Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES
During the 17th century, the Dutch had every reason to be proud of their republic. These tulip-crazed folks led Europe in banking,
trading, cartography and book printing. Their thriving economy spurred urban expansion with town halls, markets and houses built along newly dug canals. Artworks heralded the civic accomplishments of this Dutch golden age in a new genre, the cityscape. These architecture-centered works are celebrated in a tightly focused exhibit at the National Gallery of Art where four dozen paintings are displayed alongside 23 maps, atlases and illustrated books.
As in the museum's recent Jan Lievens retrospective, curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. casts Dutch art of the 1600s in a new light. Familiar painters of domesticity, including Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen and even Johannes Vermeer, are linked in his catalog essay as keenly interested in civic spaces as well as private domains.
(Sadly, Vermeer's stunning View of Delft is not part of the current show, which opened last fall at the Mauritshuis, the Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague.)
Mr. Wheelock's reinterpretation seems like a stretch but it gains credibility in the exhibit through paintings of Dutch cities at various scales, from urban panoramas to intimate views of front stoops and courtyards.
This shifting perspective provides a window into important mercantile and governmental centers, including Amsterdam, Delft, Dordrecht, The Hague and Utrecht. These cities vied with one another to have their urban portraits painted by leading Dutch landscape and marine artists who came to invent the cityscape genre.
The most spectacular of these civic images was created by Jan van Goyen for The Hague's town hall. The 15-foot-wide panorama, a highlight of the exhibit, shows the courtly city rising from farmland dotted with haystacks and windmills.
For the town hall of Hoorn, artist Hendrick Vroom depicted the port in a similar manner but from the harbor to reflect the importance of trade to its economy. Vroom's painstakingly painted view of Delft from 1615 is one of the first cityscapes to be commissioned in the Netherlands.
Later in the century, Jacob van Ruisdael adopted the opposite perspective to depict Amsterdam from inside the city. His wide-angle view, seen from the town hall's cupola, shows the sunlit urban center stretching to the harbor under a vast cloudy sky. The small but powerful picture suggests the expansive reach of Amsterdam's merchant ships well beyond the dark horizon.
In focusing on place, the painters of these idyllic images broke with the tradition of using buildings as merely background scenery to portraits and allegories. Their subject is the city and they capture its architectural character in a positive way.
Absent of litter, slums and other urban ills, the Dutch cityscapes are redolent of civic pride rather than social realism. Only a few paintings reveal the evidence of destructive forces, including the burning of Amsterdam's town hall and a gunpowder explosion in Delft.
The boosterism of the cityscapes is epitomized by Gerrit Berckheyde's postcard-perfect scenes of public squares in Haarlem and The Hague. In his austere pictures, the prominent architecture of churches and town halls asserts the moral and legal framework of Dutch society.
The photographic accuracy of such urban scenes grew out of the highly developed town planning and cartography of the Dutch golden age. Displayed in the second gallery is evidence of such expertise in city histories and documents dense with geographical details.
Maps of Netherlandish provinces are shaped into roaring lions to symbolize national power, while city plans meticulously record streets and …