This spare and elegant painting of the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, in Haarlem is an exemplary work by Pieter Saenredam and one of only a handful of his church interiors still to remain in private hands.
Indeed it is testament to the extraordinary rarity of this artist to note that, aside from the Interior of St. Bavokerk, Haarlem (Sotheby's, 9 December 1987, lot 83, as 'Follower of Saenredam', sold 57,000, now private collection, Boston) and the Interior of the Sint Janskerk, Utrecht (Bonham's, 8 December 2010, lot 61, as 'Studio of Saenredam',sold £1,476,000), which are both now accepted as autograph, this is the only painting of a church interior by Saenredam to have appeared at auction in more than thirty years. Saenredam, the most celebrated Dutch architectural painter of the seventeenth century, created his interiors through a highly methodical working process. Yet his paintings remain far from dry and rigid architectural studies. Rather, as this work testifies, he produced refined pictures whose simplicity arouses a highly modern appreciation of essential qualities of line, form and tone.
Signed and dated 1658, the present painting depicts the Nieuwe Kerk's south-west view, a corner of the church delineated by pillars, tall arched windows and a vaulted ceiling. The building was designed by Saenredam's friend, the architect Jacob van Campen, and constructed between 1646 and 1649 on the site of the medieval chapel of Saint Anne. In typical Reformed Protestant fashion, the church is devoid of religious imagery and elaborate decoration; Saenredam did not include Catholic details in his works after 1646. Rather the Nieuwe Kerk, the single modern building represented by Saenredam, bears contemporary neoclassical motifs such as Ionic columns. The restrained gray, white, blue and terracotta palette is punctuated by only a pair of figures in crisp black and white clothing, and the brightly coloured coats-of-arms in the windows.
To create such carefully engineered church interiors, Saenredam employed a distinctive working method. He produced a large number of on-site drawings, made from a variety of viewpoints and assiduously signed and dated. In some instances, he used such sketches to create construction drawings, which he blackened on the verso and traced onto panels. The final stage was the execution of the paintings themselves. In this case, four panel paintings of the Nieuwe Kerk exist, as well as more than ten drawings, including six sketches of the interior dating from June and July 1650 and two construction drawings. No specific preparatory drawing for the present work is known, but Walter Liedtke advances the idea that a lost on-site sketch was used for both the present work and another painting on loan from a private collection to the Rijksmuseum Twente, Enschede (fig. 1). The identical perspective of the two works, which share a vanishing point but are not of the same scale, suggests that a single drawing may have been used for both works (Liedtke, op. cit., pp. 146-7).
In multiple instances, Haarlem collectors with personal ties to Saenredam acquired works depicting the Nieuwe Kerk. The inventory of Haarlem official Pieter van der Hove records one such painting in which his father Hendrik's arms were commemorated in the church windows. This milieu also placed a high monetary value on Saenredam's works: minister Nicolaes Boddingh used one such painting as collateral for a loan at the large sum of 400 guilders (Schwartz and Bok, op. cit., pp. 222 and 226). In the case of the present work, clues to its early provenance may lie in the painting itself. A meticulous extant sketch by Saenredam now in the Gemeentearchief, Haarlem, indicates that he recorded the armorial ensigns -- each belonging to the family of a city official -- in all of the church windows. Yet in the present work, he deliberately omitted most of them -- including only the arms of burgomasters Cornelis Backer (d. 1655) and Johan van der Camer (d. 1657). Technical examination has demonstrated that originally the painting contained two additional coats-of-arms, painted over before 1700. Schwartz and Bok speculate that this change occurred because the painting belonged to the Backer family, who were related by marriage to the Van der Camer family after the marriage of Adriaen Backer and Anna Catharina van der Camer in 1698 (ibid., p. 226), and may have requested that the painting commemorate the uniting of the two families. This hypothesis cannot be determined definitively, however, as the early ownership of this painting is unknown and it was only rediscovered as a work by Saenredam in 1970, at the exhibition Saenredam, 1597-1665: peintre des églises at the Institut Néerlandais, Paris. We are grateful to Christiaan Hijszeler for recently establishing all of the nineteenth-century provenance.
In many ways this painting represents the ideals of post-Reformation religious life in the Netherlands and the socio-political position of its citizens. Mostly though it remains a highly visceral work -- the unadorned space inhabited by two small human figures leaves the viewer contemplating Saenredam's unique ability to capture, on a small-scale, the light, space and serenity of this classical interior.