In his 1628 text, Beschrijvinge ende lof der stad Haarlem, or Description and praise of the town of Haarlem, Samuel Ampzing celebrated the city's central market square, called the Grote Markt, writing "Who ever saw something like it so striking, so spacious?"(Ampzing 1628, p. 40, trans. A. van Suchtelen and A. Wheelock, Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age, exh. cat., Zwolle, 2008, p. 80). When Berckheyde depicted the same site in the present work sixty years later, the Grote Markt was still a vital commercial, social, religious and civic center, much as it is today.
Signed and dated 1691, the present painting has as its main feature the Town Hall, a structure whose complex construction encapsulates Haarlem's architectural history (Biesboer et al., op. cit., pp. 389-390). The original structure dates to the 14th century, while the tower was built in 1465/68. Over a century later, city architect Lieven de Key added an exterior staircase (1598) and a wing for the town council and prison (1625). In 1630, eight years before Berckheyde's birth, Salomon de Bray designed the building's tribunal and large balcony with classical flourishes. Though many of these elements were removed or rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries, they are captured in the present work.
In the present painting, Berckheyde describes this complex and varied structure in fine, minute detail, effectively setting off its soft gray, orange and tan hues against a bright blue sky. The picture reveals Berckheyde's great skill in depicting architecture in space: the long shadows extend from the left to accentuate the flat plane of the plaza, which in turn emphasizes the height and majesty of the Town Hall. Such pictures made Berckheyde, along with his brother Job, enormously successful in Haarlem. Indeed, in the 1660s they developed the cityscape as an independent form, returning repeatedly to local subjects such as the Grotekerk (also called St. Bavo) and the Grote Markt, a favorite of Berckheyde, who was partial to depicting open public spaces. While most were commissioned for display in civic buildings to encourage city pride, the number of extant cityscapes by the Berckheydes and their peers suggests that Haarlem residents purchased them for their homes as well (Lawrence, op. cit., pp. 30-32). Other versions of the present view exist, showing variations in figural elements, with dates spanning from 1661 to the current picture's 1691; one, dated 1671, is now preserved in the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem (inv. OS 1-10).
Berckheyde's townscapes relate to an established tradition in Haarlem of celebrating local landmarks. In this painting, Berckheyde alludes to the building's function as a civil court through his choice of figures, many of whom wear the black coats and white ruffs of magistrates, thus recalling Ampzing's words, "Now the Town Hall is here, where for the town The councils are busy giving good advice, Where justice is done when a quarrel originates And where he who indulges too much is punished" (trans. Lawrence, op. cit., p. 31). The painting resembles the print of the Haarlem Town Hall by Jan van de Velde II after Pieter Saenredam that accompanied Ampzing's 1628 text (fig. 1). While clearly aware of this precedent, Berckheyde has updated it with references to the French invasion of 1672 (Van Suchtelen and Wheelock, op. cit. p. 80). The elegant man at center, for instance, contrasts with the more conservatively attired magistrates, as he wears a vivid blue coat and red stockings in the French fashion popular in Haarlem in the latter part of the century. And in marked contrast to Ampzing's moralizing tone is the light-hearted vignette of children at right, coaxing a goat to pull a baby in a small cart. This commanding picture thus reflects Haarlem's long history of city pride, while skillfully adapting an iconic site to accommodate the taste and circumstances of the artist's contemporaries.
(fig. 2) A view of the Grote Markt, Haarlem, Mikhail Markovskiy.
(fig. 1) Etching after Saenredam, View of the Grote Markt in Haarlem with the townhall, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.