Case Study
 
           
           

Historical Rewards:

A Dutch and a Flemish Discovery
           

Egbert van der Poel
"Barn Interior"
Before Treatment
           
           
           
 

Biography
 
  Egbert van der Poel
(1621-1664)
           
           
Early Years
           
To have so little known about the life and career of a respected seventeenth-century Dutch artist is most unusual, but this is the case with Egbert van der Poel. He was born in Delft on March 9, 1621, the son of a local goldsmith. (1) "Unfortunately, nothing is known about the first twenty-nine years of his life, not even the name of his teacher." (2) In 1650, in the first reference to his career, van der Poel listed himself as a "landscape painter" when he registered with the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft. (3) His early work from the 1640s was influenced by the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), who was admitted as a "master" in Antwerp's Guild in 1632. (4)
           
Teniers, along with Ostade, Brouwer, Steen, and others, focused his artistic interests on Dutch scenes from everyday life, which are referred to as "genre" scenes. Subject matter captured snapshot moments of social activities such as family and community events. During Holland's seventeenth-century "Golden Age," the wealthy were painted as were the peasants, the shopkeepers, the card players, and the tavern drinkers. Everyone--and all of their activities--offered a wealth of layered inspiration for the artists of this period.
           
David Teniers the Younger completed the below left image in 1644. It is a typical example of one of his interior genre scenes. In the foreground, a woman assisted by her son peels an apple while skewered fowl are roasting in an open hearth in the rear. Within the scene, Teniers includes numerous still lifes of fruit, cooking pots, glass bottles, wicker baskets, fish, and fowl. (See Detail.) The composition's jumbled aspect requires a multi-focus attention to survey all that is included. The interior holds our attention precisely for this reason.
           

David Teniers the Younger
"Kitchen Scene" 1644
Mauritshuis, The Hague

David Teniers the Younger
Detail "Kitchen Scene" 1644
Mauritshuis, The Hague

           
These "lower-life" scenes were very popular in Holland; Teniers's influence on van der Poel cannot be overstated. The treated painting and the two below examples all evolved from this artistic source.
           

Egbert van der Poel
"The Interior of a Stable" 1640
Private Collection

Egbert van der Poel
Detail "The Interior of a Stable" 1640
Private Collection

           

Egbert van der Poel
"Barn Scene" 1646
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Egbert van der Poel
Detail "Barn Scene" 1646
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

           
Van der Poel's compositions during this period were not restricted to interior scenes. His outdoor images carried the same cluttered character as that in Teniers's work, yet each inclusion is perfectly rendered, beautifully painted, and compositionally balanced. The below images and details exemplify these characteristics.
           

Egbert van der Poel
"Farm Chores" 1647
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Egbert van der Poel
Detail "Farm Chores" 1647
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

           

Egbert van der Poel
"Cottage with Still Life" ca. 1645
Private Collection

Egbert van der Poel
Detail "Cottage with Still Life" ca. 1645
Private Collection

           
While peaceful genre scenes such as those above distinguish van der Poel's work during the 1640s, an event was soon to take place in Delft that affected him personally and artistically.
           
           
  The Explosion of 1654  
           
On the morning of October 12, 1654, one of Delft's largest powder magazines exploded. (5) The largely underground magazine served as a storage compound for 80,000 pounds of gunpowder. While the cause of the explosion is not fully understood, the force of the explosion devastated a large part of the city; its sound was heard in Texel, seventy miles north of Delft. (6)
           
The blast took a terrible toll: it is estimated that hundreds of people were killed. One of Delft's most famous painters, Carel Fabritius, was among the casualties as was van der Poel's daughter. (She was buried two days after the explosion in the Nieuwe Kerk.) The event had a profound effect on the artist, for there was a precise change in his choice of subject matter from this period forward.
           
The below left image records the blast, while the lower left rendering depicts the devastation left in its wake. The scenes document a specific day, not a generalized interior scene that could have taken place on any day. The lower images offers a realistic rendering of the explosion's aftermath, including the charred remnants of the surrounding houses, piles of debris, and individuals assisting the wounded. The painting's lower eye level brings the human pathos directly to the forefront, thereby accentuating the extent of the destruction.
           

Egbert van der Poel
"The Explosion at Delft" 1654
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Egbert van der Poel
Detail "The Explosion at Delft" 1654
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

           

Egbert van der Poel
"View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654"
National Gallery of Art, London

Egbert van der Poel
Detail "View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654"
National Gallery of Art, London

           
Today, almost twenty versions of these images exist. Unfortunately there is no way to determine the chronology of the works since the paintings all carry the date of the explosion as opposed to their completion date. The multiple images suggest that there must have been a market for these scenes. In this way, van der Poel was able to artistically capitalize on the event.
           
           
 

Rotterdam 1655-1664
 
           
A few months after the explosion, van der Poel left Delft for Rotterdam. The reasons for the move are not known but could have been a direct result of the city's devastation. The experience of the explosion, though, seems to have inspired numerous paintings of blazing catastrophic fires set against a nocturnal sky; these compositions were referred to as brandjes (little fires). Van der Poel became known as "the best painter of fire in all of the Netherlands." (7)
           
The below left image, "Fire in a Village," is a representative branje. Placing the unyielding fire against the unforgiving void of the nighttime sky brings the calamity of the event to the immediate forefront. The huddled survivors in the foreground accentuate the moment. The below right image follows a similar compositional pattern and allowed van der Poel to showcase his light versus dark chiaroscuro skills, portraying fire against night.
           

Egbert van der Poel
"Fire in a Vilage" ca. 1660
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Egbert van der Poel
"Fire Scene" ca. 1660
Gemeente Museum, The Hague

           
It is precisely this interest in chiaroscuro that led van der Poel to create some of his finest works: moonlit scenes. The below images reveal an artist in full control. Highlights are concentrated in the lunar glow while the rest of the composition becomes a subtle symphony of tonal gradations. The effect is one of serenity and containment and contrasts sharply with the pervasive turmoil contained in his paintings of the calamities at Delft.
           



Egbert van der Poel
"Moonlit Scene" ca. 1662
Private Collection, London

Egbert van der Poel
"Seashore by Moonlight"
Museum Briner und Kern, Winterthur

           
While not a recognized name, van der Poel is an important entry in what is termed the Delft School of Art, which included Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, Carel Fabritius, and Paulus Potter. His oeuvre encompassed simple genre scenes, accurate historical events, and sublime nocturnal images. Egbert van der Poel was buried on June 19, 1664, in Rotterdam.
           
Footnotes    
(1) Liedtke, Walter. Vermeer and the Delft School. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 2001. p.325. The limited biographical information on van der Poel is referenced from this source.
(2) Ibid.
(3)The Guild of Saint Luke was the most common name for a city guild for painters and other artists in early modern Europe, especially in the Low Countries. They were named in honor of the evangelist Luke, the patron saint of artists, who was identified by John of Damascus as having painted the Virgin's portrait. Information on the Guild of Saint Luke from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/saint_luke's_guild_delft.html. Accessed 1/13/09.
(4) Information on Teniers from http://www.artnet.com/artist/24530/david-teniers-ii.html. Accessed 1/15/09.
(5) Liedtke, W. and selected phrases. p.326.
(6) Liedtke, W. p.326.
(7) Ibid.
           
           

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