Cornelis Hendriksz(oon) Vroom? For many this Haarlem born 17th century painter is a rather unknown artist. Son of Hendrick Corneliszoon Vroom – the much acclaimed landscape and seascape painter perceived to be the actual frontrunner of the maritime genre – Cornelis might be seen as an obscure entity for some yet he created a small oeuvre of very fine paintings and can without doubt be considered a true genius, mastering elaborate painting techniques. More importantly this highly gifted painter was the rather sensitive creator of something which passing time can’t erase: the bare and natural illusion of time, space and quiet.
For the naked eye it seems rather unjust that this much talented painter – a contemporary to the more illustrious names of for instance Jacob van Ruisdael, Albert Cuyp or Jan van Goyen – seems to live in relative obscurity with respect to ‘the public’ whilst having rightfully received proper recognition from experts all over the world.
Cornelis Vroom, River Landscape with Trees, 1638
On loan to the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
Promised gift of Mrs G. de Koster-Burgersdijk
In order to get a better understanding of the painting in question, we dug into the life and times of Cornelis Vroom and drew a basic picture of the phenomenon of Dutch 17th century landscape painting and more specifically the ‘Haarlem art bubble’ which had a profound influence on this genre. Furthermore we set out to get to grips with the sometimes opposing views on interpretation of the subject matter of the painting in question. It is a joint attempt to comprehend the emotion and perception Vroom achieved with this glorious painting. We want to share our views related to this one painting we singled out from his oeuvre. In fact, it is about getting under the very skin of the painting and trying to get to the essence of it. Are we able to ‘read’ it? Can we ‘feel’ it? Is there any chance of being able to relate to it as 21st century viewers? Obviously it is impossible to enter the maker’s mind, yet if we try hard enough and study the subject matter – including the context in which the painting was created – we might come up with a glimpse. Fair enough, it is and will remain a matter of opinion. We won’t go as far as to dictate what you are supposed to see and feel, it is ‘our’ opinion and therefore arbitrary, yet it is a serious and genuine attempt to lure you into looking beyond a smart composition, well applied paint and a first impression of a somewhat enigmatic landscape.
The personal life and career of Cornelis Hendriksz. Vroom has been fairly documented although there remain question marks surrounding various aspects. When studying ‘our man’ it became clear that he didn’t dedicate his life to painting by chance. From an early age onwards the gifted young man most likely received professional training from his father, the reputable master painter Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom (1566-1640) and pioneer of seascapes. Born between 1590 and 1592 in either Haarlem or Gdansk (Poland), it remains unclear whether or not Cornelis travelled to Italy to seek inspiration from the source of the Antique World and the Renaissance. This also applies to a suggested stay in England in 1627 and 1628. Cornelis Vroom proved to be an accomplished artist and his work commanded relatively high prices during his lifetime. Thanks to Constantijn Huyghens – secretary to two Princes of Orange besides being a poet and composer – Vroom received numerous commissions from the Dutch court and even contributed to the decoration of the prestigious palace Honselaarsdijk of the House of Orange. Cornelis Vroom devoted his career almost exclusively to landscapes and renowned painters such as Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael are considered to be among his followers. He never married but left an illegitimate son when he died in 1661.
Apparently the painting hasn’t come down through time with a fixed title and if it bore a title originally it seems to have been lost and forgotten. This might explain why it is being referred to in various ways when consulting relevant literature. The painting has been titled ‘River landscape with trees’ as well as ‘Estuary viewed through a screen of trees’ among other descriptions. Presumably created round about 1638 it has a fair size, measuring 19 ¾ by 26 ½ inches (50 by 67.5 centimeters) and painted in oil on panel which follows the characteristic trend of the time. Assuming that the panel derives from one single plank the actual dimensions of it seem to allow to classify it as a ‘Salvator’, being a somewhat standard description of panels of this size at the time.
Currently on display in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, it is part of the collection of the Mauritshuis (The Royal Picture Gallery) which received the painting on loan and as a promised gift by the owner, Mrs G. de Koster-Burgersdijk whose late husband acquired it by 1970. During recent restoration the painting was submitted to an infrared reflectography (IRR) survey which produced evidence of an additional figure in the middle of the composition besides a village church at the far left. Apparently these elements seem not to be overpainted elements but part of an earlier composition leaving room for the assumption that Vroom might have re-used an already painted panel.
The CODART organization – the renowned international network of curators of Dutch and Flemish art – is much in praise of the painting and stated ‘The depth in this landscape is incredible. Vroom suggested it with primarily this green and blue tones and reinforced it by placing dark, brown coulisses of trees in the foreground’. Equal praise comes from Quentin Buvelot – Senior Curator of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis – who referred to it as ‘an exceptionally beautiful addition to the collection’. Furthermore George Keyes, the author of a monograph on Cornelis Vroom, suggested it ‘has excellent claims for being considered Vroom’s masterpiece. It is one of the most innovative and haunting panoramas of Western art.’ Apparently we are not alone in our admiration of this masterpiece.