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BIOGRAPHY - Cornelius Springer (1817 - 1891)

Cornelis Springer was the fourth son of Maria Elisabeth Doetsen and Willem Springer, a master builder and contractor. When he was born on March 25, 1817, Amsterdam was a city of about 200,000 people and The Netherlands was just beginning to enjoy an independent existence free of both the Napoleonic and Prussian empires. As in many other European nations, new industrialized enterprises were developing and would soon transform traditional Dutch agrarian life with mechanized farm equipment, railroads and steam-powered factories. The Springer family was well positioned to take an active role in designing and building this changing environment. Young Cornelis received his first lessons in drawing and architectural rendering from his older brother Hendrik, who was already a practicing architect. He mastered the principles of linear perspective and drafting under Hendrik’s tutelage.

The next step in Springer’s education was enrollment at the Amsterdam Academy of Fine Arts in 1827. There he studied with Jacobus van der Stok (1795-1874) and Hendrik Gerrit ten Cate (1822-1891). Van der Stok specialized in landscape paintings, including many winter scenes featuring ice skaters and snow-laden clouds composed in a classical seventeenth-century format. In contrast, Ten Cate focused on military images with a meticulous attention to detail. In 1834—at age seventeen—one of Springer's landscape studies was accepted for the Living Masters exhibition, a rare accomplishment for such a young artist.

It was the painter Kaspar Karssen (1810-1896), however, who would be Springer’s most important influence. He studied with Karssen from 1835-1837, absorbing his style of painting topographic images of towns known as capricci. The term capricci originated with the Italian landscape painters who created fantastical architectural scenes based on reality but with imaginative additions and distortions. The trend seems to have begun in Rome in the 1600s and then flourished most notably in Venice in the 1700s in the work of painters such as Antonio Canaletto and Francesco Guardi. During the second half of the eighteenth century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi published several series of etchings of Roman architecture and monuments which were widely distributed throughout Europe. [i]

Topographical prints were also popular in the emerging literary genre of travel writing in the early 1800s. Works such as John Britton’s Beauties of England and Wales (1801-1815) was a multi-volume set of engravings accompanied by descriptions of every county in England and Wales. Likewise, Baron Taylor’s Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France (1828) and Samuel Prout’s lithographic prints in Fac-similes of sketches made in Flanders and Germany (1833) offered readers a glimpse of famous sights and architectural masterpieces on the continent.

Karssen’s capricci were essentially townscapes of Dutch cities, but they were often populated not only by the local landmarks but also by well-known buildings or sites from other cities. In fact, it became a fashionable parlor game to identify what the landmarks were and where they were actually located. For example, a painting of Dordrecht might contain an image of the local city hall, but also include a bridge from Amsterdam and a church from Utrecht. It was quite a success among bourgeois Dutch collectors. [ii] In Springer’s hands, the capricci became even more detailed and sophisticated in imagery. He would typically include figures that were associated with the town being depicted; students in Leiden, bureaucrats at The Hague or dock workers in Rotterdam. Occasionally, he even included himself in the painting as in View of the Town Hall and St. Lawrence Church in Alkmaar where he is shown perched on a tripod trying to sketch while surrounded by curious bystanders.

Springer’s inclusion of elements that are not actually part of a townscape has raised questions about the documentary value of his canvases. Clearly, the artist’s intention was not necessarily topographical accuracy. His earliest work, when he was most influenced by Karssen’s painting, was deliberately manipulated to provoke an interest in identifying the landmarks and the towns where they were located. [iii] In contrast Springer’s sketchbooks are full of realistic views of both urban and rural scenes, which indicates that his design process began with sketching on site. The sketchbooks also demonstrate the artist’s mastery of architectural rendering—a skill that he learned at a young age and that would continue to serve him well throughout his career. [iv]

By the early 1840s, Springer had launched an independent career and was a regular contributor to the arts community of Amsterdam. He joined the intellectual society known as Felix Meritis, founded in 1776 and dedicated to the study of music, art and architecture, natural sciences, commerce, and literature; in short, it was a civic organization devoted to the Enlightenment pursuit of empirical knowledge based on reason. Springer won a silver medal in 1843 and a gold medal for his painting of a church interior at the society’s exhibition in 1847.

