I have a particular fondness for old landscape paintings, particularly those of the ‘Low Countries’ (The Netherlands and Belgium). Their flat countryside forces the artist to look to the sky, and details with which to relieve seemingly endless fields and woods. But they’re an acquired taste, with subtlety. There are no breathtaking peaks, or sheer-walled gorges. Viewed in a hurry, they may appear monotonously flat. Take your time, though, and they’re richly rewarding for the glimpses they give of everyday life centuries before our era.
I’m therefore delighted to offer a small selection of the panoramic landscape paintings of Philip de Koninck (1619–1688), who was born four centuries ago tomorrow. In this article and tomorrow’s, I will drink in their wide expanses, and look at their timeless tranquillity.
Philip de Koninck, also known as Philips Koninck, was born in the Netherlands on 5 November 1619, when Rubens was a young and thrusting painter, and Rembrandt was still a teenager. He started his training with his brother Jacob in Rotterdam, but later moved to Amsterdam, where he is reported to have trained under Rembrandt. However, there are grounds for doubt, as he isn’t supposed to have moved to Amsterdam until after his second marriage in 1657, by which time he would have been 38; it therefore seems more likely that he worked in Rembrandt’s workshop until he was able to set up his own studio in the city.
De Koninck’s paintings are associated with Rembrandt’s, so much so that many now believed to have been painted by de Koninck were previously attributed to Rembrandt. Several of his relatives were also painters, and there has been confusion between his work, and that of his nephew Salomon de Koninck.
Almost all of de Koninck’s surviving paintings are panoramic landscapes, but there’s evidence that he was considerably more versatile, as a portraitist and with other figurative work including genre scenes, and some narrative and religious paintings too. He also appears to have been very successful, making enough money to buy a small shipping line which operated barges in the inland waterways between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, his favourite area for painting.
Landscape With a Distant Town is one of his earliest surviving paintings, made in 1645-46, over a decade before he moved to Amsterdam. There’s a wonderful use of light to bring out the bridge in the middle distance, and a town on the river to the right. A traveller walks along the road in the foreground, his load carried across his shoulders, as a coach drawn by four horses heads towards the bridge.
De Koninck’s Wide River Landscape from about 1648-49 refers to a wide landscape rather than river, I believe. All seems at peace in the countryside, with livestock in the field in the foreground, and a small boat making its way under sail along the river. He uses similar spotlighting effects.
Although not painted on a panoramic canvas, De Koninck’s Panoramic Landscape With a Country Estate from about 1649 looks much broader and more open than it is. Sadly, his foreground spotlight is less revealing here, but his clouds are magnificent.
Dutch Panorama Landscape With a Distant View of Haarlem from 1654 includes a crumbling cliff in the right foreground, overgrown with small trees and shrubs. Below it and towards the centre are boulders which presumably fell from its face several millenia ago. In the distance is the city of Haarlem, much of it in shadow from the clouds. At this time, the city was still a major trading port, and can be seen connected by a waterway to the North Sea.
De Koninck’s Distant View With Cottages Along a Road (1655) appears to have had its old varnish removed making it more readable. A lone man sits by the pond at the lower right. Behind him a rutted road runs past cottages, down towards a bridge over a river and two towns beyond. The more distant one may be Haarlem again.
Panoramic Landscape With a City in the Background from 1655 features farmworkers at the lower right corner, who are tending to their livestock as they feed on rough grazing. There are more people back towards the trees, and a substantial farm on the other side. Then a rhythmic series of treed hedges and a town, rather than a city, perhaps. In the far distance are dunes, whose white sand makes them look like snow-covered mountains against the flatlands around them.
De Koninck made at least two compositional sketches for a painting of the Last Supper around 1657, perhaps when he had moved to Amsterdam. Sadly I can find no trace of any finished painting which resulted from these.