Mental Floss

Innovator, Inventor, and Painter: Jan van der Heyden

Andréa Fernandes

The Dutch painter Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) left a lasting mark not only on the world of art, but on the world of firefighting as well. The talented landscape artist actually made his living—and a prosperous one at that—as an inventor and civil engineer. He didn't generally consider himself a professional painter and, despite having patrons, still owned most of his work at the time he died.

Today, we'll take a look at both aspects of his life: painter and inventor.

1. Jan van der Heyden received no real training in the visual arts. According to a source, “his only instruction consisted of a few desultory lessons received from an unknown glass-painter...” His reported inability to draw figures (“He could draw neither man nor beast, nor ships nor carts...”) may have been tied to his lack of formal artistic schooling. To compensate, he partnered with Adriaen van de Velde, who painted most of the figures in van der Heyden's paintings until van de Velde's death in 1672, at which point he received assistance from Johannes Lingelbach and Eglon van der Neer.

2. Branspuiten-boek (The Fire Engine Book) was written and illustrated by Jan van der Heyden and published in 1690. The famous book was the first firefighting manual ever published. Van der Heyden had been fascinated by firefighting since he was a boy, when he witnessed a fire in the town hall.

3. Considered to have been “the preeminent painter of cityscapes in the Netherlands,” van der Heyden employed a few tricks to get the über-realistic details seen in his paintings. To create the texture of bricks, he would press a metal plate into the paint while it was still wet. Similarly, he used moss or a sponge to create leaves on the trees.

4. Van der Heyden is often credited with the invention of the fire hose. In 1672, he and his brother Nicolaes created “a fire engine fitted with pump-driven hoses, which transformed the efficiency of fire-fighting.” The following year, van der Heyden was put in charge of the fire department, where he reorganized the entire brigade.

5. Although van der Heyden's paintings are incredibly realistic, some of the scenes depicted are not actually real. Van der Heyden was one of the forerunners—or the inventor, according to some sources—of the “architectural capriccio,” or depictions of fictional locations. In some paintings, he would rearrange or redesign elements to suit his desires, but others “are pure architectural fantasy.” One of his more well known imaginary cityscapes is “An Architectural Fantasy with a Triumphal Arch,” which combines Gothic structures and an Italianate atmosphere.

6. In addition to serving as the director of the fire department and painting for the likes of Cosimo de' Medici, van der Heyden was employed as the superintendent of the lighting for Amsterdam. He designed “a comprehensive street lighting scheme” that reportedly introduced lamp posts; it remained Amsterdam's street lighting scheme from 1669 until 1849. Other towns around the world took cues from van der Hyden's design.

A larger version of van der Heyden's "View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam" is available here. Fans should check out the collections of van der Heyden's work at the Web Gallery of Art, the Art Renewal Center, Wikimedia Commons, the National Gallery, the Louvre, and Rijksmuseum Twenthe; the van der Heyden works that have been sold through Sotheby's; some of van der Heyden's sketches of fire damaged buildings; Peter C. Sutton's book on van der Heyden; and Rijksmuseum's "Fire!" exhibition on van der Heyden. "Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.