Contents

 
 

Go to a Section

Dutch Influences on the New Amsterdam Skyline

By Fiona Ball

Nieuw Amsterdam Ofte Nue Nieuw Iorx Opt’ Teylant Man” is a painting produced in 1664 by Dutch cartographer and painter Johannes Vingboons.[1] The image is nearly formally identical to various other surviving prints and maps from the mid 17th century, and is based on a sketch of the view of Manhattan from Brooklyn from an unknown source, sometimes referred to as the Prototype View.[2] [3] Vingboons worked for the Dutch East and West India Companies, making maps and painting landscapes of various Dutch trading ports and settlements.

Figure 1: Nieuw Amsterdam Ofte Nue Nieuw Iorx Opt’ Teylant Man[4]


In order to compare the two skylines and their general representations in the seventeenth century, we must first choose which depictions of the skylines of Amsterdam and New Amsterdam are most representative of the whole range of depictions of the time.

Rembrandt is a quintessential Dutch etcher and painter, and thus his work is a good standard to represent the whole body of illustrations of Amsterdam in the 17th century.[2] This etching is from around 1640, which is about 15 years after Fort Amsterdam was built and the island of Manhattan became truly inhabited by European settlers.[3] Figure 2, below, is a contemporary drawing of New Amsterdam, from around 1643.

One of the most immediately striking things about the painting is its use of color. The brilliant reds of the rooftops are distinctive against the lush green of the grass surrounding them, and the way the color fades as the buildings get more distant is a masterful use of atmospheric perspective. This style of painting draws attention to the fact that the representation is not purely informational: it is a work of art. The focus on visual aesthetics and depicting the view of the town and its surroundings as a collective artistic object is accentuated by this piece.

In the 17th century, Dutch art, particularly landscape painting, was thriving and Dutch painters were developing their skills and new techniques to better represent what they saw in the world.[5] And in this painting from the mid-seventeenth century, that skill and artistry is clearly evident. The idea emerged in this golden age of Dutch landscape painting was that a landscape is mostly composed of sky, stemming from the flat environment of the Netherlands.[6] [7] This frames the manmade skyline as unimportant in the face of the enormity of the natural world. The quaint Dutch rowhouses, and even the quintessential windmill, are no match for the height of the sky.

They also incorporated the sea into landscapes, because of the prominence and pride in their commercial fleets and their constant struggle with the sea to hold onto their land with pumps and dikes.[8] Therefore, the composition of the painting, with only about one eighth of the view being land, one fourth sea, and half sky, reflects these ideas about the prototypical landscape view. The elevated vista of Brooklyn Heights also mirrors the Dutch practice of painting landscapes from a slightly elevated view, especially city landscapes.[9]

This pairing of the artificial city structures which are a mark of human intervention, with the sky itself, is the basis of the idea of the skyline, as evident in the word itself. Although the land’s natural hills and the low height of the buildings means that they hardly form a “line” against the sky, attention to drawn to those structures which Even in this early print, it is clear that the artist was not compelled by the buildings themselves, or even just the land, but the total view of earth, land, and sky, with human invention interfering with all aspects.

The medium of engraving allows the artist to manipulate the representation of reality depicted in their work, in order to accentuate or even create symbols.[10] In this way, the artist can choose which information they wish to convey to their audiences. Therefore, it is important to incorporate both the artist, the intended audience, and the patrons’ perspectives and goals in the analysis of such representations of the skyline.

In the case of “Nieuw Amsterdam Ofte Nue Nieuw Iorx Opt ‘T Eylant,” it is likely that Vingboons was painting this for the Dutch West Trading Company, as they were commonly his employer.[11] Based on their use of illustrations of trading posts and settlements, it is likely the purpose of having Vingboons paint this view was to have an image their promoters could use convince Dutch citizens living in the Netherlands to move to and invest in the new settlement.[12]

Vingboons is likely to have manipulated the view in his painting to make New Amsterdam seem more desirable to Dutch citizens, and so the symbolism and content must be examined through this lens. Thus, it follows that there would be easily identifiable Dutch elements and symbols in the painting, to connect and appeal to the audience.

