Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


JOHANNES FRANCISCUS SPOHLER (Rotterdam 1853 – Amsterdam 1894)

View of the Leidsegracht and Herengracht, Amsterdam

signed J.F. Spohler in the lower left, and signed and inscribed on an old label on the reverse: The Undersigned declares that his painting is original and painted by himself. J.F. Spohler

oil on panel

15 x 19¾ inches          (38 x 50 cm.)


Teamon Collection, Lewiston, New York


Johannes Franciscus Spohler was a cityscape painter of the Romantic School who continued the topographical tradition of Holland that had begun in the seventeenth century. Although he painted village scenes, he mainly worked in Amsterdam. His father, Jan Jacob Spohler, along with his brother, Jacob Jan Coenraad, specialized in painting summer and winter landscapes. Two town scenes by Johannes Franciscus are in the Museum Bisdom van Vliet in Haastrecht, Gouda.[1] These sparse facts are all that is known of the artist’s life. Everything else must be gleaned from his work.

Romanticism was a movement that lacked a specific style but embraced an attitude that swerved away from reality to pursue dreams. In their quest for new empirical truths, the Romantics viewed everything acutely, and Spohler in this panel has applied minute observation to his recreation of late, seventeenth century Amsterdam. The vivid clarity of the light underlines the idealization of the scene. It is an excellent example of the transformation of eighteenth century Holland’s passion for realistic paintings and drawings, also characterized by exacting detail, into a Romantic ideal.

From the seventeenth century onwards, the Leidsegracht and Herengracht housed Amsterdam’s elite. Politicians and financiers particularly favored the Herengracht, while families whose wealth came from more diverse sources dwelt on the Leidsegracht.[2] In order to recreate this view accurately Spohler’s work ultimately derives from two definitive sources. The rendering of the Leidsegracht is based on a drawing by Jan van der Heyden of A House Partly Destroyed by Fire on the Leidsegracht, now in the Rijksmuseum (Rijksprentenkabinet, inv. no. RP-T-00-159). In 1690 Van der Heyden, who served as Amsterdam’s fire chief, published a book commonly referred to as the Brandspuitenboek or Fire Hose Book.[3] The book dealt with his ideas for the implementation of modern methods to combat fires. He illustrated the work with scenes of fires that had occurred locally as well as their after-effects. He also showcased his inventions for combating flames, like flexible long hoses made from leather and stitched together with linen or hemp thread.[4] The drawing of the aftermath of the fire that occurred on January 12, 1684 at number 4 along the street of the Leidsegracht was reproduced in the Brandspuitenboek (figure 17) and must be the source for Spohler’s work. Although Spohler’s panel depicts the same row of houses on the Leidsegracht from a different angle, their facades are almost identical with the exception that the fire damage has been deleted. Number 4, in the center of the street, has been turned into the shop of an apotheek (chemist). The view has also been extended on the left side with a row of additional identical 1½ townhouses only hinted at in Van der Heyden’s drawing.

The view of the Herengracht’s numbered houses 403-415 derives from Caspar Philips Jacobszoon’s work in what was referred to as The Grachtenboek (Canal Book) (see figure 010 097012564). Published from 1766-1770, its formal title is Verzaameling van alle de huizen en prachtige gebouwen langs de keizers-en Heere – grachten der stadt Amsterdam. It contained engraved miniature images of all the homes on the Herengracht and Keizergracht between the Amstel River and the Brouwersgracht, the most fashionable areas in Amsterdam.[5] Above and slightly to the left of the horse-drawn wagon crossing the bridge are the twin gables of numbers 409-411, which still stand. Also based on the Grachtenboek are three houses somewhat obfuscated by the row of trees along the canal, numbers 403-405 of the Beulingstraat. This street is across from the Leidsegracht and faces the Herengracht.

In Spohler’s panel a bright and pleasant day has made Amsterdam come alive with activity. On the left-hand side of the work a maid impatiently waits for a delivery of linen, while a peddler wanders by in search of potential clients. Along the edge of the canal a ferry departs, much to the chagrin of a barking dog. A covered wagon drawn by a team of two horses crosses the bridge. Strolling along the canal and at the heart of the composition are two elegantly attired gentlemen accompanied by a young boy and a dog. Other pedestrians revel in the sunshine and appear mesmerized by the sights. Overhead is a flock of birds. It is in the blocks’ architectural recreations, executed with painstaking precision, that Spohler’s true passion is revealed. Such elements as the sun-dappled facades along the Leidsegracht, with individual panes of the multifaceted windows intermittently reflecting sunlight, are a tour de force. The evocation of the glory of the Golden Age in Amsterdam reveals the artist’s underlying love of home and country.

We are very grateful to Charles Dumas as well as Laurens Schoemaker of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague, for their assistance in the writing of this entry. We are indebted to Bert Gerlagh of the Amsterdam City Archives for his identification of the location of the scene and the sources upon which it was based.



[1] Biographical information taken from Geraldine Norman, ed., Dutch Painters of the 19th Century, Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, 1973, p. 308; and Pieter A. Scheen, “Johannes Franciscus Spohler” in Lexicon Nederlandse Beeldende Kunstenaars 1750-1880, Uitgeverij Pieter A. Scheen BV, ‘s –Gravenhage, 1981, p. 490.

[2] Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips, Picturing Men and Women in the Dutch Golden Age, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2003, p. 32.

[3] The full title is Beschrijving der nieuwlijks uitgevonden en geoctrojeerde Slang-Brand-Spuiten En Haare wyze van Brand-Blussen, tegenwoordig binnen Amsterdam in gebruik zijnde. Nevens Beschrijving der Brandordres van de Stad Amsterdam Door der zelver Inventeur Jan van der Heiden en Jan van der Heiden de Jonge, Generaale Brandmeesters des Stad Amsterdam 1690. (Description of the Recently Invented and Patented Fire Engines with Water Hoses and the Method of Fighting Fire Now Used in Amsterdam 1690) – see Peter C. Sutton, Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712), exhibition catalog, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut, September 16, 2006-January 10, 2007, p. 25.

[4] Susan Donahue Kuretsky, “Jan van der Heyden and the Origins of Modern Firefighting” in Flammable Cities, Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 2012, pp. 23, 26, 27, 36.

[5] Freek Schmidt, “The Grachtenboek” in Imagining Global Amsterdam: History, Culture and Geography in a World City, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2012, p. 226.

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