Salomon van Ruysdael, "Landscape with Utrecht's 'Plompetoren‘“, c. 1660

Wood, 66,2 x 80,7 cm

© Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich
Photo: Sibylle Forster



Alte Pinakothek
All Eyes On | Upper Floor, Room IX


Recently restored, unexpected even somewhat bawdy details have now been brought to light in Salomon van Ruysdael’s view of Utrecht’s ‘Plompetoren’: two cattle copulating in the shade of the trees as well as a man urinating against the city wall. Dutch painting of the 17th century did not shy away from depicting such everyday motifs. Nevertheless, is this painting really a realistic picture of a moment frozen in time? The contemporary viewer would have doubted that immediately as van Ruysdael placed the city of Utrecht’s medieval fortified tower in an idyllic, rural setting. In reality, however, the ‘Plompetoren’, built in the 12th century, formed part of the city’s fortifications that had a total of 13 towers.

ALL EYES ON highlights a work or group of works, a significant artist personality or artistic position, guest appearances by individual loans, important restorations, or new acquisitions in the midst of the gallery. The artistic as well as technical qualities of the paintings, their content and significance, their history of creation and impact, and their creators are illuminated in the context of the collection. This opens up new, current perspectives and diverse insights into the research work at the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen.

Fantasy and Reality

Joost Cornelisz. Droochsloot (1586-1666), City Wall of Utrecht with Plompetoren, c. 1965 © Het Utrechts Archief

In the 17th century, the enormous economic success of the burgeoning young Republic of the Seven United Provinces in the northern Netherlands gave rise to a predominantly middle-class population of rapidly increasing prosperity and, with it, to a growing demand for works of art to furnish townhouses and country seats. Most buyers were interested in a diverse range of subjects and genres, which led to a high degree of specialisation and competition among artists vying for a share of the market.

Prior to 1600, landscapes had primarily served as a mere backdrop for the pictorial narrative of history paintings. However, in the 1600s the landscape gained popularity and emerged as a genre in its own right. Salomon van Ruysdael (c. 1600–1670) and his nephew Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29–1682) were among the leading practitioners of this new genre. Their panoramic landscapes with low horizon lines and impressive cloud formations have profoundly shaped our image of the Netherlands.

But how truthful are these realistic-looking paintings? Until the 19th century, landscape paintings were not created outdoors, but inside, in the artist’s studio. Just like still lifes, they were autonomous artistic compositions, a kind of collage of preparatory drawings and new pictorial ideas.

When Salomon van Ruysdael painted his landscape with the Plompetoren (which roughly translates as “hulking tower”), any viewer familiar with the local topography would have immediately realised that something was not quite right. Although the central building is recognisable as the medieval defence tower of Utrecht, the image is not a topographically faithful view.

Built in the 12th century, the Plompetoren was one of the 13 towers of Utrecht’s fortified city walls, as shown in a drawing from 1615 by the Utrecht painter Joost Cornelisz. Droochsloot (1586–1666). That drawing shows how van Ruysdael lifted the tower from its urban context and positioned it in an idyllic, rural setting.

We are grateful to the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung for providing funding for the restoration under the Corona-Förderlinie.

Drawing "from Life"

Herman Saftleven (1609-1685), View of Utrecht, 1648 © Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

From the 16th century onwards, it became common practice, especially for landscape painters in the northern Netherlands, to leave their studios to draw “from life” out in the open air. In this way, they would hone their skills in the reproduction of precisely observed details of the everyday world, while simultaneously building up a stock of sketches to be subsequently used in paintings and prints. The city fortifications of Utrecht were one motif favoured by numerous artists.

One of them was Herman Saftleven (1609– 1685), active in Utrecht since 1632. He was so fascinated by the walls and towers of the city that he spent countless hours over a period of several years meticulously recording every aspect of them. His drawings and engravings are now an important historical record of what Utrecht looked like some 400 years ago.

In his 1648 “View of Utrecht”, Saftleven shows an artist in the foreground capturing the outline of the city on paper. On the right edge of Saftleven’s view, we recognise the square Plompetoren as painted by van Ruysdael.


Willen van Drielenburg (1632-1677/79), De Wittevrouenpoort in Utrecht, c. 1650/70 © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, München, Photo: Sibylle Forster and Herman Saftleven (1609-1685), 1646 
© Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

The second landscape view presented here is by Willem van Drielenburg (1632–1677/79) and shows another part of Utrecht’s fortifications: the city gate De Wittevrouwenpoort, built around 1230 and located on the north-eastern side of the city. From the Middle Ages onwards, it was one of the four gates to the city of Utrecht. Van Drielenburg’s painting dates from around 1655 to 1670. In it, the city gate is depicted in the state it was in before being redesigned in 1649.

Van Drielenburg may have modelled the motif of the gate on an engraving, dated 1646, made by his fellow artist Herman Saftleven, which he freely interpreted, using his imagination and artistic licence.

Accompanying programme

The programme accompanying the exhibition will be available here shortly.

We are grateful to the Herbert Schuchardt-Stiftung for its support of the exhibition and our public engagement programme.