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An architectural mystery: Egbert van Drielst and het Museum Klooster Ter Apel

"On a cold, clear winter day in February 2023, I sat on the train heading towards Groningen with an oil painting by Egbert van Drielst (1745-1818) on my lap. I was en route to Museum Klooster Ter Apel, a 15th-century monument hidden in the woods that has been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992. I was invited as a guest to deliver a little lecture during the New Year's reception about the painting, which they had acquired for their art collection. The artwork in question, titled View of Klooster Ter Apel, likely depicts the monastery on the horizon around 1780-1790. The painting shows an extension on the eastern (left) side of the monastery, an extension whose existence is unknown today but is likely to have its foundations still buried in the ground. During Van Drielst's time, that extension had long been demolished. How did Van Drielst know about its existence? And why was he active in this area while residing in Holland?

Egbert van Drielst, Gezicht op Klooster Ter Apel
The first little tower in the back on the left belongs to the building under archaeological investigation. Egbert van Drielst, View of Klooster Ter Apel, approx. 1780-1790, oil on panel, 25 x 33 cm (collection Museum Klooster Ter Apel).

The "Drentse Hobbema"

Van Drielst was one of the most important painters of the Dutch 18th century and is now known as the "Drentse Hobbema" due to his focus on showcasing the nature of East Netherlands. Egbert van Drielst was born in Groningen in 1745. In 1761, he moved to Haarlem to work for the Haarlem wallpaper painter Jan Augustini. This was a common path to learn the art of painting and drawing while making a living. Under Augustini's guidance, he learned to paint on paper, damask, and linen. On his days off, he ventured into nature around Overveen and Bloemendaal, capturing trees, streams, walkers, and houses. It was during this period that Van Drielst became interested in the 17th-century painters such as Salomon van Ruysdael, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Meindert Hobbema, particularly their depiction of nature. In 1765, Egbert van Drielst moved again, this time to Amsterdam. There, he met the already respected painter Jacob Cats, who had adorned many canal houses with archaic scenes and would collaborate with Van Drielst. Van Drielst focused on painting gnarled trees, low vegetation, and buildings, while Cats painted the figures.

Van Drielst specialized as a landscape painter and had a deep fascination with the Dutch landscape and the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century. He believed that the best-preserved nature in our country could be found in the provinces of Drenthe and, to a lesser extent, Groningen. He was the first artist to pay attention to this type of landscape, inspiring many 19th-century painters in their artistic quest to depict nature. We know he was deeply engaged in this pursuit from art historical sources, including his drawings from print cabinets and a few letters. He embarked on walking tours in and around Eext, sometimes multiple times a year, using his drawing tools to capture various villages and farms. One of the locations he visited was Klooster Ter Apel, as evidenced by a drawing in the collection of Boijmans van Beuningen, clearly depicting the monastery.

Van Drielst did not paint during his travels but did so in his studio at home. His painted oeuvre is small compared to the countless drawings that have been preserved, even when considering wallpapers (only a few of which have survived the test of time). Van Drielst did not aim for an exact representation of existing locations but rather provided an artistic impression of untouched nature and picturesque spots. At times, he gathered various elements from his drawings and incorporated them into a new composition in oil paint—a blend of imagination and real locations.

Archaeological excavations

The painting holds historical significance for Museum Klooster Ter Apel, which was the primary reason for its acquisition. It sparks a debate about the form and function of the extension. In May, archaeological excavations will take place at the location depicted by Van Drielst to investigate the foundations and further map the architectural history of the monastery. Will the dimensions of the extension on the painting align with the research findings? Could this indicate a precursor to the current monastery, requiring a rewriting of its history? Or did Van Drielst imagine the extension? How a painting may potentially unlock the unraveling of an architectural historical mystery."

Follow the developments surrounding the excavations here:


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