'Kijk Amsterdam'


The Amsterdam city archive is running an exhibition on 18th century city portraits of Amsterdam, which could of course not be overlooked by our project! Besides the fact that these drawings are very beautiful, they are also incredibly detailed source material for the study of 18th century streets. They are even more useful because it became an artistic trend to try to depict the cityscape as realistic as possible. We see a diverse group of people portrayed, from street hawkers and beggars to children and fancy elites strolling around.

Although the people were often neatly positioned in the composition of the whole drawing to fit an ideal of the ‘poetics of everyday life’, the artists certainly did not only depict the city’s splendor. Instead, the whole of everyday street life was depicted, with great detail for goods that were sold, the actual cobbles in the street and shops’ signposts on facades. Boudewijn Bakker’s essay in the exhibition’s complementary publication of the ideas of artist and collector Cornelis Ploos gives us an excellent insight in the theory behind these drawings. Ploos, wanted drawings to show ‘the daily events of society and other domestic cases.’ The perhaps less-glorious details were needed to provide the harmony of the whole. Although the whole was brought up to artistic standards with clean streets, bright colors and clear weather, the idea of also portraying mundane objects was already quite a radical departure from classicist esthetics.[1] Not just very interesting for art historians, but also excellent for social historians!

That means that the drawings walked a fine line between idealized and realistic depiction. A great example of how the artist Hermanus Petrus Schouten dealt with this is included in the exhibition. Rather than ‘cleaning up reality,’ he depicted the Dam square when it was at the height of its magnificence, on Sunday during the day, when dressed-up couples strolled past fancy carriages. But, we know that he had made the sketches for his preliminary study during a weekday, when hard-toiling laborers and porters filled the square. That means that portraying a specific time and day was also a strategy employed to unite realistic depiction and esthetic standards! Because the sketches and drawings are displayed alongside each other, the exhibition’s visitors instantly become aware of the fluctuating uses of urban space.

This further supports one of our project’s outlooks, namely that we should understand urban space as dynamically changing over cyclical time, during the day, the week and during the seasons. That last point is further shown by the fact that we prominently get to see the canals when they were not throughways for boats, but when they were frozen and transformed into ‘streets’. It invites further research on the question of the cyclical and dynamic use of urban space over time, for which you should surely keep an eye out on this blog.

The exhibition is on view at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam until 14 January. For further reading (in Dutch), see the exhibition’s complementary publication Kijk Amsterdam 1700-1800: De mooiste stadsgezichten.


[1] Boudewijn Bakker, “Cornelis Ploos van Amstel en het stadsgezicht als kunst,” in Kijk Amsterdam 1700-1800: De mooiste stadsgezichten, by Bert Gerlagh et al. (Bussum; Amsterdam: Thoth ; Stadsarchief Amsterdam, 2017), 20–33.