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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jan van der Heyden

Front of the New Town Hall in Amsterdam, 1667, Jan van der Heyden,
showing off his skills with perspective.
Artists today very seldom survive on a single income (at least, not for long). I taught art in the public schools for twenty-six years while making a modest income from my paintings and portraits (far less than that from teaching). Other artists also paint signs (or used to, until computers stole their jobs). Some artists sell art (other than their own) while others work as art directors for various magazines, and various publishers, another profession heavily impacted (but not eliminated) by technology. No computer has mastered the elements of good taste and aesthetic judgements...yet. And, of course, very many artists hold down non-art related job which may, or may not earn them more than their creative efforts.
View Down a Dutch Canal, 1665, Jan van der Heyden
Jan van der Heyden
The Dutch artist, Jan van der Heyden, born in 1638 (yes, another Golden Age painter), was also a very successful inventor. Actually, his art and his science was a much better "fit" than one might think. My guess is that van der Heyden was a rather unique artist for his time in that he was probably what we'd term today as being "left-brained." Not that all artist, now or then, were right-brained, but the exceptional visual element indicating a favoritism of the right hemisphere (speaking in generalizations) tends to lead in that direction. Van der Heyden, on the other hand (the left one, of course) seems to have been rather logical, with a taunt, orderly mind capable of not only inventing, but also promoting his inventions. He died a quite wealthy man in in 1712.
We see evidence of his left-brain logic in van der Heyden's paintings as well as his inventions. He was a master at linear perspective at a time when many artists were still struggling with the "rules and regulations" of this drawing discovery, even though it was, by then, a tool in general use for more than a century. Likewise, van der Heyden made no excuses for the fact he found it difficult to draw people--figure drawing requiring good eye-hand coordination, thus being a right-brain skill favoring observation over rules and logic. Van der Heyden simply drew the architecture, then hired other artists such as Adriaen van de Veldeor or Eglon van der Neer to populate his scenes.
A portable, two-man, fire hose pump invented by Jan and Nicolaes van der Heyden, 1672.
An illustration from the van der Weyden
 "how to" book on firefighting depicting
the proper use of their equipment.

Oh, did I mention, Jan van der Heyden invented (or greatly improved) the fire hose, also the portable, man-powered pump needed to fill them, while organizing the first trained, volunteer fire brigades needed to make the most of his inventions? Between 1672 and 1685, Jan and his brother, Nicolaes (a hydraulic engineer), literally "wrote the book" (and also illustrated it) on modern day firefighting. Until then, firefighting (and there was a lot of it being done during this age of candle-light) consisted of placing a ladder against the side of a burning building, which some brave (but foolhardy) soul climbed half-way up, then proceeded in trying to douse the flames by dumping leather buckets of water on them. The water (this being Amsterdam) was no problem. Getting it to the fire was. It came, passed along via a human chain from the nearest canal. Hoses, such as they were at the time, were cumbersome, made of leather, and leaky. The van der Heyden brothers pioneered (folding) cotton hoses with rubber or water-resistant linings. They also wrote some of the first books on fire prevention while also going to great lengths to study the causes of individual fires, thus learning from them.

Burning of the Old Amsterdam Town Hall, Jan van der Heyden.
The fire was in 1652, the print dates from around 1690.
Old Firefighting in a New House, 1690,
Jan van der Heyden
As an artist, van der Weyden came by his concern with antiquated firefighting techniques quite honestly. As a teenager, he witnessed the 1652 Burning of the Old Amsterdam Town Hall (above). In studying the print, we get some idea of the ghastly inefficiency of the prevailing firefighting techniques at the time. Like modern-day media photographers, artists, especially those skilled in printmaking, felt themselves responsible for depicting the natural disasters of their day (of which fires were the most common). There was quite a good living to be made at it, as everyone wanted a historic rendering (souvenir?) of such events. Van der Weyden is credited with creating over eighty such images during the course of his lifetime.

"Modern" street lighting in
Amsterdam, 1670s
Jan van der Heyden's design
for his new street lanterns.

Besides modernizing firefighting, along the same lines of developing municipal improvements, Jan van der Heyden also designed street lanterns. Then, as with his volunteer fire departments, set about creating comprehensive plans to utilize them in the streets of Amsterdam. The number of tippling townsmen toppling into canals likely "dipped" dramatically. His street lighting scheme was still in use as late as the 1840s and for centuries, often served as a model for other cities around the world.

The van der Heyden portable pumping system did away with the antique "bucket brigade" in that a hose could be deployed to suction water directly from a nearby canal to a central pressure reservoir, then through a second, high pressure hose for use by the firefighters. Two strong, healthy pumpers and a guy manning the hose could do the work of dozens of "bucketeers" passing leather water buckets up a ladder.
Today, in Amsterdam, Jan van der Heyden is far better known as an inventor than as a painter.


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