The four drawings here by Jan van Goyen, from whose hand several thousand paintings and drawings survive, give an excellent feeling for the development of this artist from 1626 to 1653, three years before his death. In the first drawing, the composition is arranged in strips parallel to the picture plane. The figures on the bank of the canal in the foreground are clearly defined, their outlines strengthened by the artist; the houses in the middle ground are looser, more atmospheric in treatment; and the background is marked by the outline of a tower on the far right. The artist moves back into space zone by zone, step by step. The verso inscription by Samuel Woodburn, “P. Molyn, Sir Thos. Lawrence’s Coll.,” suggests that the inscription may have been erased while the drawing was in Woodburn’s hands (1830-1853) to support his Molyn attribution.
The second van Goyen shows a man rolling a barrel onto a skiff already laden with three other people and a dog; to the right is a dovecote, a common sight in the Netherlands, with wheels, barrels, and wheelbarrows stored beneath it. This drawing, from the 1640s, shows the artist in full control of the figures as they go about their business, the relaxed movement back and forth from foreground to background and back again, the range of light and shadow, the touches of gray wash, and, most particularly, the liquid, supple use of the black chalk, with its vibrating line and scattered accents. The end result is a drawing that fully expresses the busy life along a Dutch canal.
About a decade later, in 1653, van Goyen made another drawing of virtually the same scene. Now, the various details of buildings and figures are more summarily treated, there is less detail, the shift back and forth between shadow and light is even more assured, and the line itself is less sinuous and dynamic.
The last drawing of the four is also from the early or mid-1650s; Sheldon Peck has identified the site as the “Genneperhuis” fortress on the Maas, and connected it with a painting of this location by Salomon van Ruysdael (Fig. 1), in the art market, London. Here, the artist has become even more relaxed and masterful in his handling of space and light and shadow. The figures are treated in a kind of shorthand, with clusters of strokes of the black chalk. Once again, the foreground is in shadow; clumps of figures, boats, and tents move our eye from left to right as we go deeper into space, until we arrive at last at the round fort, the climax of the composition, with yet more life—people and houses—on its top. The balance between the knoll in shadow, in the left foreground, and the fort, in full sunlight, in the background right, shows the distance van Goyen—and Dutch landscape in general—have traveled in the quarter century or more since the first of these four drawings.