This autumn Alkmaar turns the spotlight on Emanuel de Witte, one of the most talented painters of the Golden Age. 2017 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth in the city. It is the first time that a monographic exhibition has been devoted to Emanuel de Witte – a remarkable omission, given that he is regarded as the greatest painter of church interiors of his day. Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar presents the range of De Witte’s oeuvre and his mastery of perspective and light with exceptional loans from Dutch and foreign collections. The exhibition also provides an insight into the tragic life of this striking personality.
Emanuel de Witte grew up in Alkmaar at the same time as the artist Caesar van Everdingen. His father, Pieter de Witte, was the headmaster of the French school. The young Emanuel was trained by the still life specialist Evert van Aelst (1602-1657) in Delft. He returned to Alkmaar, where in 1636 he was enrolled in the Guild of St Luke, the professional association for painters. Regrettably, nothing is known about his work in this period. After a brief stay in Rotterdam and ten years in Delft, Emanuel de Witte moved again, this time to Amsterdam, where he was the only architecture specialist. De Witte soon established his reputation.
In 1654, the poet Jan Vos actually put De Witte in the same league as Rembrandt and Govert Flinck. Inventories and other early sources give us an impression of his clientele, who included an architect, a sexton and the churchwardens of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. He also painted to order. One of his clients was no less a personage than the King of Denmark, Frederick III. It was De Witte’s phenomenal handling of light that was so impressive: he was unrivalled in his ability to play with the sunlight that streamed in through tall church windows and was reflected on columns and walls. He painted Protestant and Catholic houses of prayer, and was the first to depict the imposing interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam.
Animated and Anecdotal
More than many other painters in the same genre, De Witte’s compositions are populated by people who give his works an animated and sometimes even anecdotal character. Babies are breastfed, graves are dug and dogs run around. Looking at the work of Emanuel de Witte today, we are struck by the surprising range of his oeuvre. As well as the church interiors of Delft and Amsterdam, which made his reputation, he also produced market scenes, genre scenes, portraits and history paintings. And almost without exception they are works of great liveliness and high quality. Thanks to special loans from the Netherlands and abroad, we can show the full extent of the variety and quality of De Witte’s oeuvre in Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar.
Emanuel de Witte, The Courtyard of the Stock Exchange in Amsterdam, 1653, oil on panel, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (on loan from the Willem van der Vorm Foundation / photograph: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam)
A Colourful Life
Unfortunately there is no surviving portrait of De Witte. Various sources describe the painter – who must have led a colourful life and could not have been an easy man to deal with – with so much fervour that we are nonetheless able to form some idea of what he was like. Arnold Houbraken’s biography of Emanuel de Witte of 1718 tells us that he was short-tempered, abusive and coarse, and was forever embroiled in arguments, fights and lawsuits. In 1692, tormented by personal problems with landlords and overdue payments, he committed suicide – a tragic end to a colourful life.
A book edited by Gerdien Wuestman is published to coincide with the exhibition. The concept for the exhibition and its compilation was the work of Ruud Priem, Head Curator of the Hospitaalmuseum (Memlingmuseum), Musea Brugge.
The exhibition is made possible in part by the Mondriaan Fonds, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Fonds 21 and the VSBfonds. We would like to extend our special thanks to all lenders, advisors and others involved.
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