The View of Assendelft is an extraordinary and highly significant addition to the oeuvre of the most important architectural painter in seventeenth-century Holland -- Pieter Saenredam. Fewer than sixty paintings by Saenredam are known, of which the vast majority are the distinctive, stark, church interiors on which his reputation now rests. His paintings of exteriors are much rarer and only five works of this kind survive, all of which depict specific buildings of key architectural and historical importance: the Town Hall of Haarlem, of circa 1630 (private collection), The old Town Hall of Amsterdam -- a masterpiece of 1657 (Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam), and the three great views of the Mariakerk in Utrecht (his only paintings of a church exterior), painted between 1659 and 1662 (The Hague, Mauritshuis; Madrid, Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza; and Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen). The View of Assendelft is quite different from these works in that its subject is not an individual building of particular merit, but the community of an ordinary village. As such, it stands alone within Saenredam's painted oeuvre as his only pure townscape, providing a vivid and faithful document of his birthplace and family home of Assendelft. Moreover, seen in the broader context of Dutch townscape painting, this is one of the earliest non-narrative depictions of a Dutch town, far ahead of its time in anticipating the output of Gerrit Berckheyde and Jan van der Heyden, more than a generation later, in the third quarter of the seventeenth century.
Given the highly unusual nature of the present work it is perhaps unsurprising that it has often been mis-attributed in the past. It is first documented in 1784 in the posthumous sale of the Haarlem burgomaster Mattheus Willem van Valkenburg (1718-1784), where both the artist and the view were correctly identified. However, by the time the picture re-appeared on the market, just six years later in Amsterdam, the view was no longer recognised and the author was identified as 'J. Saenredam', presumably with reference to the artist's father, Jan Pietersz. Saenredam (1565-1607). The picture is untraced between 1800 and 1898, when it was consigned to a sale at Christie's, described as 'P. Saenredam' (i.e., 'Attributed to Saenredam'), 'A Dutch town on a canal', where it was acquired for the modest sum of 5 guineas. It has remained in the possession of the same family ever since its purchase in that sale and its importance has only recently been recognised further to inclusion in a sale catalogue at Christie's South Kensington (9 December 2011, lot 108), as 'Follower of Saenredam', withdrawn before the auction. This will be first time since 1898 that the picture has been offered for sale.
Assendelft is a small village in the province of North Holland, situated about eight miles to the north of Haarlem on the road to Krommenie. Saenredam was born and grew up there and his family was closely involved in local governance. His father Jan Pietersz. (1565-1607) was deacon of the church council and his great-uncle Pieter Jansz. de Jonge (c.1550-1620) was schout (sheriff) of Assendelft between 1576 and 1620. The earliest map of the village, from 1828, is thought to show Assendelft relatively unchanged from Saenredam's day (fig. 1). Moreover, it shows clearly Saenredam's exact vantage point for the present work, looking north-west at the village from across a canal (fig. 2). Directly opposite is the Regthuis or Court House, built in 1614, with a tall post to the right of the entrance which was used to tie criminals for public floggings. The Court House was pulled down in 1897 but a photograph of it taken prior to demolition shows it unchanged but for the rendering of the façade (fig. 3). Beyond is the St. Odolphuskerk, built in the first half of the fifteenth century, with a view of the south transept and the steeple to the left, and the chancery visible on the right. The church was demolished and replaced in 1852. To the left of the Court House, as Martin Jan Bok and Gary Schwartz have recently confirmed, the single gabled house with the brick chimney (no. 168 on the map), is unmistakably the Saenredam family house and the birthplace of the artist.
The remarkably close relationship between Saenredam's view and the site map is testament to the artist's characteristically rigorous adherence to topographical verisimilitude. Saenredam had the highest regard for exact appearances and it is abundantly clear that his View of Assendelft gives an explicitly detailed account of his birthplace exactly as it was in 1634, without recourse to invention. Unlike most other painters of townscapes in the seventeenth century (most of whom were of a later generation), Saenredam refused to take artistic liberties, and in this painting he neither aggrandises his own family's property nor overstates the importance of the recently built Court House, although it is indubitably a source of local civic pride. This documentary approach also applies to Assendelft's inhabitants who are shown going about their daily chores on a sunny summer's day -- a washerwoman on the river bank, a man reading notices outside the Court House, a mother and child approaching a house, and a group of men in discussion on a street corner. They give the impression, no doubt as Saenredam intended, of a busy and happy village overseen by the church and the Court House -- the two pillars of the community.