Figure 2

One of the prominent structures in the image, standing taller than almost every other structure, is a windmill (fig. 2), a symbol of the Netherlands so strong it is still relevant today. Even without the Dutch connotations it is a curious addition to the skyline due to its blurring of the line between building and machine. 

In most of the depictions of the Manhattan skyline after this early period of 17th century Dutch settlement, the buildings housing human activity, such as churches, houses, apartments, and office buildings, are the most visible features, which block from view all other structures.[13] However, in this uncrowded, simple New Amsterdam, their lone windmill dominates the image. 

This symbol also represents the manipulation of the natural world by humans, and in addition to manipulating just the ground, as all manmade buildings and roads do by flattening or digging into the land, they are also manipulating the air for their own benefit, by using its power to turn the machinery within the windmill. An audience of Dutch merchants in the 17th century might view this conquering of the elements for economic gain as desirable and denoting progress and achievement.[14]

Another similar element found in the skyline is sailboats. These figures loom in the foreground of the image, appearing taller than any of the buildings on land, apart from the windmill and the building which appears to be a church. It also is like the windmill in that it is a structure but also a machine, manipulating the sea and the air.
Of course, the strong presence of these ships also represents the strong presence of the Dutch West India Company, a symbol of the Dutch as well as the owner of the settlement, the patron of the painting, and the potential employer of the audience, should the painting be successful in persuading them to move to New Amsterdam. 

Figure 4

The flags on these ships also make it abundantly clear that these are Dutch ships, flying the colors which were flown by Dutch West India Company ships.
The colony was actually far behind most of the Dutch West India Company’s other trading posts, and therefore the idealistic representation of the skyline in Vingboons’ painting seems necessary in order to attract potential settlers.[15] The beaver pelt dealings which dominated the economy in New Netherland was viewed as inferior, and thus, in order to attract more traders, focusing on the success of the trade. This suggests that the painting is probably highly adjusted in order to compensate for the perceived weaknesses already in the minds of the Dutch audience.
The Dutch West India Company was the key to Dutch imperialism and colonization, not only growing the Dutch economy, but also founded and fostered the development of new economies and settlements, such as New Amsterdam.[16] The town’s early status as a trade depot for the Dutch West India Company is visible in this early views of the skyline through the abundance of cargo ships visible in these representations of the town. The ratio of these ships to the dwellings on land clearly illustrates the real role of New Amsterdam: to house traders and export shipments, not to be a permanent residence.

Primarily, the settlement of New Amsterdam was founded on the island of Manhattan is because its geography perfectly suits it for use as a major port and trading artery. The access to both the Atlantic Sea as well as the Hudson River, a major gateway into the rest of New Netherland, as well as the size of the passage, made it a crucial intermediary stop for Dutch trading.

Therefore, the role of water and water-based transportation was obviously seen as a priority of the Dutch population, because that was essentially the purpose of their living there. Even without the ships, water is central to the painting, taking up more of the visual field than the actual island of Manhattan does. Therefore, not only is Vingdoon illustrating the factual reality that Manhattan is an island surrounded by a lot of water, but he is also conveying the significance of the water to New Amsterdam, at least from his perspective.

The focus of the painting, because of the scale of the dwellings compared to the natural features and manmade machines, seems to not be the town itself, or the residents therein, but on the settlement’s function in the context of the rest of the Dutch empire. The question the painting explores is not “What is New Amsterdam like?” but “What can New Amsterdam do for me?”

The Dutch at this time of course had a strong focus on economic success as the ultimate goal, often over pride or religion. They did not come to North America to escape religious persecution or to expand their empire into the New World: the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam purely for economic reasons. [17] This is further evidenced by how quickly they handed over control of their settlement to the English when in the face of economic failure. These values are clearly represented by the painting itself, and also inform what questions Vingboons chose to answer. His audience of Dutch merchants would be asking questions like a merchant: does the benefits outweigh the costs? Vingboons answers this with his idyllic, idealistic representation of the skyline. He promises with his large open waters, ships, and open land, that they do.

