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Simon de Vlieger, Ships in the River Maas off Rotterdam, c. 1652

Behind | News about the art | 4.may.2016

A change of view

Local knowledge and thorough guidance has given us valuable new documentation about one of the gems among our Dutch master paintings. Read about how our visitors help us learn about our collections.

By Merete Sanderhoff
Curator and Senior Advisor in Digital Museum Practice

About a month ago, I had a meeting with colleagues from Europeana at SMK. At the end of the day, I took them on a tour along the SMK collections to offer some variation from the meeting room and a chance to explore what we have here at The National Gallery of Denmark. In the very first gallery, one of the guests, Wim van Dongen who is a historian from Holland, stopped in his tracks in front of one of the masterpieces of our Dutch 17th century collection – Simon de Vlieger’s Ships in the River Maas off Rotterdam from about 1652.

Wim had instantly recognized the motif, and according to him, it was not a view to Rotterdam, as the title indicates, but to the city of Dordrecht 25 km southeast of Rotterdam.

How did Wim know that? Well, he drives past this specific spot every day from his hometown Tilburg to work at the Nationaal Archief in Den Haag. Therefore, he could easily make out that the characteristic building on the low skyline of the city is that of Grote Kerk, the main church of Dordrecht, with its tall square tower.

Wim in front of de Vlieger's painting at the SMK

The view today
After his visit to SMK, Wim sent me a long email carefully explaining and documenting why he firmly believes that the painting shows a view to Dordrecht. He even attached a picture of the city of the Dordrecht skyline nowadays, taken from the train which he uses every day to commute to work.

Today, there is an iron railway bridge standing in the way of an undisturbed view across the river towards Dordrecht. So in order to give a more precise prospect he supplemented it with a link to Google Streetview from the opposite bank of the river Maas where the city of Zwijndrecht overlooks Dordrecht. According to Wim, this must have been just about the spot from where Simon de Vlieger stood when he sketched the motif in the 17th century. He knew that in the 17th century the city of Dordrecht was far more important than Rotterdam, which underpins its appeal as a topic for a large scale landscape painting.  He also provided another Google Streetview link standing right in front of Grote Kerk in the middle of the old city center of Dordrecht, where the distinctively shaped tower stands out in all its splendour.

To top it up, Wim also directed our attention to the building with the small tower which is visible on the horizon of the painting, to the far left next to the ships. He suggests that this is probably the Hotel Bellevue, built around 1607 behind one of the city gates called the Groothoofdpoort in the walls around the medieval center of Dordrecht. And he includes documentation for this too – among others a link to an online source featuring old handcoloured photographs of the Groothoofdpoort, enabling us to compare them with the building seen in the painting.

The many mills
Being a historian, Wim continues to tell the story of the many mills we can see on the horizon in the painting, but which are missing in the contemporary streetview images of the city.

In the 17th century, mills were omnipresent in the Dutch landscape, but although Holland is still famous for its mills, many of them have disappeared. A keen interest in the mills and their history prevails, however, for instance expressed on a Facebook page devoted to these disappeared Dordrecht mills (in Dutch “verdwenen molens van Dordrecht”).

Local knownledge is an important input
Finally, he shares another painting from the period featuring a similar view of Dordrecht, namely this painting by Jan van Goyen who was a contemporary of Simon de Vlieger (and who is also represented in the SMK collection). This particular painting was shown in a 2015 exhibition at the Dordrecht Museum called Faces of Dordrecht (in Dutch “Gezichten op Dordrecht”), once again substantiating Wim’s thesis that the painting he saw at SMK of a similar view is in fact from Dordrecht.

Wim’s local knowledge and thorough guidance has given us valuable new documentation about one of the gems among our Dutch master paintings. The curator in charge of this collection will add this new information to the SMK collection database, and it will be an important input for her future research and publishing about Simon de Vlieger’s painting.

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