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Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, with a trompe l'oeil curtain and frame

Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, with a trompe l'oeil curtain and frame
oil on canvas
31 3⁄4 x 36 1⁄4 in. (80.5 x 92.5 cm.)
N.J.W. Smallenburg van Stellendam-née Thooft de la Haye and Myrtil Schleisinger, Brussels; Frederik Muller, Amsterdam, 6 May 1913, lot 120 (f 3,400), when acquired by the following,
Jonkheer van der Poll, Amsterdam.
Ursula Martha Kneppelhout-van Braam (1825-1919), Amsterdam; Frederik Muller, Amsterdam, 16 December 1919, lot 104 (f 6,000).
Julius and Camilla Priester, Vienna, from whom confiscated by the Gestapo, 11 February 1944.
Private collection, Austria.
Restituted to the heirs of Julius and Camilla Priester, 2019.
U. Thieme and F. Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler: von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, Leipzig, 1947, XXXVI, p. 125.
I. Manke, Emanuel de Witte: 1617-1692, Amsterdam, 1963, p. 95, no. 73, where recorded with signature and date 'E.D. WITTE A° 1655’.
B.G. Maillet, Intérieurs d'Eglises 1580-1720: La Peinture Architecturale dans les Ecoles du Nord, Wijnegem, 2012, p. 472, no. M-1770.
Copenhagen, Den hollandske Udstilling i København: Udstilling af ældre og nyere hollandske Malerkunst og moderne anvendt Kunst, 1922, no. 142.
Sale room notice
Please note that this work is oil on canvas and not oil on panel, as originally stated on the catalogue;

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Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Senior Director, Head of Department

Lot Essay

Julius (1870-1955) and Camilla (1885-1962) Priester were passionate Viennese art collectors. Their elegant apartment in the heart of Vienna displayed more than 80 Old Master and nineteenth century paintings, evoking the refinement and confidence of pre-war Vienna, and the Priesters’ own clear sense of taste and style.
Generaldirektor Julius Priester, a respected industrialist, was involved in numerous enterprises including the Petroleumgesellschaft Galizin GmbH and notably had commercial interests in oil and the energy sector.
From the early 1920s, Julius Priester devoted himself to building up an art collection, advised by Moritz Lindemann, an Old Master dealer with a gallery on Vienna’s Karlsplatz. The paintings were displayed both in Priester’s office and in the third- floor apartment where he and his wife Camilla lived on Ebendorferstrasse in Vienna’s historic centre. Julius Priester was particularly interested in Dutch and Italian artists including Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Hals, Tintoretto, David Teniers, Pinturrichio and Anthony van Dyck, and had a distinct eye for portraits. Photographs of the Priester apartment taken before 1938 show the paintings displayed within and complemented by an oak-furnished setting evoking a Renaissance-style interior. The collection also included outstanding works by nineteenth century artists such as Josef Danhauser, Carl Moll and Rudolf von Alt.
The Priesters’ life was dramatically changed by the ‘Anschluss’ or annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938. Forced to flee their home and their country, they lost all of their property and assets in Vienna, including all their paintings, as well as silverware, tapestries and antique Persian carpets. On 31 March 1938, Julius and Camilla Priester fled to Paris and then on to Mexico City, where they arrived in late August 1940. They never returned to Austria. Julius died in Mexico in 1955, Camilla in 1962. From abroad, Julius Priester arranged for the contents of the Ebendorferstrasse apartment to be packed and stored with the interior decorator and shipping agent Max Föhr; he was to have sent them on to Paris. But, as the Nazi grip on Jewish property tightened, these plans proved in vain. In August 1938 and 11 May 1939 the contents of the apartment were appraised by art experts under the supervision of the Gestapo and the Zentralstelle für Denkmalschutz (Central Office of Heritage Protection). This resulted in the seizure of five paintings in November 1938, followed by a further nine in May 1939, which entered museum collections including that of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The rest of the collection and furnishings were transferred to Max Föhr for storage but, although an export licence was applied for, no shipment was permitted. In February 1944, the art collection and furnishings were confiscated by the Gestapo and removed in six trucks.
After the war, Julius Priester made extensive efforts to trace and recover the missing collection. In May 1947, his lawyer, Dr Erich Goglia, registered a claim with the Austrian authorities, enclosing a list of paintings based on an inventory drawn up for insurance purposes on 4 May 1937 by Dr Robert Eigenberger, director of the Picture Gallery of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. From Mexico, Julius Priester was in frequent contact with his Vienna-based lawyers and his private secretary Henriette Geiringer. Their extensive correspondence on tracing the collection bears testimony both to their concerted efforts but also to the obstacles encountered. They contacted the authorities in Austria, including the Federal Heritage Office and the Austrian Federal Police, and internationally, through Interpol and their own efforts, the German, Swiss and French police and US legal authorities. The Priester losses were also reported in the press, notably in connection with court proceedings, such as a 1953 court case against Julius Strecker, a former appraiser for the Gestapo, in whose possession their Rubens painting Man with a fur coat was located. In 1954 the Austrian Federal Police circulated internationally an illustrated search list of 17 of the missing Priester paintings. This list includes the de Witte and the Master of Frankfurt, but not the El Greco as the police were then on its trail. While a number of works, notably those confiscated in 1938 and 1939, could be traced in the years after the war, the bulk of the collection remained missing. After Julius Priester’s death, his widow continued to search for the missing art, a search which has since been carried on by the couple’s heirs. While a number of works, notably those confiscated in 1938 and 1939, could be traced in the years after the war, the bulk of the collection remained missing. After Julius Priester’s death, Camilla continued to search for the missing art, a search which has since been carried on by the couple’s heirs.

