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Emanuel de Witte

An Interior of an imaginary Catholic Church

Emanuel de Witte

Signed, lower left: E de Witte
Oil on canvas, 31¾ x 25⅝ ins. (80.5 x 65 cm)



Private Collection, Pocking, Germany
With Peter Mühlbauer Gallery, Pocking, Germany, 2010
Private Collection, New York, 2010 – 2018 


ernard G. Maillet, Intérieurs d’Églises: La Peinture Architecturale des Écoles du Nord,
Brussels, 2012, p. 486, no. M-1851. 


Emanuel de Witte is best remembered for his evocative church interiors.  Writing in 1721, the artist’s biographer Arnold Houbraken noted that “in painting of churches, no one was his equal with regard to orderly architecture, innovative use of light, and well-formed figures”(i)

In this example of an imaginary church interior dating from the artist’s late career we see ample evidence of such qualities.  De Witte has placed the viewer in the transept of a church, standing before the organ loft.  The upper part of the composition is occupied by the richly decorated organ-case, beneath which a priest celebrating mass at the distant high altar may be glimpsed through an archway.  Warm sunlight streaming in from windows overhead creates bold patterns of light and shadow on the walls and floor.  Our attention is drawn first to a brightly lit zone in the right foreground, where two monks in brown habits are engaged in conversation with an elegantly dressed gentleman.  Only then does the eye take in the church-goers on the left, shrouded in deep shadow: two well-dressed townsfolk, seen from behind, a woman in black leading a small child by the hand, and an elderly couple kneeling in prayer before a tomb.  The fluid handling of paint and superb effects of light and atmosphere are characteristic of the artist’s style.  Typical of his late work is the restrained palette, enlivened by small flashes of red in the figures’ clothing.

A native of Alkmaar, Emanuel de Witte joined the painters’ guild there in 1636.  After working briefly in Rotterdam, he moved to Delft in 1641, where he joined the guild the following year.  Initially he painted portraits and history subjects, but around 1650, he switched to painting church interiors.  His interest in architectural themes was very likely stimulated by the recent work of his fellow townsman Gerard Houckgeest (c. 1600-1661).  An architectural specialist, Houckgeest had painted only imaginary architecture up until 1650, when he apparently suddenly turned to making representations of real church interiors, using an innovative, two-point perspective scheme.  The naturalistic and dynamic images that resulted from this new approach evidently made a deep impression on de Witte, who seems to have wasted no time in trying his hand at the novel genre: his earliest known dated church interior, The Interior of the Old Church at Delft, of 1651 (Wallace Collection, London), shows him already fully in command of the new idiom. 

Around 1652, de Witte moved to Amsterdam.  Like many other young artists of his generation, he was probably lured to Holland’s booming metropolis by the prospects of lucrative work.  As a specialist in church interiors, he had perhaps spotted an opportunity to carve out a niche for himself in Amsterdam’s competitive art market.  In any event, he had virtually no competitors in this field during his forty years in the city, and apart from a small number of domestic interiors, portrait groups, harbour views and market scenes, he devoted himself exclusively to church interiors.  At first, he continued to paint the interiors of Delft churches, but soon added depictions of the interiors of Amsterdam’s most important churches – the Nieuwe Kerk and the Oude Kerk – as well as views of the city’s Stock Exchange and the Portuguese-Jewish synagogue to his repertoire.  Houbraken informs us that people admired de Witte’s realistic portrayals of churches and their inhabitants, further observing that the artist had made many drawings “variously from life” (op verschieden wyze naar’t leven afgeteekent) of most of the churches in Amsterdam “to know them” and, to familiarise himself not only with the pulpits, organs, tombs and so forth, but also the people, “each in their customary attire” (elk in zyn gewoone drachten) (ii). 

