Emanuel de Witte (1617-1692): The Master of Light (exhibition)

Edition 5 September 2017, by Benjamin Roberts

During the Dutch Golden Age, the architect painter Emanuel de Witte (1617-1692) was just as widely known as Rembrandt van Rijn and Govert Flinck. In the art world, contemporaries considered him the master painter of church interiors. De Witte’s extraordinary talent for capturing light from high, church ceilings earned him the reputation ‘master of light’. The serenity of his white, church interiors is often accented with breast-feeding mothers, playing children, and bewildered dogs, which make them even more tranquil. Opening September 23rd, the Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar will commemorate De Witte’s 400th birth year with an overview exhibition including 27 of his works. The exhibition will display De Witte’s works on loan from museums around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), The National Gallery (London), the Alte Pinakothek (Munich), and the Israel Museum (Jerusalem). In a telephone interview, Christi Klinkert, conservator at the Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar, explains although De Witte’ was specialized in church interiors, the essence of his talent was capturing light. The exhibition will include domestic interiors, family portraits, and market scenes, which illustrates De Witte’s use of light in other genres. De Witte who studied in Delft at the studio of the still-life painter Evert van Aelst (1602-1657) returned to his hometown of Alkmaar in 1636. In his thirties he started specializing in church interiors and moved in the early 1650s to Amsterdam where he was commissioned to paint the Nieuwe Kerk (the New Church) (1656), the Oude Kerk (the Old Church) (1659), and other open-air buildings in Amsterdam such as The courtyard of Amsterdam’s Old Stock Exchange (1653). In the period De Witte lived in Amsterdam, he also painted three works of the interior of the Portuguese Synagogue, which had never been painted before (or after again). For the overview exhibition, the Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar hoped to include all three, but one could not be located because it perished during the Second World War. Klinkert points out that one of the two surviving interiors, on loan from Israel Museum in Jerusalem, “is a prime example where De Witte captures the late afternoon light as it casts a shadow on the synagogue’s pillars. With his use of light, the painter really creates a placid mood”. De Witte’s canvasses radiate calmness and tranquility, but his personal life was fi lled with drama and tragedy. Throughout his adult life he was burdened with financial hardship. In the winter of 1691/92 De Witte’s body was found with a rope around his neck in a half-frozen canal in Amsterdam. Mostly likely, De Witte tried to hang himself from a bridge after a heated argument with his landlord who had kicked him out of his home. The rope broke and that night the canal started to freeze. Six weeks later when the canal started to thaw out, De Witte’s body was found.

Emanuel de Witte: The Master of Light
23 September 2017-21 January 2018

Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar
Canadaplein 1
1811 KE Alkmaar
Open: Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm