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Pieter Saenredam, The Utrecht Work:Paintings and Drawings by the 17th-Century Master of Perspective

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By Liesbeth M Helmus et al. Getty Publications, 2002. £42.50 (Distributor Windsor Books International 01865 361122)

In 1636, the Dutch artist Pieter Saenredam spent 20 weeks in Utrecht drawing churches, writes Ruth Slavid. From these drawings he created paintings, some more than 25 years later, that are among his finest works. There are not only the cool, composed interiors for which he is best known but also some magnificent exteriors of the Mariakerk showing the accretions and depredations of time.

That calm must be illusory since during Saenredam's stay in Utrecht, a plague was raging.

There is speculation that he moved from the Mariakerk to the study of other churches because those churches were not used for burials, which were becoming too disruptive at the Mariakerk.

This book, packed with scholarship, is the catalogue of an exhibition that was first seen in Utrecht, and then at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It shows the surprising degree of artifice in these works, which could seem to be straightforward representations. Often the perspective of this most meticulous of artists is wrong - sometimes due to simple error, sometimes because he wished to show more than was strictly visible from his chosen vantage point. Saenredam would leave out items that detracted from the majesty of the buildings, whether tie rods or decorations or tombs. And the figures that occupy his spaces, in both the drawings and the paintings, were often added by other artists up to a century later.

Two interiors of the Buurkerk, one in Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth (pictured above), and the other in the National Gallery in London, show why these inconsistencies are so fascinating and, ultimately, irrelevant. The views are very similar and derive from the same drawing, but through their use of colour and mood, they are utterly different.

Saenredam was an artist, and his careful measurements and drawings contributed to, but were subservient to, his art. The question that these scholars do not really address is: why are these paintings so good? The magical extra that is integral to his painstaking work is almost impossible to define, although it is so evidently there.

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