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New Getty Exhibition Highlights Masterful Artist of Dutch Golden Age

The Sacred Spaces of Pieter Saenredam
April 16 - July 7, 2002
Exhibitions Pavilion, J. Paul Getty Museum

January 24, 2002

Los Angeles--The Sacred Spaces of Pieter Saenredam, an exhibition focusing on the work of one of the most remarkable painters of 17th-century Holland, will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from April 16 through July 7, 2002. Together with Rembrandt and Vermeer, Saenredam is considered one of the masters of the Golden Age of Dutch art. Saenredam's paintings and drawings are rarely seen in this country, and this is the first monographic international loan exhibition devoted to his work ever to be hosted in North America. This exhibition was originally created by the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, the Netherlands, and presented as Pieter Saenredam, The Utrecht Work: Paintings and Drawings by the 17th-century Master of Perspective from November 4, 2000 through February 4, 2001.

"The rare opportunity to present Saenredam's sublime vision to an American audience proved irresistible to the Getty," said Deborah Gribbon, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and vice president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. "The exhibition is particularly appropriate for us as the Museum owns a painting and a major drawing by Saenredam, both showing views of the church of St. Bavo in his native Haarlem. When our colleagues at the Centraal Museum proposed reconstituting the Utrecht exhibition in Los Angeles, we were understandably delighted."

The Sacred Spaces of Pieter Saenredam examines a series of drawings and paintings Saenredam made of the churches of Utrecht during a stay beginning in the summer of 1636. His meticulously dated drawings have allowed art historians to closely trace his steps. In the case of this sojourn, which began on June 16 and ended on October 23, 1636, he rendered seven of the city's extraordinary medieval churches in more than 30 drawings. He spent the majority of his time (the first six weeks) in the Mariakerk, and then turned to the parish churches of the Buurkerk and St. Jacobskerk. In August, he drew St. Pieterskerk; and in September and October depicted the Domkerk and St. Janskerk. Saenredam concluded his visit with St. Catharinakerk ("kerk" means "church" in Dutch).

Saenredam then took these drawings back to his native Haarlem, and used them as the basis for paintings (made exclusively on panel), some of which were executed over a quarter century later. "Saenredam's period in Utrecht was the most productive in his career," said Lee Hendrix, curator of drawings, J. Paul Getty Museum. "Through his quietly majestic 'portraits' of these seven churches and their interior spaces and architectural elements, Saenredam immortalized the history of his country, and his own role as a witness to its greatness."

The Artist and His Style

Saenredam was born in Assendelft in the province of Holland on June 9, 1597. After the death of his father, the engraver Jan Saenredam, in 1607, he moved to Haarlem and lived there until his death in 1665. Beginning in 1612, Saenredam trained with history and portrait painter Frans de Grebber, and stayed in his studio until 1623. In 1628, he decided to devote himself to architectural subjects. While painters before him had specialized in imaginary architecture, Saenredam was the first to specialize exclusively in existing buildings, especially churches.

"He was an innovator in the field of architectural painting, breaking from traditional, fantastic views of church interiors to treat architecture as a realistic subject," said Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings, J. Paul Getty Museum. "Saenredam's meticulous approach was unique in his time, with the poetry and perfection of his spaces unequalled by any of his successors."

From his earliest activity, Saenredam based his paintings on detailed site drawings. By maturity, he had developed a distinctive working process that he practiced for the rest of his career. His production was small, as he worked in a painstaking, methodical manner. He began by making site drawings of churches that recorded measurements and forms with archaeological thoroughness. He documented particular views, as well as specific elements, such as elevations, columns, and capitals. Based on these, he made construction drawings in which he regularized spatial relationships and proportions according to the rules of perspective. Saenredam made innumerable fine adjustments to architectural details to create spaces of wondrous perfection of proportion and luminosity.

To elucidate the intense methodology behind Saenredam's work, the Museum is presenting a special section in the exhibition devoted to his working process. This will feature the Getty's painting and drawing of the church the artist painted most frequently, St. Bavo of his native Haarlem, along with related drawings and a painting lent by other institutions.

Exhibition Showcases Paintings and Drawings

The Sacred Spaces of Pieter Saenredam examines the strong relationship between Saenredam's drawings and paintings. Works in the exhibition include The nave and choir of St. Catharinakerk in Utrecht, 1655-1660, Upton House, Warwickshire: the Bearsted Collection (The National Trust), the only known painting of this church by Saenredam. Because of the extreme purity of the space and its luminous brilliance, this is one of the defining works of Saenredam's oeuvre. Also featured is the earliest sketch of The nave and choir of St. Catharinakerk in Utrecht seen to the east, October 2, 1636, The Utrecht Archive, Utrecht. In this drawing, the church appears to have a special air of perfection, achieved by the merging of its soaring pointed Gothic vaulting, its radiant whitewashed interior, and its sparse furnishings. A spectacular view straight down the nave maximizes the effect of ethereal space.

Utrecht's greatest Gothic church is on view in one of Saenredam's most monumental drawings, The nave and choir of the Dom in Utrecht seen to the east, September 3, 1636, The Utrecht Archive, Utrecht. With numerous vertical lines he emphasized the staggering height of the nave, and added to the magnificence with gold "tapestries" painted on the piers, which had formed backdrops for the now removed statues of saints. In 1674, the nave collapsed in a hurricane, reducing the enormous space by half. This drawing is also an important document as the only reliable contemporary record of the church's original appearance.

Another exhibition highlight is on loan from the Los Angeles collection of Mrs. Edward W. Carter. The north aisle of the Mariakerk in Utrecht seen to the east, 1651, is one of Saenredam's rare church interiors devoid of figures. In this work, nothing detracts from the simplicity of the space and the subtle color nuances of the plaster and stone surfaces of the interior.

Catalogue and Related Programming

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum will republish the English edition of the Centraal Museum's exhibition catalogue, Pieter Saenredam, The Utrecht Work: Paintings and Drawings by the 17th-century Master of Perspective (hardcover $55). This comprehensive 304-page book is edited by Liesbeth M. Helmus, curator of fine arts prior to 1800 at the Centraal Museum, with portions written by Arie de Groot, Geraldine van Heemstra, Dr. Helmus, and Michiel C. Plomp. It includes 97 color illustrations, 27 black-and-white illustrations, and 12 drawings. The catalogue is available in the Museum Bookstore, online at, or by calling 800-223-3431. The Museum will also offer a range of related programs including lectures, Point-of-View Talks, and a Gordon Getty Concert.

Also on view during the Saenredam show are two related exhibitions: The Geometry of Seeing: Perspective and the Dawn of Virtual Space, from April 16 through July 7, 2002 at the Getty Research Institute Exhibition Gallery, and Dutch Drawings of the Golden Age, from May 28 through August 25, 2002 at the Museum.

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