The popularity of his capricci and the public recognition of his work by the arts community meant that Springer was successful quite early in his career. By the 1850s, he was famous and worked only on commission. In fact, his art was in such demand that there was a two-year waiting list for his work. Collectors interested in commissioning a painting would look through Springer’s sketchbooks and select a composition based on the images there; the artist would then develop the oil painting. [v]

Undoubtedly, this success was especially welcome in January 1855 when Springer’s son Leonard was born. He had married Geertruij ten Cate, the daughter of Hendrik ten Cate who had been one of Springer’s first instructors at the Amsterdam Academy of Art, on May 7, 1846. Leonard Springer would grow up to be a well-respected landscape architect.

At some point during the 1850s, Springer also became a member of the arts club, Arti et Amicitiae. It was founded in De Karseboom, a local coffeehouse, in 1839 for the purpose of promoting the visual arts, improving the social and economic position of artists, and facilitating social gatherings. Not surprisingly Arti et Amicitiae also sponsored an annual exhibition for the benefit of widows and orphans. Springer began contributing to the exhibitions in the mid-1850s. [vi]

Springer’s position was evident when he was asked to contribute to the Rembrandt celebration in 1852. Together with his former teacher Karssen, he created a capriccio of The Hague painted in a seventeenth century style. J. Schaeps described it in his article on Springer’s role as a topographic artist: “On the occasion of the Rembrandt celebrations in Amsterdam in 1852 several artists were invited to take part in the decoration of a festival hall. The sparkling view historiée of The Hague by Springer and his former teacher Karssen is, as far as we know, the only surviving art of the decoration.” [vii]

Although he traveled extensively in The Netherlands throughout his career, and very occasionally ventured into northern France, Springer began moving farther afield in 1860 when he spent some months in Brussels. Perhaps he was intrigued with the activities of the Realist artists there; he had been developing more and more images of contemporary life in his own work and the capricci of his early career gradually became historical genre paintings with the figures dressed in seventeenth century clothing. More significant was Springer’s increasing interest in depicting decidedly industrial cities with tram lines and construction sites and hansom cabs. Belgian artists studying at the Atelier Libre Saint-Luc in 1846 formed the core of a Realist movement in Brussels, which expanded throughout the 1850s. When Courbet’s Stone-Breakers was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851, it was warmly received by this group, although not necessarily by the general press. In 1867, Springer returned to Brussels where the arts community was even more lively and experimental than it had been in earlier years. At the end of his time in Brussels, Springer continued his travels into Germany, stopping in Hanover, Bremen and voyaging along the Rhine River between Germany and France.

In 1878, Springer, together with Jozef Israels, was invited to act as an advisor to the Dutch Ministry of Public Affairs on the plans for the Rijksmuseum building. The concept of a National Gallery for The Netherlands was first proposed in 1798 when the government decided to establish a museum. The first museum to reflect this commitment was the Nationale Kunst-Galerij, opened in May 1800 in The Hague. In 1808, it was moved to Amsterdam under the direction of Napoleon’s brother Louis Bonaparte; it opened a year later in the Royal Palace. In 1817—free of French domination—the collection was moved to the Trippenhuis. Over the next four decades, parts of collection were transferred to other cities, with historical objects moving to The Hague in 1820 and nineteenth century paintings by living artist to the Villa Welgelegen in Haarlem in 1838. By the mid-1860s it was clear that this patchwork of locations was not suited to the creation of a coherent and national museum; nor did it do justice to the rich tradition of visual arts of Holland.