However, Vingboons’ answers may not have been the actual answers. It is in fact possible he had never even seen Manhattan, as his painting is likely based off of an earlier sketch.[18] Perhaps then, his purpose influenced many elements of the skyline itself, not just the artistic elements. The overly accentuated presence of the windmill is questionable: was there really one so prominent in the skyline, or was it added or accentuated in order for the audience of the image to identify it better as part of their Dutch world, as opposed to an alien land across the sea.

The size of the settlement is also made very unclear by the image, as the perspective makes it difficult to distinguish how many buildings lie in the distance, and how far back they go. This may be due to a desire to make the town seem larger than it actually was, but in fact also serves to make it look as if there is space for more people.

The green areas in front of and between the buildings give the illusion of open, undeveloped land, but the repetitive rowhouses convey the thriving nature of the settlement. This can be seen as an invitation for further settlement, as New Amsterdam itself was actually quite small, and with more inhabitants may have been more easily defended by other European colonial powers in the Americas, such as the British, who often had minor disputes with the Dutch in New Amsterdam, and eventually overtook control of the island of Manhattan from the Dutch settlers.[19]

The prospect then depicts just that: the prospects of a new settlement and the opportunities it represents for the Dutch as that time. The bright colors, idealization, and artistic style convey the city in an optimistically cheery light. The way the land is conveyed seems to invite more Dutch people to come and make use of its valuable resources and to help build up this thriving community. Ironically, the title of this print of the painting contains “Nieuw Iorx,” the Dutch spelling of “New York,” and was published in 1664, the year English rule began there.[20]

[1] Johannes Vingboons, "Nieuw Amsterdam ofte nue Nieuw Iorx opt’ teylant Man (Gezicht op New York door Johannes Vingboons)," color print, ca. 1664, Library of Congress, The Atlantic World: America and the Netherlands, http://international.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?intldl/awkbbib:@OR(@field([email protected]

(awkb012367))) (accessed October 28, 2014).

[2] Wolfgang Stechow, Dutch Landscape Painting of the Seventeenth Century, (London, 1966).

[3] Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909: Compiled from Original Sources and Illustrated by Photo-Intaglio Reproductions of Important Maps, Plans, Views, and Documents in Public and Private Collections (New York: Robert H. Dodd, 1915), 119.

[4] Johannes Vingboons, The Atlantic World: America and the Netherlands.

[5] Wolfgang Stechow, Dutch Landscape Painting of the Seventeenth Century.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Dutch Landscapes and Seascapes of the 1600s,” National Gallery of Art, http://www.nga.gov/content/

ngaweb/features/slideshows/dutch-landscapes-and-seascapes-of-the-1600s.html.

[8] “Dutch Landscapes and Seascapes of the 1600s.”

[9] Wolfgang Stechow, Dutch Landscape Painting of the Seventeenth Century.

[10] Engraving is an art form involving scratching marks into a metal plate, loading it with ink, and then transferring the inked lines onto paper, allowing for many copies to be made of one engraving.

[11] Johannes Vingboons, The Atlantic World: America and the Netherlands.

[12] "Summary advertisements concerning the above mentioned Colony," Pennsylvania Archives, edited by Samuel Hazard, 472. (Philidelphia, PA: J. Severns & Company, 1877)

[13] I. N. P. Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island.

[14] Tom Lewis, The Hudson: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 59.

[15] Ibid., 59.

[16] Thomas A. Janiver, “Stories of the City’s Early Days As Told By Mr. Janiver,” New York Times, 1903. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9504EEDC1639E433A25752C3A9639C946297D6CF

[17] Tom Lewis, The Hudson: A History (2007), 40.

[18] Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (1915), 119.

[19] Tom Lewis, The Hudson: A History (2007), 83.

[20] Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, (1915), 119.