Essay 2

How to Create an Experience and an Atmosphere


While several key attractions of the Netherlands are evident to foreign visitors, among the most impressive of those attractions are the prominent art museums. Art, which has long been a decorated part of the country’s history, can represent much more than just paint on a two-dimensional surface. Aspects of space, color, and history have long had the power to influence the artists of their time, and are present in certain masterpieces of each era. Among these masterpieces are Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft, painted by Emanuel de Witte, and Interior of St Bavo’s Church in Haarlem, by Pieter Saenredam. Each of these artists strives to embed said aspects within their work by utilizing certain tools to create an experience for their viewers, rather than sight.

Space has long been both a feature and a fixture amongst many of the most impressive Dutch artworks. Many Dutch masters attempt to create an experience for their viewers by utilizing space to create an atmosphere. Though each painting is completed on a two-dimensional surface, often no larger than four square feet, many Dutch artists are masters at creating the illusion of space. One of the primary tools implemented by artists to create this illusion is perspective, which serves many purposes within any given work of art beyond just visual appeal.

The first work that caught my eye is the Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft, painted by Emanuel de Witte in roughly 1650. This work, a product of oil paint on a wooden canvas, transports us directly into the church by means of placing us in the shoes of the artist. This captured my attention not only due to the masterful brushwork and visual appeal but due to the feeling and presence that is created by the artist. Though this painting is only 19 inches tall and 13 5/8 inches wide, de Witte’s use of a unique perspective provides us with a startling presence within the inside of the 17th-century church.

One of the primary ways that de Witte establishes this atmosphere is through the framing of many of the main subjects of the portrait. In a traditional painting of the inside of a church, the altar is typically the primary subject, and thus the natural attraction of the eye. Rather than going about the painting this way, de Witte frames the painting with two extremely large pillars directly blocking the line of sight to the altar itself, as well as including two doors in the screen of the Altar that naturally draws the eye of the viewer.

In the Perspectives in Flux reading, Brusati explains how Samuel Van Hoogstraten uses doorways, archways, and windows to frame his famous work Perspective Box with Views of the Interior of a House. Though these two works are different in various ways, Brusati’s analysis of Van Hoogstraten’s use of perspective can apply in several ways to Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft. Among the present similarities is the use of framing to create an experience for the viewer, as Brusati writes that the “embedding of frames within frames in the form of doors, windows and pictures… opens up views and through-views that pique curiosity and sustain the active peering and probing of the curious eye,” (Brusati, 914). While Brusati writes this about Van Hoogstraten’s work, there is evident applicability to de Witte’s painting as well. de Witte uses the strategy of re-framing through the presence of pillars, benches, and other secondary subjects in the foreground. Though the viewer’s eye misses the benches at first, it quickly works it’s way back to the foreground. This creates the illusion of distance between the painting’s center and the painting’s edges, thus reframing the work in a similar way to Perspective Box with Views of the Interior of a House and creating a visceral experience to the viewer.

Despite some of his works presiding amongst the greatest paintings in Dutch history, de Witte was not immune to criticism. Among those criticisms was the accuracy of the architecture in his paintings, as de Witte was known for his tendency to sacrifice technical accuracy for atmospheric accuracy. This sacrifice was typically made using varying perspectives that would not otherwise be attainable in nature. However, despite this possibly being the case in Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft, Brusati writes that this use of perspective is “indispensable to the painter whose task it is to represent nature not as it is, but as it appears to the eye. It provides the artist the knowledge needed to understand how the eye is deceived both in the process of seeing and through pictorial artistry,” (Brusati, 919). By warping reality to fit unrealistic perspectives into his paintings, de Witte allows the viewer to experience a more realistic perception of the atmosphere that the painting attempts to capture. Thus, by decreasing the photorealism of his work, he increases the atmospheric realism experienced by the viewers.