From about 1660, however, de Witte increasingly painted imaginary interiors, often incorporating architectural elements from several different, existing churches into a single composition.  Others are purely fanciful.  Marijke de Kinkelder dates the present painting to c. 1670-80iii, a period when de Witte, perhaps in a bid to broaden his clientele, painted a number of overtly Catholic - and entirely imaginary - church interiors.  Ilse Manke, in her 1963 catalogue raisonné, lists about twenty works on this theme, many of them, like the present painting, featuring monks in the act of greeting elegantly dressed visitors to the church.  Examples include The Interior of an Imaginary Catholic Church, of 1668, in the Mauritshuisiv, in The Hague, and The Interior of a Catholic Church (v), sold at Christie’s, in London, on 3 July, 2012.  Here, the monks in their brown habits, the plaque on the wall bearing the Jesuits’ emblem IHS (Iesus Hominum Salvator), and the congregation celebrating mass before the high altar leave the viewer in no doubt as to the church’s religious persuasion. 

De Witte was not only one of the most accomplished of the Dutch seventeenth-century painters of church interiors, but also one of the most individual.  Although initially inspired by the work of Houckgeest, he soon freed himself from Houckgeest’s influence and developed his own style.  His approach to architecture was highly intuitive.  He was apparently less concerned with the strictures of linear perspective than with capturing the atmosphere of an interior.  He expressed himself in painterly terms, using light, shadow and colour in order to create a convincing sense of space.  Also, unlike most other architectural painters, de Witte was a talented figure painter, and his figures are always an important element in his paintings. 


The precise date of Emanuel de Witte’s birth in Alkmaar is not known, but his place of birth is recorded in the Amsterdam marriage register of 1655.  He was the son of a schoolmaster, Pieter de Wit, and his wife Jacomijntje van der Beck.  According to the artist’s biographer Arnold Houbraken, he served an apprenticeship with the still-life Painter Evert van Aelst (1602-1657), in Delft, before registering with the Alkmaar Guild of St. Luke in 1636.  In July 1639 and June 1640 he is recorded in Rotterdam, but he must have returned to Delft by 1641, for his daughter Jaquemyntgen was baptised there in October.  On 23 June 1642 he became a member of the local guild, and on 4 October that year he married Geertgen Arents, the mother of his daughter, at which time he was living on the Choerstraat.  Later, he rented a house on the Markt, and in 1650 a house on Nieuwe Langendijk.  The couple’s second daughter, Lysbeth, was born in 1646.  His name appears periodically in the city’s documents between 1644 and 1650. 

By 24 January 1652, however, de Witte had apparently moved to Amsterdam, where he probably remained until his death.  A poem written in 1654 by Jan Vos, Strydt tusschen de Doodt en Natuur, of Zeege der Schilderkunst (Battle between Death and Nature, or the Victory of Painting), counts Emanuel de Witte, together with Rembrandt, Govaert Flinck (1615-1660), Bartholomeus van der Helst (c. 1613-1670), Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680), and Willem Kalf (1619-1693), among the painters who can be credited with spreading the fame of Amsterdam.  Meanwhile, his first wife having died, de Witte married for the second time on 3 September 1655 to 28-year old Lysbeth Lodewyck van der Plass.  Three years later, she was found guilty of theft and banned from the city.  Despite receiving some important commissions, including one from Frederik II of Denmark, de Witte seems to have been constantly in debt.  In his later life he was forced to indenture himself to an Amsterdam notary, who provided him with board and lodgings as well as an annual stipend of 800 guilders in exchange for all of his paintings.  Houbraken wrote that de Witte was an unstable character who suffered from bouts of depression that led apparently to him taking his own life in the winter of 1691-92.  His frozen body was reportedly fished out of a canal with a cord around his neck. 


i Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, 3 vols., Amsterdam, 1718-21, vol. I, p. 223.
ii A. Houbraken, ibid, p. 283.
iii  Recorded in the database of the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History – in its record for this picture. 
iv Emanuel de Witte, Interior of an Imaginary Catholic Church, signed and dated 1668, on canvas,
110 x 85 cm, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. no. 473.
v  Emanuel de Witte, The Interior of a Catholic Church, 171.3 x 136.8 cm, Christie’s, London, 3 July, 2012, lot 15. 

Emanuel de Witte

Alkmaar c. 1616/18 - 1691/92 Amsterdam

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