During the seventeenth century, the city of Antwerp was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the Netherlands. This panoramic view depicts the city from the left bank of the river Scheldt, a vital artery to Antwerp’s bustling mercantile and economic life. Over the water, the city skyline is stretched across the length of the canvas, from the Nieuwstad at the left to the Kasteel (Citadel) at the far right. The perspective of the cityscape is slightly lower than the perspective employed for the depiction of the small village scene in the foreground, allowing the city’s most prominent buildings to be more clearly observed. Among the most prominent of these are the famous red brick and white stone Vleeshuis (the guildhall of the butchers of the Antwerp), the central spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and the pentagonal bastion fort, or Kasteel, built to defend the city in the late-sixteenth century during the Dutch Revolt. While the viewpoint is slightly altered, the painting is in many respects similar to the large engraved panorama by Jan Baptista Vrients, first published in 1610 under the orders of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, Governors of the Habsburg Netherlands.
Jan Wildens was a leading landscape painter in Antwerp during the first half of the seventeenth century. He frequently collaborated with his contemporaries, notably Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and Frans Snyders. Wildens is known to have painted several views of Antwerp. On 17 April 1635, the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Austria (1609/10-1641), brother of Philip IV of Spain and Governor of the Netherlands from 1633, made a triumphal entry into Antwerp and was presented by the city with a pair of paintings of Antwerp by Wildens. A document from the city council records a payment to the artist ‘for two big canvas paintings of the land and water sides of the city’ on 23 May 1635, presumably accounting for these works. The present painting was probably originally also one of a pair of such views, with the other depicting the city from the land, possibly that sold at Christie’s, London, 28 April 1972, lot 69, which shows the entry of Marie de’ Medici into Antwerp, an event which took place on 4 September 1631.
Wildens’ viewpoint in the present painting gives prominence to the foreground of his painting, depicting the small village banks of the river, grouped around the diminutive Chapel of Saint Anne. Wildens has populated this area with numerous groups of figures, from the elegantly dressed family at the left of the composition, to the more humble groups of drovers, swineherds, fishermen and milkmaids in the centre and at the right. These groups recall several of the motifs frequently found in the work of Jan Breughel the Elder, whose work Wildens would certainly have known in Antwerp.