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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Willem Witsen

A Wintry View Of The Brouwersgracht, Amsterdam,  Willem Witsen
Today the combination of a photographer who's also a painter might seem a little strange. Photographers, accustomed to the instant gratification of digital images and the ease with which they are created would probably not have the patience to produce paintings based upon their photos. Of course, in my own case, the combination doesn't seem strange at all though I'm by no means a professional photographer. I've never "sold" a photo in my life, but I've sold many paintings based on my own photos. Perhaps that's why I found the Dutch photographer/painter/etcher, Willem Witsen quite interesting.
Amsterdam in Winter, Willem Witsen
The painting Amsterdam in Winter (above) and A Wintry View Of The Brouwersgracht, Amsterdam (top) were both painted by Witsen based upon photographs he made around the turn of the century (1890-1911). If that seems somewhat unremarkable, keep in mind that photography back then was as much or more a science as it was art. And as if two art media weren't enough, Witsen was also a master at etching, particularly the use of aquatints, which, if done well, render something of a photographic looking print.

The face in the center is a self-portrait drawing.
Willem Arnoldus Witsen was born in 1860. Except for a brief period in London in 1888 where he lived for three years, Witsen spent his entire life in Amsterdam. He died there in 1923. Witsen was a painter, etcher, photographer, and writer, associated with the Amsterdam Impressionism movement. He was born into a wealthy upper-class family, dating back to the governing families of the 17th-Century. He studied at academies in Amsterdam and Antwerp. Witsen’s work, was influenced by James McNeill Whistler, often portraying calm urban landscapes as well as agricultural scenes. Witsen also created portraits and photographs of prominent figures of the Amsterdam art world.

A View Of The Leidsegracht, Amsterdam, Willem Witsen.
He seems to have had a liking for bridges.
Willem Witsen was a quiet, almost shy man, inclined towards melancholy. He had many artist friends whom he at times provided with money. His cool reserve hid a nervous sensitivity. He wrote that he suffered from 'moods of deep hopelessness, but I try to find satisfaction in my work.’ He could relax with his friends; was a good chess player and musician; he played cello. His works often concern city images, as when the fog eats downtown London. His works show us his 'passion of loneliness’, but also show sternness and reserve. There are seldom people in his paintings, or if so, they only appear as small figures.

An untitled (at least insofar as I could discover)
oil painting by Willem Witsen.
Witsen made a name for himself as an engraver, and aquarelist (a style of watercolor), and a painter of townscapes. He mastered the art of etching to such a degree of perfection that fellow artists called on him for help. Witsen tried to capture the essence of the city in his work. As a young man, he was especially fascinated by what he called "de groote brokken" (the great chunks) in rain, snow, haze, and fog. In order to approach his subjects as closely as possible, he even worked from a row boat. Between 1911 and 1914, Witsen had a barge at his disposal that had been converted into a studio. Witsen was an important presence in his country's art scene around 1900. Although he made numerous paintings, it is especially his graphic art for which he is renowned. All in all, he made some 220 separate etchings, showing a particular preference for the aquatint technique (which, despite the name, has nothing to do with watercolor).

Jew's Wood Garden, Willem Witsen. Is it an aquatint, a photograph, or a painting? With Witsen, it's difficult to decide.

Aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique, a variant of etching. Like etching, aquatint uses the application of a acid to etch into the metal plate. Where the engraving technique uses a needle to make lines that print in black (or whatever color ink is used), aquatint uses powdered rosin to create a tonal effect. The rosin is adhered to the plate by controlled heating and then acid etched. The tonal variations are controlled by the level of acid exposure and thus the image is shaped in large sections at a time. Mezzotint, begins with a plate surface that is evenly indented so that it will carry a fairly dark tone of ink. The mezzotint plate is then smoothed and polished to make some areas carry less ink and thus print a lighter shade. Alternatively, beginning with a smooth plate, areas are roughened to make them darker. Occasionally these two techniques are combined as in some of Witsen's images.

The upper image appears to be an aquatint, while the lower image has the attributes of a mezzotint.
When Witsen moved from Amsterdam to London, he was inspired by the rapid modernizing city, as exemplified by the electric lights along the Thames which he depicted in watercolor. Witsen was constantly trying to renew himself as an artist. In addition to watercolors, he made etchings, experimented with photography, and reworked the same scenes from different views. He continued many of the techniques he developed in London after returning to Amsterdam. Art experts believes Witsen was most interested in conveying atmosphere and emotion during his London period. In his Carriages at the Victoria Embankment, (upper image, above) he tried very hard to give an impression of a rainy, misty walk along the Thames. Witsen was usually more interested in emotional depth than in depicting a perfectly realistic cityscape. The London period contains some of the artist’s strongest and most exciting works.

Atelierwoning Studio house in Amsterdam, at Oosterpark 82.
Atelierwoning (above), was established in 1884. It was built for the sculptor Roskam, who died prematurely. The blocks of natural stone above the entrance were meant to be worked by the sculptor. Built to a design by the architect Eduard Cuypers in a Neo-renaissance style, from 1890 on it was inhabited by Witsen, who had a floor installed halfway through the very high workshop. This resulted in two workshops. The lower workshop was originally intended for the painters Haverman and Isaac Israël; while the upper workshop was for Breitner. Witsen later retained the headroom for himself. The workshop covered the entire width of the house. The living quarters were located on the upper floors. It is open for tours by appointment only.

Fair Gate, 1911, Willem Witsen. In the aftermath of WW II bombing, few, if any, of these building remain today.
A charming little
Portrait of W.K.F. Engelbrecht,
1913, Willem Witsen, one of his few.


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