The Aberystwyth School of Art Museum and Galleries catalogues the work that will be discussed in this essay as a “Dutch coastal scene with boats, figures and castle on an island. Stipple etching with watercolour, on white, laid paper, number PR305 (Fig. 1, referred to hereafter as PR305) Made by Cornelis Ploos van Amstel (1726-1798) somewhere between 1750 and his death in 1798 and in the style of Jan van Goyen.”
Jan van Goyen was a leading Dutch landscape painter in the seventeenth century who painted scenes of the Lowlands. The National Gallery, London, observes that van Goyen’s “many drawings […] show that he travelled extensively around Holland and beyond” (National Gallery). This is something Cornelis Ploos van Amstel never did.
PR305 appears to be a black chalk drawing of a castle, roughly sketched. It is, in fact, a print. Moving from left to right, in the background there is what is likely to be foliage, although it is difficult to identify, alongside some low hills with houses. In the foreground, figures in a horse and cart can be seen at the shoreline. In the middle of the etching stands a magnificent castle surrounded by water with several buildings including a spire and a rounded turret. On the right-hand side there are boats with fishermen and the long masts of boats and rigging can be made out underneath the castle. A very small lone boat can be seen on the horizon. The picture is framed with a thick black surround and has been preserved in a white card museum file that can be opened to see the picture in wider detail. The original frame is distinctly Dutch dating from the beginning of the second half of the eighteenth century (James, 30). The support is made of laid paper (white or greyish paper) which is attached to the mount by the corners and a line has been traced around the image with black chalk or pen.
Cornelis Ploos van Amstel (Fig. 2) was born in 1726 and died in 1798 in Amsterdam at the age of 73. The death announcement in the local newspaper, the Utrechtsche Courant, written by his second wife Margaretha Soumans, romantically states that he died from a ‘decline in life force’ (Fig. 3). As will be seen, Ploos van Amstel lived his 73 years to the full.
Born in Weesp, a town South East of Amsterdam in the province of Utrecht, Ploos van Amstel was born into a wealthy family. A portrait of his family can be seen in (Fig. 4), painted by Jacob Buys in around 1756 when Cornelis would have been 30 years old. Depicted are his father, Jacob, his mother, Johanna Clementia, and his two brothers, all positioned very formally. At this point in his life, Ploos van Amstel had increased his social status by becoming a “poorter”, or burgess, of Amsterdam. He had paid a sum of money to prove he could sustain a household and had registered with the magistrate to receive special permission to live within the city walls of Amsterdam. He is recorded as doing this on 24 December 1753, at the age of 27. This suggests that he was ambitious and planning his future in Amsterdam.
The wealth of the Ploos family is reflected in the extensive education Cornelis received during his upbringing. He was taught to read by Mathijs Berg, a writer for the highly-respected “schrijfmeester (writing master) Gerard Elink” (van der Aa, 364). Seemingly, however, it was his drawing lessons from Nolbertus van Blommen which became the foundation on which he built his future career as an art collector. van Blommen was a Flemish landscape painter who worked in Italy as well as the Netherlands. In 1738 he taught a young Ploos van Amstel how to draw using red and black chalk after the examples of the French master, Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) and the Italian master Ludovico Carraci (1555-1619) (Fig. 5). The latter was praised by Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the Royal Academy in London, as follows: “his breadth of light and shadow, the simplicity of his colouring and the solemn twilight that seems diffused over his pictures, are better suited to the grace and dignified subjects he generally treated than the more artificial brilliancy of sunshine which enlightens the pictures of Titian” (Buchanan, 85). That Ploos van Amstel was taught to write and draw after such artists by talented teachers whom only an elite would have had access to confirms the quality of his education. His knowledge of art was based upon an appreciation of the skills involved and by his experience of copying the works of the masters of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Ploos van Amstel had a vast and varied career. He was at times a printmaker, etcher, engraver, copyist, writer, collector and art teacher. He is most remembered for being one of the most significant Dutch art collectors of the 18th century. He owned around 7000 drawings which made up the bulk of his collection. T.H. Laurentius, G. Ploos van Amstel (a descendant) and J.W. Niemeijer’s article Unpublished Inventory of Cornelis Ploos van Amstel’s Collection, published in 1980, lists antique-cut precious stones and paintings organised into categories in various media such as oils, watercolours and miniatures. It also has subcategories detailing drawings from the Italian Florentian, Venetian, Lombardian and Roman art schools, prints from wood and copper plates from Italy, France, the Netherlands and England as well as ancient manuscripts and various books on engraving, sculpture, drawings and paintings. Finally, Roman, African and Egyptian artefacts and paintings are grouped by room in his house, as a final demonstration of his wealth. The walls of his home must have been crowded with artwork. The highlight of his collection were drawings and rare prints by Dutch artists such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) as well as paintings by Jan van Goyen (1596-1656) and Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). From the list we can see that Ploos van Amstel collected a variety of items from all over the world but dedicated a significant portion of his collection to art from the Lowlands.
