Berckheyde painted several views of Amsterdam and The Hague during the course of his career but it is for views of his native Haarlem that he is most celebrated. He began to paint views of its landmarks in the second half of the 1660s and captured the Grote Markt, the hub of the town’s civic and commercial life, at different moments of the day from several viewpoints, at times including St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the town hall or both. The present painting relates most closely to Berckheyde’s slightly smaller view of the same subject (Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum), signed and dated 1671, but here he has stepped back to include more façades and a larger proportion of the square. A further, very similar view with identical measurements, signed and dated 1619, was sold with Christie's, New York, 29 January 2014, lot 25 ($ 245,000).
It is now generally accepted that Berckheyde’s impression of Haarlem was strongly influenced by Samuel Ampzing’s laudatory, topographical account of the city - Beschivinge ende Lof der Stad Haerlem (‘Description and Praise of the City of Haarlem’), published in 1628, which ‘extolled Haarlem’s magnificent buildings, soaring towers and well-kept buildings, as well as her virtue and glory’ (Lawrence, op. cit., p. 29). Ampzing’s account also contained illustrations in the form of engravings by Jan van de Velde II after drawings by Jan Saenredam, which will have formed the basis of the present composition. Having described the town hall, built in the late fourteenth century, in more detail, he concludes ‘How can a country exist where all the morals / Where all the discipline of laws is trampled upon / Like the soul, the body is the bond of life / So is justice the moral of a nation’ (Ampzing, op. cit., p. 48). Seen in this context, the present work ceases to operate simply as a topographically accurate rendition of the buildings of Haarlem. Berckheyde’s audience must have appreciated the ethical significance of the structures he depicted. So in this case society is presided over by the judicious legal system housed in the town hall, shown bathed in sunlight. He uses the long shadows cast by the steep gables and the warm afternoon sun rays to create a stage upon which the staffage has been carefully placed, heightening the sense of atmosphere and movement. The people who occupy the square - the burghers and the city’s merchants - are shown to be prosperous and content. The implication seems clear that this well-ordered and just society, whose success was founded on commerce, was reliant on the moral values expounded by the church and the state.