This boldly inventive representation of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk belongs to a small group of five trompe l’oeil church interiors that de Witte executed between circa 1650 and 1655, with the present picture the last remaining in private hands.
After de Witte moved to Amsterdam in the early 1650s, the Oude Kerk became one of his favourite subjects, not only due to the majesty of its large interior, but also because of the important and dynamic role the church played in the lives of Amsterdam’s citizens. As the centre of communal life, it welcomed people of all ages and became a place where the devout and would-be devout could congregate. De Witte delighted in the depiction of people within these sacred spaces, and it was largely for this reason that his church interiors were often listed as ‘Sermons’ in seventeenth-century inventories. It was only in around 1650 that the artist turned to representations of church interiors, having begun his career in his native Alkmaar painting portraits and history subjects, before moving to Delft in 1641 after a brief period in Rotterdam.
The present view of the Oude Kerk from the west end of the nave was clearly popular with de Witte’s patrons, as the artist executed several paintings from approximately the same vantage point between 1655 and circa 1660, all on a similar scale, including: the picture at the Amsterdam Museum; the dramatically lit work of circa 1660 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (fig. 1); and the picture previously sold at Christie’s, New York, 12 January 1996, lot 197 ($625,000, sold after sale).
The present work was recorded as signed and dated 1655 (Manke, op. cit.), now likely obscured by the aged varnish. By this year, the artist had carved out a niche for himself in Amsterdam’s competitive art market through his faithful depictions of architectural interiors and their inhabitants. This picture is one of the artist’s finest works from this period, exploring the shifting dialogue between illusion and reality, which was especially prevalent in Delft architectural painting from around 1650. Indeed, it was at around this date that the artist first conceived of the trompe loeil curtain hanging from a brass rod and black wooden frame in A Sermon in the Oude Kerk, Delft of circa 1650 (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada), employing the curtain again in The Nieuwe Kerk in Delft with the Tomb of William the Silent of circa 1651 (Winterthur, Museum Briner und Kern); the Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft with the Tomb of William the Silent of 1653 (Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art); and the Interior of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam of circa 1653 (Cape Town, Michaelis Collection).
The most probable precedent for this was Rembrandt’s Holy Family in Kassel (fig. 2; Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister), painted in 1646, with the curtain device featuring prominently in nearly every major seventeenth-century Dutch treatise on painting. Beginning in the 1640s, the new curtain device appeared in Dutch painting and explored the shifting dialogue between illusion and reality, blurring the distinction between the object and its site of display. It has long been recognised that illusionistic curtains must be understood in relation to the famous contest between the ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. As Pliny the Elder relates: Zeuxis, having painted grapes so realistic that birds flew over to peck them, was outdone by Parrhasius, who in turn painted a curtain so real that Zeuxis asked for it to be drawn. Realising the deception, Zeuxis conceded that while he deceived the birds, Parrhasius deceived him, the artist. Whether representing the practice of covering church images with protective curtains or used solely as a compositional aid, the illusionistic curtain and frame in this picture eschew the distinction between the real and fictive by both attempting to share the viewer’s space and acting as a barrier between the painting of the church interior and the beholder. Keeping a respectful distance between the two, the curtain intimates that de Witte’s church is an image to be venerated, both for its religious significance and for its dramatic artistic representation.
The multitude of different light sources in this composition makes for an especially rich interplay of light and shadow, which serves to delineate and enliven the two different zones of illusionistic space, behind and outside the curtain. The sense of movement and recession through the church is further punctuated by the careful placement of figure groups at different intervals through the composition, from the foreground and through the arches to the choir. While de Witte adopted the innovative two-point perspective of his Delft contemporary Gerrit Houckgeest (1600-1661), his imagination seemingly responded more to the expansive spaces of Dutch Gothic churches and the rich interplay of sunlight and shadow, painting his compositions in patterns rather than volumes. In the present picture, the artist balances the illusionistic curtain on the right against the dominant column on the left, creating an impressive view down the long nave through a forest of receding columns and slices of murky vaulting. Both the architecture and figures compete for the viewer’s attention, with streaks of long shadows and silhouettes framing the illuminated vignettes of human interaction, and the light to the right penetrating the church at a low angle, suggesting the late afternoon of a sunny day.

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