Dutch artist Willem Witsen came from an old, established, and wealthy patrician family. He had Amsterdam in his blood, and alongside it, the great Dutch painterly tradition. However, he was also keen to use his painterly inhibitions to discover modern movements. Working during both the 19th and 20th centuries, Witsen participated in great developments in the art world of Amsterdam during a time of upheaval and change.
Witsen studied at the esteemed Royal Academy of Amsterdam under prominent artist August Allebé (1838-1927). Allebé was a proponent of the impressionist movement in art with its focus on evocating nature through emotional and impromptu studies. This interest was instilled into Witsen from this early stage. He would travel extensively to other cities and observe these new developments. Indeed, Witsen’s work in watercolour captures the emotional and explorative energy of impressionism.
A windmill’s sails are caught in a blurred motion as if the movement is instilled into the canvas. A scene of a soggy London captures people as blurred shapes hurrying along the rain-slicked pavement, giving the impression that they, too, are drenched, soaked into the scene.
As Witsen’s career developed and he continued to travel, he became extremely interested in the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Whistler deviated from impressionism’s focus on pastel colours to lower the tonal qualities of his work, executing his pieces in predominantly shady greys and blacks. As well as throwing away any strict rules on colour palettes, Whistler was also a proponent of the increasingly popular aestheticism. ‘Art for art’s sake’ was the key tenet of this movement, a work did not have to include a moral lesson, it could be experimental.
Such influence can be seen in Witsen’s work depicting his hometown of Amsterdam. For these views, he predominantly favoured the medium of etching. In many ways it was perfect, for his etchings would be printed onto paper using black ink, immediately resonating with Whistler’s work. In doing so, however, he also transported a centuries' old artistic practice into the modern day. His depictions of the city focus predominantly on the buildings and geography of the metropolis itself rather than the people. The effect this achieves is to make the buildings anthropomorphic. They are the subject, and Witsen’s detailed, effective use of shading and tone gives them a spirited being, an essence. Some have argued that the spirit he injects into these cities is almost a form of symbolism very much in tune with the post-impressionism Whistler favoured.
When people do appear in Witsen’s works, they are often cast in shadow and shade, anonymous, unknown. They become ants under the looming mass of the buildings. They are never the focus. It was an approach that made him singular, and it proved popular amongst art buyers and judges at international exhibitions. With wins under his belt at exhibitions in places such as St Louis, Missouri and Paris, Witsen was earning for himself an intentional reputation of excellence.
The idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ was the motto of one of the many art societies that Witsen would join during his career. The Movement of Eighty was a collection of Dutch artists and writers who were keen to explore new ideas and examine the society in which they lived as well as art’s place in such systems. They became very influential during the last decades of the 19th century, and Witsen played a considerable role. Helped by his family’s wealth, his house in the country became a meeting place for this group.
Witsen further used this wealth and influence to set up his own society, the Dutch Etching Club. This reveals much about his passion for his favourite medium.
Witsen was also part of much more established Netherlands art groups. He joined the Arti et Amicitiae, founded earlier in the century as a hub for artists, as well as becoming a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, an older, prestigious association of artists. Along with his circle of artistic friends accrued from his societies, artists such as George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923), Witsen had placed himself at the heart of Dutch artistic developments.
With his blend of the popular impressionism and his willingness to explore new tones and colours, Witsen became a unique beacon of artistic creation amongst his contemporaries. Today, his studio in Amsterdam now functions as a museum dedicated to his life and work.
Born in Amsterdam.
Studied at the Royal Academy of Amsterdam.
Established the Movement of Eighty.
Married Elisabeth van Vloten.
First solo exhibition of his work held.
Won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Married Augusta Maria Schorr.
Travelled to San Francisco for the Art’s Fair.
Died in Amsterdam.