The Rijksmuseum records Ploos van Amstel as a timber merchant. Interestingly, A.J. van der Aa’s biographical dictionary, written between 1852 and 1878, suggests that although Ploos van Amstel had been schooled in trading, he was not successful at it (van der Aa, Part 15, 364). Elmer Eusman’s report in Ploos van Amstel’s Mark disputes this claim: “planning a career as an artist, Ploos van Amstel first became an apprentice painter to Norbert van Bloemen [also known as Nolbertus van Blommen]. His parents decided otherwise and in 1740 sent him to the firm of J Bontekoning where “he learned and prospered in the timber trade” (Eusman,1). It is thus not entirely clear how he made his fortune, whether it was self-made through the timber trade or through money inherited from his family’s wealth. What is clear is that he was a passionate collector and artist who consorted with the eminent masters of his time: Jacob de Wit (1695-1754), Cornelis Troost (1669-1745) (Ploos van Amstel’s first wife, Elisabeth Troost, was his daughter) and Isack Moucheron (1667-1744). He was possibly not a successful merchant, but as an art connoisseur and collector, he was outstanding.
In a book about Old Master prints and drawings, author Carlo James references a drawing produced in ca. 1760 by George van der Mijn (1723-1763) (Fig. 6) , showing the interior of Ploos van Amstel’s art room. It offers an important insight into Ploos van Amstel’s art collection. This pen and grey ink wash drawing, coloured with watercolour and pencil, depicts Ploos van Amstel with his guests at a vernissage, a private viewing of artwork or an exhibition. Across the middle foreground we see three clusters of figures. On the left-hand side, tall windows let in light which fills the room. On the left-hand wall there is a collection of paintings next to a fireplace with a Grecian statue inside. Van Mijn gives us an impression of van Amstel’s art room, showing us that he owned both paintings and sculpture. This illustrates the diversity of his collection; he is not a collector of just one type of art. Almost hidden in the chiaroscuro is a cabinet of curiosities built to hold smaller objects. In the case of van Amstel this was where he kept his etchings, drawings and any artwork on paper. The blue curtain protected the artworks from sun damage. It is possible that PR305 was once stored here. Ploos van Amstel used to keep his mounted drawings between the pages of his art books. It is likely that his unmounted drawings were put into albums after his death. This was common practice, there was in the auction, for example, a whole album dedicated to images of Amsterdam. The auctioneer of the sale of Ploos van Amstel’s Rembrandt collection made a comment on how carefully Ploos van Amstel would maintain his collection as opposed to how they were all put together loosely by category after his death. “[The Rembrandt works were] correctly mounted and catalogued, laid into 6 portfolios of heavy elephant paper [and] bound in Russian red leather” (James, 32).
Ploos van Amstel was also involved in the production of art. He was director of the Amsterdam Drawing Academy and taught a number of high-profile students as recorded by the Dutch Institute of Art History (Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie or RKD) Jacobus Millies, Rudolf Henzi and most importantly Prince Willem V van Oranje-Nassau. Being good enough to teach Prince Willem V of the Netherlands drawing confirms Ploos van Amstel’s status and ability. He was also instrumental in founding the Felix Meritis (meaning ‘happy through merit’) in 1777, a cultural society which aimed to put Amsterdam back on the cultural map. At the time, Haarlem had become a centre for artists and Ploos van Amstel and his associates wanted to redress the balance and restore Amsterdam as a cultural capital of the Netherlands. The magnificent building erected on the prestigious Keizersgracht in Amsterdam survives today. Collectors and printmakers like Ploos Van Amstel usually belonged to art institutions where art was taught through the method of copying.
