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Jan van Goyen, Dutch, 1596-1656: Fig­ures in a Boat near a Dove­cote, c. 1640-50 

Jan van Goyen’s sim­ple, yet direct approach to the Dutch coun­try­side, with its empha­sis on tonal­i­ty and nat­u­ral­ism, had a last­ing impact on his con­tem­po­raries. He made over 1,000 draw­ings, both sketch­es and fin­ished works, the lat­ter des­tined for the market.

This fin­ished draw­ing depicts a wood­en dove­cote, a shel­ter for domes­ti­cat­ed pigeons raised on poles or tree trunks. Because pigeons were a source of food and a com­mod­i­ty, dove­cotes were high­ly reg­u­lat­ed and per­mit­ted among the upper ech­e­lons only, that is, until laws were relaxed in the later sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry. If the dove­cote in Van Goyen’s draw­ing is illic­it, the image would have pro­vid­ed a source of amuse­ment for his view­ers, many of whom appre­ci­at­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tions of such rural daily life in land­scape art.

Jan van Goyen was a pro­lif­ic and high­ly regard­ed painter in his day whose exper­i­ments with new styles of land­scape paint­ing had a last­ing impact on many of his con­tem­po­raries, in par­tic­u­lar his tonal” or near­ly mono­chrome paint­ings.1

He was a truly pro­lif­ic drafts­man as well. His body of over 1,000 draw­ings is one of the largest to sur­vive today by a sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Dutch artist.2

The major­i­ty of these were fin­ished draw­ings for the mar­ket, though many of his sketch­es and even a few of his sketch­books also sur­vive, pro­vid­ing insight into his trav­els and work­ing meth­ods.3 Van Goyen would reg­u­lar­ly work up motifs from his sketch­es into both fin­ished paint­ings and fin­ished draw­ings, some­times years after he first sketched the motifs from life.4

Despite the lack of a mono­gram and date, both of which he often (though not always) added to his draw­ings, Van Goyen almost cer­tain­ly intend­ed this sheet as an autonomous fin­ished work. It is the type of work he would have made in the stu­dio, per­haps with the aid of stud­ies taken from life, such as his sketch of a dove­cote now in Braun­schweig Fig. 36.1, or some­thing sim­i­lar but no longer extant.5

Jan van Goyen, Sketch of a Dovecote
Fig. 36.1

Jan van Goyen, Sketch of a Dove­cote, 1636. Black chalk, 118 × 237 mm. Braun­schweig, Her­zog Anton Ulrich Muse­um, inv. no. z.1266.

For his final com­po­si­tion, Van Goyen used swift and con­trolled strokes with a rel­a­tive­ly blunt nib of chalk, con­vey­ing an ener­getic avian-like vibran­cy to the image as a whole. This con­fi­dent and dis­tinc­tive han­dling of the chalk sug­gests a date for this work in the early 1650s.6 This was an immense­ly pro­duc­tive peri­od for the artist in terms of his draw­ings, with over 350 of his signed and dated sheets com­ing from the years 1651 – 53 alone.

Images of dove­cotes prove inter­est­ing given that reg­u­la­tions around their own­er­ship changed over the course of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, at least in the Nether­lands.7

In pre­vi­ous cen­turies across Europe, only nobles and high cler­gy were per­mit­ted the right to build dove­cotes, a law that was upheld in Utrecht as late as 1647, with increased fines for those found ille­gal­ly keep­ing them.8 Obvi­ous­ly, as a food source and mar­ketable item, domes­ti­cat­ed pigeons would have been a desir­able com­mod­i­ty.9

Reg­u­la­tions were loos­ened in the lat­ter half of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry to allow farm­ers with a cer­tain amount of acreage to keep them.10 Author­i­ties prob­a­bly did not strict­ly enforce these mea­sures in the first place. As one his­to­ri­an already noted, their reg­u­lar appear­ance in the visu­al arts from the begin­ning of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry onward seems to belie their unau­tho­rized sta­tus, though per­haps that was part of the point of these rep­re­sen­ta­tions.11

Van Goyen him­self depict­ed dove­cotes through­out his career. Artists from the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, such as Abra­ham Bloe­maert (1566 – 1651), made use of the motif on sev­er­al occa­sions, as did Jan van de Velde II (1593 – 1641), whose etch­ing of a dove­cote bears a com­po­si­tion­al sim­i­lar­i­ty to the Peck draw­ing Fig. 36.2.12

Jan van de Velde II, Landscape with Dovecote
Fig. 36,2

Jan van de Velde II, Land­scape with Dove­cote, 1616. Etch­ing, 132 × 205 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. rp-p-1898-a-20422.

