This wonderfully preserved and exceptionally detailed painting is one of only eight works by Jan van der Heyden executed on a copper support, and the first such work to appear at auction in nearly twenty-five years. One of a pair, the painting passed with its pendant (last documented in an English private collection), until their separation following the sale of the exceptional collection of Dutch paintings formed by Johann Moritz Oppenheim in these Rooms on 4 June 1864. Though both views appear to be imaginary, Helga Wagner perceptively suggested that the fortifications in the present painting may derive in part from those of the Janspoort in Arnhem, believing, somewhat less convincingly, that the large tower in the distance recalled the now-destroyed medieval Plompe Toren in Utrecht (op. cit.). A view of Arnhem depicting a nearly identical drawbridge and walls features in a drawing by Lambert Doomer, which is engraved in the Topografische Historische Atlas Gelderland in the Gelders Archief, Arnhem (fig. 1).
Though van der Heyden seldom worked on copper, the smooth support was eminently suited to capturing the microscopic details for which he is so highly regarded today. These effects so dazzled his contemporaries that, only nine years after his death, his biographer Arnold Houbraken marveled at the fact that ‘he painted every little stone in the buildings so minutely that one could clearly see the mortar in the grooves in the foreground as well as the background…In truth it is still believed that he had a special grasp of art, or had invented a means whereby, to all who understand the use of the brush, he could accomplish things that seem impossible with the customary ways of painting’ (De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, The Hague, 1721, III, p. 80). Less than a decade later, the painter and writer Jacob Campo Weyerman similarly noted that ‘all the connoisseurs unanimously avow that the clever artist had an art secret’ (J.C. Weyerman, De levenbeschrijvingen der nederlandsche konstschilders en schilderessen, The Hague, 1729, II, p. 391). Recent scholarship suggests that van der Heyden’s miraculous abilities at depicting mortar were wrought by an ingenious counterproof process in which the brickwork patterns, too fine to have been executed with an ordinary brush, were transferred from an etching plate ‘inked’ with white paint to a piece of paper which was then pressed onto the painted support (see A. Wallert, ‘Refined Technique or Special Tricks: Painting Methods of Jan van der Heyden’, in Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712), exhibition catalogue, Greenwich and Amsterdam, 2006, pp. 98-99).
While it is difficult to describe van der Heyden’s stylistic development owing to the comparative lack of dated paintings, a relatively early date of around 1666-67 seems most appropriate for this work. Paintings from this period tend to exhibit the particularly high degree of finish with strong contrasts of light and shade visible here. Moreover, connoisseurs like John Smith (op. cit.) previously attributed the staffage of this work to Adriaen van de Velde, who died in 1672 and with whom van der Heyden was certainly acquainted by 1664, the year the two artists appeared before a notary with several other painters then residing in Amsterdam. Indeed, while van der Heyden is not documented as ever having travelled to Arnhem, the clear correspondence between the present painting and contemporary depictions of the city’s Janspoort strongly suggests that such a visit took place, most probably when the artist was on route to the Rhineland. Though the precise dates of this trip are not known, it certainly took place by 1667, the year in which van der Heyden painted his Imaginary view of the Jesuit Church of St. Andreas in Düsseldorf (The Hague, Mauritshuis).