The painting of a winding, sandy road and several farmhouses in a dune landscape by Jan Van Goyen is familiar to everyone who has visited the old masters at the Nivaagaard Collection. Our current research project suggests that this painting did not always look like it does now. Clues for this conclusion include other paintings by the artist, the format of the panel support and an old black and white photograph in the archive of Nivaagaard.
Jan Van Goyen was a painter of the Dutch landscape. His subjects were the surroundings of the cities where he lived: Leiden, Haarlem and The Hague. He produced numerous images with countryside’s with pastures and farms, such as in Dune landscape with a sandy path and farmhouses. Van Goyen has depicted this particular farmhouse, with the typical camel-roof and the window providing access to the top room in case of floods, more often. At Nivaagaard the farmhouse and haystack at left are awkwardly cut off. A first clue: could the painting have once been larger?
The now almost square format of the painting is alien to Van Goyen’s time. He painted almost always rectangular, horizontal views. An indication that the panel was in a poor condition can be found in its restoration history: someone has reinforced the structure of the panel by mounting a cradle* on the back and by adding strips of oak along all four sides. It suggests the original panel was reduced in size and format because of its fragile condition.
An old black and white photograph of the painting in Nivaagaard’s archive from c. 1903 to our surprise shows two figures in the right foreground: a peasant with a walking cane and a seated man with a hat in conversation. Today the figures are not there anymore! To us the photograph indicate that the figures were not painted by Jan van Goyen, but they do look like the types that usually star in his paintings. Who added them, and what has happened to them since? Could the restorer who reduced and reinforced the panel have added them to compensate for what was visible on the lost part of the composition at the left side? Note that also the sky with the bird that we see today is not visible on the black and white photograph. Was the sky added after the photograph, or did the photographer cut the photo to make the work appear rectangular like the other paintings by Van Goyen?
We hope soon to solve these mysteries and be able to explain what happened to this enchanting and brilliantly painted dune-landscape from 1632.
*cradling is a historical process used in the restoration and preservation of paintings on wooden panels. It consisted in mounting a grid of wooden battens to the back of a thinned panel to create a reinforcement and preserve the flat surface.
The text is an expression of the discoveries made at the time of publication. We reserve the right to make changes as new information from the still ongoing research project may occur.