Despite the distinct benefits that are obtained by that tradeoff, not all artists subscribe to the same beliefs. In fact, the second work of this analysis, Interior of St Bavo’s Church in Haarlem, by Pieter Saenredam, is famous for the opposite experience. Throughout Saenredam’s life, his portfolio was slowly filled with works that display the interior of many churches, measured to exact mathematical proportions on the canvas. Brusati writes that Saenredam “made use of measurements taken by his friend, the surveyor Pieter Wils, from whom Saenredam learned basic surveying techniques that became part of his working method… Saenredam used Wils’ measurements, along with others, in translating his own freehand site drawings into perspective construction drawings made with ruler and compass,” (Brusati, 920). This mathematical precision was often measured and gathered long before the painting was done, oftentimes resulting in the final painting being completed years after the initial measurements were taken. For example, regarding the same measurements used by the artist while crafting this piece, Brusati writes that “these measurements were included in the 1628 description of the city of Haarlem by Samuel Ampzing, an elaborate geographic history and eulogy oft he city to which both Wils and Saenredam contributed,” (Brusati, 920). Given the final painting was completed in 1636, it can be reasonably inferred that Saenredam waited more than 8 years to complete the work based on the exact measurements. This precision focuses much more on the exact representation of the church’s interior rather than de Witte’s representation of the church’s atmosphere, and thus the experience of standing inside of it, in Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft.

It is noted, however, that Saenredam did not subscribe absolutely to the exact replication of the mathematical proportions gathered by a surveyor. It is noted that when discontinuities and deformations were measured, he tended to accentuate them, though only very slightly, in an effort to make the interior of the church feel more human. He attributed this toward an attempt to capture the understanding that this was the work of man, and thus must be appreciated as the experience of standing in a cathedral. Whilst trying to capture this essence, Brusati describes that “on a practical level the emphatic artifice of Saenredam’s constructions must also be understood in relation to the pictorial task of translating eye-witness accounts not simply into representations of sites seen, but pictorial simulations of the experience of viewing them,” (Brusati, 920). Understanding that a certain experience accompanied standing in a man-made structure, it was Saenredam’s belief that accentuating the imperfections would emphasize the incredible humanity necessary to construct such an impressive cathedral.

Another distinct similarity between Interior of St Bavo’s Church in Haarlem, by Saenredam and Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft, by de Witte, is the color. In both works, the interior of the church is almost completely whitewashed, minus a few distinct pops of color. This serves to represent the church’s slow recovery from periods of intense iconoclasm just less than 100 years prior to the completion of these works. Saenredam’s work, completed in 1636, displays just one icon of Jesus Christ in the very middle of the work. This icon, widely believed to be the central subject of the work, is almost certainly either a part of the church that survived Iconoclastic destruction or was a new addition in the few decades since the violent removal of iconography from churches throughout the Netherlands. Similar to that lone icon of Jesus Christ, de Witte’s work features a single pop of color (visible in a seal mounted on the front side foreground pillar), and also one religious artifact (visible in a sculpted angel mounted on the far side of the foreground pillar). While two different items exist, they both serve very similar purposes to the single icon that appears in Saenredam’s work. This purpose, to draw in the viewer to help create the illusion of space, appeals to the more emotional side of the viewer.

There are many aspects of both works that are designed to give the viewer an experience that goes beyond simply looking at an artistic masterpiece. Whether that feature is representative of framing the work to create a more in-depth realism or providing one pop of color to represent a church healing from the wounds of iconoclasm, each piece of every painting was placed there by an artist for a purpose. While the dissection of that purpose can often lead to a greater understanding of art, the painter, and the world in which they worked, the work is almost always intended to be enjoyed as an experience altogether.


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  • Celeste Brusati, “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time,” Art History 5 (2012): 909-933.
  •  Smarthistory, “Linear Perspective: Brunelleschi’s Experiment”Khan Academy (2013)

One thought on “Essay 2

  1. Really nice contrast between two paintings that on the surface appear to be very similar. Excellent use of Brusati to do this, but also to go beyond it, showing other possibilities. I wonder how viewers at the time would have regarded each? Would they see the differences and value them differently?


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