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Herman Saftleven

(1609 Rotterdam – 1685 Utrecht)

View of the Sonnenborgh Bastion on Stadsbuitengracht in Utrecht. Black chalk, grey-brown wash, made from two sheets. 28.8 x 38.5 cm. Monogrammed: HSL. Watermark: Foolscap with a five-pointed collar (Ash/Fletcher 19 K. a., circa 1648–50).

Wolfgang Schulz, the author of the catalogue of Herman Saft­leven’s drawings published in 1982, had no knowledge of this large, impressive sheet. It is one of numerous urban vedute the artist drew in Utrecht over a period of several decades. The earliest dated drawing is from 1642 and it is generally assumed that Saftleven continued to address this subject matter into old age. He has sketched the spacious scene in deft and accurate linework and taken the utmost care to ensure topographical precision without forfeiting artistic spontaneity. The effectively arranged staffage figures give the urban landscape a convincing everyday atmosphere. Over a lengthy period of time Saftleven put together a substantial group of drawings reproducing the gates and defensive structures of the town of Utrecht. On the extreme left of the picture is the Sonnenborgh bastion, one of four bulwarks designed by the town architect, Willem van Noort, and erected at the behest of Emperor Charles V between 1554 and 1558 to defend the town. In 1639 the fortification was partly converted into a botanical garden; an observatory has stood at this site since the mid-19th century. A smaller drawing in the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam shows the bastion, topped by a stepped gable house, from a different angle (Inventory no. RP-T-1886-A-640, Schulz 358).

Herman Saftleven, a painter, draughtsman and etcher, was probably taught first by his father, Herman Saftleven the Elder (d. 1627), and then by his elder brother Cornelis (1607–1681). From 1632 he lived in Utrecht, where he occupied several positions in the ‘Schilderscollege’ between 1655 and 1667 and achieved considerable renown as a landscape painter. Apart from several journeys to the Moselle and the Rhine and a brief stay in the town of Elberfeld in the Rhineland around 1667 the artist lived and worked his whole life in Utrecht. His finely executed panoramic Rhineland scenes enjoyed great popularity in the 17th century. It is difficult to date the so-called stadtswaltekeningen because of the fairly uniform graphic style of this group of drawings. Given the date of the watermark, however, it seems plausible that the present drawing arose in the late 1640s or 1650s. In this connection see the exhibition catalogue Home and Abroad. Dutch and Flemish Landscape Drawings from the John and Marine van Vlissingen Art Foundation, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Fondation Custodia Paris, 2015–2016, p. 92.

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