An initial design competition in 1863 did not produce anything that the government wished to construct, and so the project languished for yet another decade until 1876 when another competition was held. Pierre Cuypers, who had already submitted a design in 1863, was successful this time. Construction began in October. The presence of Springer and Israels as advisors is telling.  Israels was certainly one of the most respected and innovative Dutch artists of the time, and Springer was not only a painter of architecture, but also particularly knowledgeable about the processes of both design and construction because of his family’s business. The project was large, complex and challenging; it was also time-consuming which may explain why Springer’s production of paintings declined over the next decade. The new Rijksmuseum (which means “national museum”) opened on July 13, 1885. [viii]

Springer continued to travel in The Netherlands painting in all seasons. Some reflect everyday scenes like The Milkman, Hilversum, which may have been a daily sight from his own front window. Others are lyrical landscapes, A Heron by a Forest Creek, for example, or cityscapes of a snowy street in Haarlem. The historical costumes have largely disappeared as have the fantastical architectural elements. The late paintings are both more realistic and more grounded in everyday life.

Cornelis Springer died on February 20, 1891, in Hilversum, The Netherlands.

Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.

Selected Museums

Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, Gloucestershire, UK
Dordrechts Museum, The Netherlands
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Klönisches Stadtmuseum, Cologne, Germany
Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hanover, Germany 
Philadelphia Museum  of Art
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands



[i] Young male aristocrats on the Grand Tour were typical collectors of Piranesi’s prints as souvenirs of their time in Italy. Prima parte di Architettura e Prospettive was published in 1743 and Varie Vedute di Roma Antica e Moderna in 1745. A collection of etchings on Roman architecture, published as Della Magnificenza Ed Architettvra De' Romani in 1761, is available for viewing at: https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/piranesi1761/

[ii] John Sillevis, “Enschede, Rijksmuseum Twenthe Cornelis Springer (1817-1891), Burlington Magazine, Vol. 126, No. 976 (Jul., 1984) 455-456. See also W. Laanstra, H. C. de Bruijn and J. H. A. Ringeling, Cornelis Springer (1817-1891) (Utrecht: Uitgevery Tableau, 1984). Exhibition catalogue.

[iii] J. Schaeps. "Cornelis Springer Als Topograaf." Bulletin Van De Koninklijke Nederlandse Oudheidkundige Bond, 1991, 53-58.

[iv] Springer’s sketchbooks are in the collection of the Teylers Museum and are available for viewing at: https://www.teylersmuseum.nl/en/@@search?SearchableText=Cornelis+Springer&path%3Alist=%2FNewTeylers%2Fen%2Fcollection%2Fart-new&path%3Alist=%2FNewTeylers%2Fen%2Fcollection%2Fart

[v] Springer’s account books indicate that these changes in his practice. See W. Laanstra, H. C. de Bruijn and J. H. A. Ringeling, Cornelis Springer (1817-1891) (Utrecht: Uitgevery Tableau, 1984). Exhibition catalogue.

[vi] Tentoonstelling van Schilder-en-Andere Kunstwerken van Lebende Meisters, in de Kunsthallen der Maatschappij: Arti et Amicitiae, ten behoeve van het Weduwen-en Weezenfornds. 1856. Exhibition catalogue. Arti et Amicitiae still exists and continues to sponsor exhibitions, social gatherings and opportunities for artists to develop their careers. It is the oldest art club in The Netherlands. See: https://www.arti.nl/english/

[vii] J. Schaeps. "Cornelis Springer Als Topograaf." Bulletin Van De Koninklijke Nederlandse Oudheidkundige Bond, 1991, 53-58.

[viii] Additional buildings were added to the original museum beginning in 1890. Since then, there have been several more additions, some more successful than others. In December 2003, the building closed for renovations and a decade later, it re-opened with much needed updates in place.

Sold Works
The Lombard on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam - Cornelius Springer
Cornelius Springer
(1817 - 1891)
Oil on panel
26 x 33.5 inches
Signed and dated 1884