The crowning craft of Ploos van Amstel was his contribution to the development of printing techniques, particularly with regard to the use of colour. Some sources claim he invented a new printing technique; however, it is more accurate to say that he used existing techniques in a new way. His unique achievement was to print in colour mechanically and also to provide his audience with artworks on paper that bore an uncanny resemblance to the original. His aim, in which he was extremely successful, was to create highly accurate replicas of existing artistic media for those who could not afford originals to purchase. These replicas reproduced the original textures, whether it was watercolour, chalk, pencil or Indian ink.
The position of Ploos van Amstel as an innovator can be compared to that of William Henry Fox Talbot’s position as instrumental in the development of photography. James describes him as “an amateur printmaker and draftsman [who] made a reputation as the inventor of reproducing” (James, 31). A method similar to the one Ploos van Amstel developed for colouring images was named by the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste le Prince as aquatint, “an etching technique that produced the tonal effects similar to watercolor and wash drawings” (de Luise, 217) in around 1768-69. Le Prince is solely recognized as the inventor of the aquatint method, whilst Ploos van Amstel has never been credited for his contribution. However, Fox Talbot has gained recognition and a rival position to Louis Daguerre, photography’s inventor.
Ploos Van Amstel’s wealth meant he was able to devote much of his time to his hobbies: art collecting and print production. Ploos belonged to a group of distinguished collectors and amateurs having amassed drawings and watercolours by renowned 16th and 17th Century artists at the beginning of his career as an art collector. Previously, the hugely influential Raphael (1482-1520) had worked together with engraver Marcantonio Raimondi to produce copies of his work to spread his name and accessibility to his work. In turn it became a popular practice to copy Raphael’s work well into the 19th century. In the 18th century “the exact imitation of master drawings was seen as the highest level of virtue to which an artist could aspire” (de Luis, 217). Inherent to Ploos’ work is that he uses processes where the ink would imitate texture of conventional artistic media, something he did so well that they were almost indistinguishable to real chalk drawings.
So successful was van Ploos in his endeavors that in 1768 the mayor and magistrates in Amsterdam called upon him to prove that his prints were mechanically coloured and not painted by hand, which was common practice at the time. Van Ploos proceeded to demonstrate the production of a coloured facsimile to prove his technique was real. He was passionate about his work and a perfectionist. Dr N.G. van Huffel, who acquired a portion of van Amstel’s collection in Oxford in the early twentieth century, relates how van Ploos describes in a letter to a Mr. Prins that an accident due to incorrect storage damaged one of his plates. This was caused by alkaline being present on the ground layer, and an ammonium sulphate and salt solution eating into the plate, which destroyed a year’s work (van Huffel, 34). Van Amstel then spent another year fixing the damaged plate.
As children, many of us learned how to trace by copying the line of an image with a pencil onto a transparent piece of paper. The image is then transferred by shading the back of the paper with pencil and then retracing the image on to a clean piece of paper. The graphite on the back of the transparent paper creates a new image as the pencil is pressed on the front. This helps us to understand one of several printing techniques used by Ploos van Amstel. The details of his methods unfortunately remained lost for many years after the death of his close collaborator, Christiaan Josi, who inherited his plates and equipment. However, van Huffel manages to recreate one of his methods in his impressively titled 1921 book Cornelis Ploos van Amstel Jacob Corneliszoon en zijne medewerkers en tijdgenooten. Historische skets van de techniek der Hollandsche Prentteekeningen gemaakt in de tweede helft der achttiende eeuw (C.P.vA.J.Cz and his colleagues and contemporaries. An historical sketch of Dutch Facsimile Drawing techniques in the second half of the eighteenth century).
First, van Amstel took the drawing he wanted to copy and dipped it into turpentine. He then put a layer of sticky gum on the reverse side, probably with a brush. The gum was then coated with corundite powder, a very hard mineral. The paper, with the drawing face up, was then placed on a polished copper plate coated with shellac (a hard, clear varnish similar to polyurethane). By tracing the drawing with a hard pencil, the corundite particles were forced through the shellac layer, thereby tracing the image into the shellac. The calque, the corundite waste, was then removed and nitric acid (HNO3) poured onto the abrased shellac surface. When the nitric acid touched the copper, the image was etched into its surface. The shellac prevented the nitric acid from attacking the copper plate except where it was inscribed with the corundite. van Amstel produced forty-six such plates between the years 1764 and 1787 and he issued and sold prints to 350 subscribers for 500 Gilders as part of a twenty-one-part series. The only prints that survive of van Amstel’s today all stem from these 46 plates. This relatively small number can be explained by two reasons: monetarily speaking van Amstel’s printing endeavours were not particularly successful and the plates took a very long time to produce.
