengen. Het was een lange tocht. Eindelijk gleden wij in de avondschemering over het spiegelgladde water Giethoorn binnen, vaarden onverwacht tusschen welig uitgegroeide boomen, door rustieke bruggen, langs woningen met grote rietdaken - in de rust en de stilte van het dorp waar de dagtaak was geindigd. Het was betooverend.' ['Fifty years ago, Giethoorn was a popular area for fishing. My former teacher Belmer used to go out there frequently. I do not know if he had much success with his catch, but what I do know is that the area had impressed him tremendously. He persuaded me one day to come with him. In those days Giethoorn was difficult to reach and there were hardly any places to stay. However, Belmer had the necessary connections, so that we set out from Zwolle on a steamer, which would bring us to a strip of land, from where the journey to Giethoorn was continued in a pink. It was a long trip. At last at dusk we entered Giethoorn over water which was as smooth as a mirror and saw richly wooded banks, rustic bridges and houses with thatched roofs. It was all quiet according to the moment of the day when labour has come to an end. It was enchanting.'] (see: R.S. Bakels, W.B. Tholen, The Hague 1930, p. 22).
Tholen's enchantment with Giethoorn continued during the course of 1880's. Every summer he would return to the area, often accompanied with Paul Gabriel, to make numerous sketches and drawings en plein air. Obviously Gabriel's advice given in a letter of 1879, was put into practice here: 'Zie nooit, wat en hoe een ander doet. Is uw zien en gedachte niet evengoed als van een ander? Lukt het U in den beginne niet, het is daarom geen bewijs dat gij het mis hebt. Misschien zou ik het U kunnen bewijzen want om iets nieuws voor te brengen, is geen gemakkelijke zaak en vereist tijd van zoeken, maar houdt U wel voor, dat gij zulks nimmer in boeken of op Uw atelier, noch bij anderen zult vinden, maar wel in de open natuur, de enige bijbel van Gods grootheid.' ['Never look what someone else is doing. What you do yourself is as good as the other person does. When the beginning is difficult, this does not say that it is impossible. Maybe I can proof this, because when you really want to create something new, you must fight the difficulties and keep on searching. And these things are not to be learned in books or by staying in the studio or from other people, but by going outdoors, as nature is the only Bible of God's greatness.']
In finished paintings such as 'Landschap in Giethoorn' all these plein air practices were brought to culmination. Indeed the present picture is a sublime rendering of what is at first glance an ordinary Dutch polder landscape. Tholen has by no means painted a realistic rendering of a natural site. Instead, Tholen has translated his own observations in a scene of ultimate poetry and harmony. He reaches this vision by pure painterly means applying a superb painterly skill. The short brushstrokes of thinly applied paint in the sky and leaves for instance, give the scene a quality of airiness and lightness.
In all these fine details, the picture gives the impression to have been executed over a longer period of time. Although the Rotterdam exhibition catalogue suggests a date of 1881, it is more likely that 'Landschap in Giethoorn' was painted during the course of the early 1880's. Assuming such an early execution, the present picture could be one of the earliest finished paintings of the subject by the artist.
The imprecise date of execution makes it difficult to discern the earliest provenance of the painting. It is likely that Mr P.F. de Friderici from Deventer, who owned the picture by 1906, was the first owner. Unfortunately, this can not be confirmed due to a lack of information.
In his search for the sublime, Tholen presents himself as a truthful representative of The Tachtigers, the Dutch 'l'art pour l'art' movement. These Tachtigers did not just look for a superficial rendering of the visual world, but were rather aiming at a visualisation of the inner soul which they believed was imbedded in every part of living nature. It was 'knowing' by study and practice, rather then 'looking' which was essential for them. Or as Frederik van Eeden in De Nieuw Gids expressed: 'De Natuur, dat is onze ziel met haar gewaarwordingen en haar sentimenten. Daarop moet een schilderij lijken. Het moet niet natuur-getrouw, het moet gevoels-getrouw zijn. Wat gij de natuur noemt, dat zijn Uw gevoelens.' ['Nature, that is our soul with her observations and feelings. This is what a painting should be. It should not reflect nature as it looks like, it should reflect our feelings. What we call nature, that is our feelings.']
In their search for a poetic form of landscape painting, the Tachtigers felt close in spirit to the Old Masters. Tholens admiration for such landscape painters as Jacob van Ruisdael was confirmed in a letter to Gabriel: 'Bij het beschouwen van de werken van de oude meesters kunnen wij ook bewonderen hoe zij bekend waren met de natuurlijke gesteldheid; niet alleen in de grote omvatting van de voorstelling, maar ook in de consequente doorvoering in de onderdelen van het uitgebeelde ogenblik. Ieder deel leeft op de juiste wijze, zoals in de natuur zou gebeuren op dit, door den schilder bepaalde ogenblik.' (see: G. Knuttel Jr, W.B. Tholen, The Hague 1955).
The present lot seems to confirm Tholens knowledge of the Old Masters. The motif of the bridges suggests influence from Adriaen van Ostade's famous etching of 'Fishermen on a bridge' [fig. 2], as Tholen also uses a similar wooden bridge as an important compositional device. We may conclude that 'Landschap in Giethoorn' is a multi-layered painting, which is not only based on studies made outdoors, but which equally fits into the greater panorama of Dutch landscape painting. Tholen must have been quite aware of this quality in his art.