Although this counts amongst Saenredam's earlier dated paintings, it is by no means the product of a youthful artist searching for his identity. He was thirty-seven years old when he painted it, and had already by the late-1620s fully developed his distinctive and highly refined style of architectural painting. This can clearly be evinced from the 1628 Interior of the St. Bavokerk, Haarlem (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum of Art), which is his earliest surviving work and shows no signs of naivety in its handling. Much of Saenredam's activity in the years around 1630 was concentrated on representations of the St. Bavokerk. Several construction drawings and three other paintings of the church are known from the years 1628 to 1633; while between 1634 and 1636 he increased his interest in the subject to produce six futher paintings. Together these works constitute an extraordinary effort by the artist to record virtually every visually appealing aspect of the church without repetition. The series also provides a very clear idea of Saenredam's working methods -- his use of on-site sketches to establish a prospect, which would then be modified and worked up into construction drawings that could in turn be transferred onto panels for painting. The artist adopted this methodical approach to painting throughout his entire career and would certainly have employed it in the same way for this although no related drawing exists.
Saenredam was devoted to documentation -- inscribing almost all of his material with dates, often to the day -- making it possible not only to establish a precise chronology of his activity but also to keep close track of his movements. Between 1633 and 1635 his only excursions out of Haarlem were to his home in Assendelft where Saenredam still maintained close family ties. These visits seem to have been restricted to the summer months. On 9 August 1633, he made a sketch of the Nave and choir of the St. Odulphuskerk (English private collection), and then on August 15th he stepped outside the village to sketch a prospect of Assendelft with the St Odulphuskerk which has proved vital in confirming the identity of the present view (Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett; fig. 4). Saenredam may well at this time also have made a sketch (now lost) for the present painting. He could also have sketched the view the following year when he is recorded in Assendelft again by virtue of an on-site sketch of the Interior of the St. Odulphuskerk, made on 31 July (Amsterdams Historisch Museum; fig. 5) which would later provide the basis for the painting of 1649 in the Rijksmuseum.
Although this differs markedly from Saenredam's known paintings, various aspects of it do correspond more closely with his graphic work. For instance, the etchings made by Jan van de Velde after Saenredam's views of Brederode Castle and Kleef Manor, of 1628, are not dissimilar in their use of a low viewpoint, with foreground figures and a faithful depiction of the architecture seen beyond. On a visit to 's-Hertogenbosch in 1632, Saenredam adopted a similar approach for a View of the Orthen Convent and the St. Janskerk (19 July 1632; Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts). The detailed rendering of foliage in the foreground of the present work, apparently a unique motif in his painted oeuvre, also finds an echo in his drawings in the form of Four sheets with studies of flowers, fruit, vegetables and sketches of Leiden and the bleaching fields outside Haarlem (Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett). The drawing of a rhubarb plant executed in 1630 is particularly revealing in this respect (fig. 6).
The stylistic singularity of the View of Assendelft is brought into sharp focus when one considers it in relation to other Dutch townscape paintings of the mid-1630s. At this time, paintings of towns had either emerged out of the cartographic tradition, in the form of city profiles and panoramas, adopting high viewpoints and distorted perspectives (for example, Hendrick Vroom's View of Delft from the Southwest, 1615, Delft, Museum het Prinsenhof), or they formed the backdrop to specific events where topography and history blend into a single image (see for example, Pauwels van Hillegaert's The Princes of Orange riding out from the Buitenhof, of 1621-22, The Hague, Mauritshuis). The recent exhibition devoted to this subject (Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age, The Hague, Mauritshuis and Washington, National Gallery of Art, 2008-2009), makes it very clear just how unique the present work is within a genre that did not gain momentum for another twenty years after it was executed. Saenredam's motives for painting the View of Assendelft may have been highly personal but the result is truly ground-breaking both within his own work and in the context of Dutch seventeenth-century townscape painting in general.
We are grateful to Gary Schwartz and to Martin Jan Bok for confirming the attribution after inspection of the original and for their assistance in cataloguing this lot. We are also grateful to Bert Koene for his photographs and archival information about Assendelft, and to Christiaan Hijszeler for kindly providing the pre-1898 provenance.