There has been much speculation as to why van Amstel was so drawn to printing. Perhaps, similar to Raphael, he wanted to attract attention to his art collection, although the prints do not feature work solely owned by him. It is possible he wanted to share his love for drawings with those who could not afford originals or he was expressing dissatisfaction with the preference for Neoclassical French art prevalent during his lifetime as it overshadowed Dutch 17th Century realism. Ploos was certainly a master at what he did. In 1768 the mayor and magistrates called upon him to prove that his prints were mechanically coloured and not by hand as a result he made a coloured facsimile in person. Ploos was certainly talented but not entirely honest with the mayor and magistrates of his time as modern research has determined that some prints were partially hand coloured. This could be why his name has disappeared when talking about the invention of the aquatint.
An initial conclusion when considering PR305 before any substantial research had been conducted, was that it could be based on an Italian landscape, as it is common to find castle ruins on the Italian coastline. However, it is after van Goyen, a keen traveller who visited Belgium and France but importantly not Italy. In fact, C. Hofstede de Groot, notes that “his numerous views of river towns and village [show] he must have travelled up and down the great Dutch rivers” (Hofstede de Groot, 9). However, Jan van Goyen along with many other great Dutch artists such as Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer and Jacob van Ruisdael never travelled to Italy. It is thus clear that the classics and Raphael, an artist praised for generations to come, especially in the Royal Academy in London, and held up as an example of perfect art, were not of significant interest to the Dutch masters. The many castle landscapes by van Goyen (Fig.7) of scenes similar to the one by Ploos van Amstel suggest that his castle is more probably based on a Belgian scene, although research has not produced an exact equivalent by van Goyen. It is possible that Ploos van Amstel drew a fictitious castle in the style of van Goyen using his highly developed drawing skills.
Although Ploos van Amstel devoted his life to art, his varied collection did not survive. Ploos van Amstel was considered an amateur collector and he did not collect for financial gain: “in general the drawing collections of amateurs were larger than those of artists and dealers, the average number of drawings in a collection being probably between 700 and 1000 sheets exceptional were the collections of Cornelis Ploos van Amstel […]” (Plomp,364). After his death, his whole collection, apart from the Rembrandts, which were sold separately, was publicly auctioned off in 1800. It made a sum of 109,406.00 Guilders, which is approximately £1 million today. Had his collection remained complete and retained his name, he may have been more well-known today but “in the Eighteenth century most of the artists’ collections were auctioned off after their death” (Plomp, 346 ). By contrast, in the twentieth century, Anton and Helene Kröller-Müller’s collection became the basis for the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. This was opened in 1938 on their former estate after Helene had donated her entire collection to the state of the Netherlands. This includes, for example, works by van Gogh, Signac, Seurat and Picasso.
How PR305 found its way to the Aberystwyth School of Art Museum collection is unknown. The database does not provide any clues. It is possible that it came to London when Christiaan Josi moved there after marrying the daughter of a Dutch engraver who had moved to the UK. A possible purchaser is George Powell (1842-1882), a significant contributor to the Aberystwyth School of Art collection and a lover of all kinds of curiosities. “Powell […] bought paintings which were more of the academic or ‘old master’ variety, some of them genuine, some copies; these he may have purchased in sale rooms in London” (Holland). Is it possible that Powell purchased this piece thinking it was a study by old master van Goyen? It would certainly be a credit to van Amstel’s skill, as at first sight, the soft ground etching looks like a sketch, a chalk drawing, an étude. As Christiaan Josi’s collection was sold in four parts after his death by auction houses Christie’s and Manson’s in 1829 (Rivington, 242), Powell may have seen it for sale in a London Gallery years later.
Cornelis Ploos van Amstel’s few original works are etchings, he did not travel beyond the Netherlands, there is little about him in the English language and his vast collection was broken up and sold; all these factors culminate in his name no longer being as well-known in the 21st century as it otherwise might have been. While Ploos van Amstel was alive, his wealth, apparent charisma and undoubted passion for art, alongside his position as Director of the Amsterdam Drawing Academy founder of the Felix Meritis and art teacher of Prince Wilhelm V of Orange, meant that he was a well known figure whose death marked the end of a colourful and successful life as both a collector and a printmaker. However, apart from a few prints in some of the most famous museums in the world, Cornelis Ploos van Amstel remains a relatively obscure name.
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