This river landscape by Jan van Goyen demonstrates the artist's ability to depict his surroundings with an apparent effortlessness that marks him as one of the finest landscape painters of the Dutch seventeenth century. Rendered with a masterful restraint of palette, limited to a narrow range of silvery greys and greens, applied with relaxed, even brushstrokes, the artist presents a view rich with atmosphere and detail.
Van Goyen was the son and grandson of cobblers; his father, however, was himself interested in painting and drawing, and encouraged his son to study with a succession of artists in their native Leiden with the aim of becoming a stained glass painter. Against his father's wishes, however, Van Goyen, after a brief interlude, entered the studio of Esaias van de Velde (for whom see lots 524 and 526). Van de Velde had a decisive influence on the young Van Goyen (see, for example, lot 527) and the latter's debt to him is visible throughout his career, particularly in his feeling for space and atmosphere and his fluidity of brushwork.
Van de Velde was not, however, the only influence on Van Goyen; as important were the dramatic developments introduced to Dutch landscape painting in the mid-1620s by Pieter Molyn (for whom, see lot 525) and Pieter van Santvoort. In the two Sandy Roads by Molyn (1626; Brunswick, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum) and Santvoort (1625; Berlin-Dahlem, Staatliche Museum), they pioneered a style in which a low-key, overall tonality contributed to the picture's atmosphere. This tonal style of painting, generally associated with the Haarlem school, was developed to its apogee in the 1630s and 1640s by Van Goyen and Salomon van Roysdael (for whom see lot 546). Both artists also developed a compositional format, frequently used in their river landscapes, that relied upon strong diagonals leading the viewer into the picture. The present work is an important example of those two stylistic traits.
As mentioned above, it relies on a carefully limited palette to create an image of harmonious stillness that presents an extremely poetic depiction of the industrial site. This is arranged in a design composed around two diagonals converging from the top of the trees and bottom of the bank on the right towards the horizon on the left edge. Unlike some of Van Goyen's earlier works of this type, however, the diagonals are softened, employing subtleties such as the smoke rising from the forward lime-kiln and the shadows in the water, which expand the largely horizontal arrangement of the land.
The subject of the landscape is unusual - two lime kilns set near two large timber barns on the banks of a river. Lime, an essential ingredient of mortar, is produced by burning limestone or chalk. Limestone deposits in the United Provinces are confined to the south-east; thus much of what was used in the densely populated province of Holland would have been imported, or shipped north. A small group of drawings of line-kilns by Van Goyen are known. The earliest, of two kilns, with a man carrying a load up a footbridge (Schwerin, Staatliches Museum, inv. no. 1254), is similar to one of two in the sketchbook of circa 1627-1635 in the British Museum, London; another of the same period (dated 1631) is recorded by Beck (ibid., I, p. 37, no. 110a).
Van Goyen's sketchbook of 1648-9 covering a trip to Brussels and Antwerp (Dresden, Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen) contains three possible preparatory sketches (ibid., nos. 846/126[recto and verso]-7) that are similar to the composition of a drawing in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam (1653; inv. no. Van Goyen 8), placing the kilns in a river landscape, similarly to the present work, but in part reversed. Van Goyen travelled the length and breadth of the Netherlands recording details of landscape and topography in chalk sketches, and his studies filled many sketchbooks; once home, he used the results of his travel sketches to create paintings and drawings. It may be presumed, therefore, that the artist's early drawings of lime kilns were taken from life on one of his travels, and only much later employed as the basis of a painted composition.
Only two other paintings of the subject are known by the artist: that sold in these Rooms, 9 July 1999, lot 18, dated 1646, measuring 14¼ x 13½ in., with a closely related composition to the Rotterdam drawing, and that recorded as being in the collection of the Earl of Haddington (Beck, 1973, op. cit., p. 96, no. 201, illustrated, dated to circa 1650). Dr. Hans-Ulrich Beck, to whom we are very grateful for his assistance in cataloguing this lot, suggests a date for the present picture of 1648.