Dating from 1598, this striking view of a canal landscape, with its centralised perspective, was executed while de Gheyn was still living and working in Leiden, shortly before his departure for the Stadtholder’s court at The Hague in circa 1600. Landscape drawings are rare in de Gheyn’s oeuvre: there are only 45 entries under the 'Landscape' sub-heading in van Regteren Altena's catalogue, and the locations of only 22 of these were known (van Regteren Altena 1983, op. cit., nos. 937-980).
The date on the present sheet identifies it as the earliest known example from de Gheyn's hand. The motif of a river seen in strict perspective, with the banks receding towards a central vanishing point, had first appeared in a series of drawings made by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-1569) and his son Jan Bruegel the Elder (1568-1625) in the mid-1550s. In the Riverscape near Baasrode (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett; M. Sellink, Bruegel: The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints, London, 2007, no. 37) and the Estuary with a City in the Background (Národní Galerie, Prague; Sellink, op. cit., no. 15), Pieter Bruegel developed a theme which was both copied and extended by Jan in drawings now in the British Museum and the Louvre (A.E. Popham, Catalogue of drawings in the collection of T. Fitzroy Phillipps-Fenwick, London, 1935, p. 179; Pieter Breughel der Jüngere-Jan Brueghel der Ältere: Flämische Malerei um 1600: Tradition under Fortschritt, exhib. cat., Essen, Kulturstiftung Ruhr, and other locations, 1997-98, no. 154 [German edition of the catalogue only]). Despite the influence undoubtedly exerted by such compositions, De Gheyn’s treatment of the concept seems to derive more directly from works by Hans Bol (1534-1593). There is a closely related river landscape in a drawing of Abraham and the Angels by Bol, which is to be offered in these Rooms on 10 July 2014 (Fig. 1) and which is a development of Bol's silverpoint drawing View from a bridge at Delfgauw in the British Museum (see van Regteren Altena 1983, op. cit., I, p. 61, fig. 48). There a foreground bridge provides the vantage point and the receding river is seen in a broader pastoral setting. Another similar, though much busier, composition appears in Bol’s print Goose-Snatching (Hollstein 15.I), where the use of an off-centre vanishing point and the dense, wiry hatching with the burin in the sky foreshadow the use of similar elements in the present drawing.
Although de Gheyn used these earlier landscapes as his point of departure, this drawing marks the first step in the development of a very individual interpretation of the motif. By this date he was already an accomplished and creative draughtsman, and his penwork gives the drawing a calligraphic elegance that would be echoed in his drawing of a Mountainous landscape the following year (Albertina, Vienna, inv. 8155; van Regteren Altena, op. cit., II, no. 977, III, pl. 77). The tight, expressive hatching that delineates the clouds in the sky echoes the wakes left by the boats in the water, unifying the upper and lower parts of the composition, and the surrounding landscape is drawn with a sprightly line which gives the whole drawing a sense of simmering energy. This may be the first surviving example of de Gheyn’s landscapes, but it is clear that he was already highly skilled with both pen and burin, able to suggest a rich variety of finishes.
In the years following 1600 de Gheyn would return to the motif of a river seen in perspective, recasting the fluid freedom of the present sheet into increasingly strict and symmetrical compositions. Around 1602, he executed two drawings in which a river is seen from a much lower viewpoint, receding through a series of arched bridges whose vaults provide framing devices to emphasise the geometry that underpins the designs. One is in the Clement C. Moore Collection (see Rembrandt’s World, exhib. cat., New York, The Morgan Library, 2012, no. 10; Fig. 2), while the other is in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (van Regteren Altena 1983, op. cit., no. 942). Similarly, though in a rather different spirit, de Gheyn used a long vaulted tunnel, seen in centralised perspective, in his drawing of a Diablerie, now in the collection of Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski in Geneva (previously sold in these Rooms, 2 July 1991, lot 206). There the strict recession, closed in by the vault, becomes a means of emphasising the claustrophobia of the witches’ meeting-place and creates a very different atmosphere from the vivacious expansiveness of the present drawing.
The inscription 'Dom. Hoefnagel' on the verso refers to the drawing's earliest owner: almost certainly Jacob Hoefnagel (1575-circa 1630), the eldest son of Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1601) and thus entitled to the title dominus. Hoefnagel visited his cousin Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) in The Hague in 1602, where Huygens was a neighbour and friend of the de Gheyns. Van Regteren Altena suggested that Hoefnagel could have acquired the drawing from de Gheyn at this date, either as a gift or in part exchange.
This sheet is therefore not only a rare survival of a landscape drawing by one of the most imaginative draughtsmen of the Dutch late 16th Century, but also a testament to his creative adoption of themes drawn from other artists and the way in which he transformed these motifs to express his unique artistic vision.