Van Goyen’s teacher, Esa­ias van de Velde (1587 – 1630), was also fond of the dove­cote motif.13 These wood­en types raised on poles or tree trunks (duiv­en­tillen) usu­al­ly belonged to farm­ers or vil­lagers, as opposed to the brick struc­tures (duiv­en­toren) found on estates or attached to the sides of châteaux.14

Dove­cotes have occa­sion­al­ly pro­voked dis­cus­sions in the schol­ar­ly lit­er­a­ture over their icono­graph­ic asso­ci­a­tions and the degree of inter­pre­tive weight that should be accord­ed to them.15

In the present sheet, the fig­ure board­ing the boat bears a wick­er poul­try bas­ket in his right hand, sug­gest­ing Van Goyen sim­ply intend­ed to depict a farmer head­ing to mar­ket with live­stock from the dove­cote. The large object being rolled by his left hand might be a sim­i­lar light­weight con­tain­er of some sort (rather than a bar­rel, which it resem­bles at first glance). If this was an illic­it dove­cote, such com­mon knowl­edge would have pro­vid­ed a humor­ous layer of mean­ing for Van Goyen’s con­tem­po­rary audi­ence, for whom depic­tions of the var­i­ous activ­i­ties of rural folk were wel­come and ani­mat­ing fea­tures in land­scape art.

This draw­ing has the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing belonged to one of Van Goyen’s fiercest defend­ers in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the French art crit­ic Charles Blanc (1813 – 1882). After a decline in appre­ci­a­tion in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Van Goyen’s works gained renewed atten­tion among con­nois­seurs in the era of Impres­sion­ism, although the sheer pro­lifi­ca­cy of his works tend­ed to keep their mar­ket value low, and by exten­sion their appeal among cer­tain snob­bish col­lec­tors. Blanc vent­ed: These mod­er­ate prices are undoubt­ed­ly the rea­son why we do not see any­thing of Van Goyen in the most cel­e­brat­ed gal­leries… Gallery own­ers should be a lit­tle less vain and have a bit more insight, more [con­cern with] true art.“16

That he wrote this around the same time that he came into pos­ses­sion of the present sheet is a com­pelling aspect of its prove­nance. Blanc pur­chased it at auc­tion in 1861 for the rel­a­tive­ly low sum of six francs from the col­lec­tion of Flury-Hérard, whose promi­nent stamp can be seen in the lower right cor­ner (F.H. No., fol­lowed by 302 in ink).

End Notes

  1. For an overview of Van Goyen’s life, his land­scape style, and its impact, see espe­cial­ly Lei­den 1996.

  2. For the stan­dard cat­a­logue of Van Goyen’s draw­ings, see the first vol­ume (1972) and third vol­ume (1987 sup­ple­ment) of Beck 1972 – 91.

  3. For Van Goyen’s sketch­books, see Beck 1972 – 91, vol. 1, 254 – 315, nos. 843 – 47; Bui­jsen 1993; and E. Bui­jsen in Lei­den 1996, 22 – 37.

  4. For an overview of Van Goyen’s uses of draw­ings as prepara­to­ry mate­r­i­al, see I. van Tuinen in Wash­ing­ton & Paris 2016– 17, 127 – 31, nos. 42 – 44. See espe­cial­ly idem, 129 (and note 13), which cor­rects Beck’s assump­tion that some of Van Goyen’s fin­ished draw­ings served as an inter­me­di­ate stage of prepa­ra­tion for his paint­ings, rather than being sep­a­rate­ly worked up from sketch­es (for which see Beck 1957).

  5. Braun­schweig, Her­zog Anton Ulrich Muse­um, inv. no. Z.1266; see Beck 1972 – 91, vol. 1, no. 738A; and idem, vol. 3, no. 738A (where illustrated).

  6. This opin­ion dif­fers from that of Franklin Robin­son, who dated the draw­ing to the 1640s in Chapel Hill, Itha­ca & Worces­ter 1999 – 2001, 56 – 58, no. 12. Van Goyen’s han­dling of cer­tain pas­sages such as the foliage tends to be loos­er in the 1650s, where­as his draw­ings from the 1640s (con­sid­er­ably fewer in num­ber) betray a tighter, more con­cerned approach like that of Pieter Molijn.

  7. Giezen-Nieuwen­huys & Wilmer 1987, 35 – 40; and Wtte­waall 1991.

  8. Wtte­waall 1991, 7.

  9. For the var­i­ous uses of doves and pigeons in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, with a focus on Spain, see Cano­va 2005.

  10. For the change in Utrecht’s reg­u­la­tions in 1667, see Wtte­waall 1991, 7. For the sug­ges­tion that other regions loos­ened reg­u­la­tions after the Treaty of Mün­ster (1648), see Giezen-Nieuwen­huys 1987, 35.

  11. Van Bal­le­gooyen 1978, 123.

  12. For some of Bloemaert’s paint­ings and draw­ings with dove­cotes, see Utrecht & Schw­erin 2011 – 12, nos. 64, 68 – 70. For Van de Velde’s etch­ing, see Holl­stein (vols. 33 – 34), no. 246.

  13. See Keyes 1984, pas­sim.

  14. For dove­cote archi­tec­ture in the Nether­lands, see Van Bal­le­gooyen 1978; Giezen-Nieuwen­huys & Wilmer 1987; and Wilmer 1991.

  15. Leeflang 1995, 278 and note 19; and Gib­son 2000, 163 and note 85 (page 231).

  16. Blanc 1861, 8; cited by W. L. van de Water­ing in Ams­ter­dam 1981, 33 – 34 (from the 1876 edi­tion); and in Bui­jsen 1993, 20, from which the Eng­lish trans­la­tion is taken.