Dozens of villagers have come forth into the night to help extinguish a fire that has broken out in a farmhouse. They fill their buckets at a ditch in the foreground, handing them up to the men who have climbed onto the low thatched roof to be as close as possible to the source of the flames. The figures are arranged in remarkably compact groups to the right of the burning building. Several have stepped into one of the rowboats moored in the channel, while two others approach the disaster via a footbridge to the left. The blaze gives the surroundings an eerie orange glow. The farmhouses to the left are brightly lit, and the treetops, too, stand out against the darkness. Vivid red and orange streaks of paint suggest the illuminated contours of the firefighters’ clothing, headgear and buckets; light blue accents designate the brightest reflections. The heart of the raging inferno is rendered in a whitish yellow that dissolves into the varying tones of the night sky, which range from orange to brown-black. Four ducks populate a tiny strip of land in the foreground, the one at the left taking flight in an effort to escape the conflagration.
The dramatic light and colour effects produced by flames – particularly at night – have fascinated artists throughout the centuries.1 Fires were a favourite subject in sixteenth-century Flemish art, particularly in Antwerp, where many painters turned their hand to the phenomenon in imitation of Hieronymus Bosch – according to Karel van Mander an expert in the depiction of ‘flames, fire, smoke and fumes’.2 Such pictures generally revolved around a biblical or classical tale in which conflagration played a major role, for example, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the plunder of Rome. By the seventeenth century, however, it was no longer necessary to turn to history as an excuse for depicting fire, whether at night or otherwise. The Amsterdam painter Aert van der Neer (1603/04-1677) specialised in moonlit landscapes, often with a blaze somewhere in the distance.3 The naturalistic rendering of the light effects produced by fire and the moon on the surrounding darkness was the greatest challenge for the artist. From the 1650s, night-time village fires were a popular theme with painters in Rotterdam.4 Particularly important in this development was the work of Egbert van der Poel (cat. no. 49), who had moved to the city after losing his home in the Delft gunpowder-warehouse disaster of 12 October 1654.5 Van der Poel depicted the catastrophe at least 12 times.6 The success of these pictures, which appear to have been in great demand, may have inspired him to treat fires with no historical connections at all (fig. 1).7 He had several faithful followers in Rotterdam; among the best known was Adam Colonia, who signed the work described here with an elegant flourish at the lower right.8 Colonia – described in the informative register of painters compiled by the Amsterdam town doctor Jan Sysmus between 1669 and 1678 as ‘quite good at landscapes and animals, fires and moonlight’9 – specialised in the type of night-time tableaux so popular among his fellow Rotterdam artists: moonlit seascapes, the Annunciation to the shepherds, and burning villages.10 His fire scenes, with their typical red-orange reflections suggesting the glow of the flames, strongly resemble those of Van der Poel. Here, too, Colonia’s composition is based on his example: the burning farmhouse is placed in the foreground; the firefighters are arranged in a compact group; and a body of water occupies the foremost plane. As Colonia never dated any of these works, we can only speculate as to when the picture was painted. Given its dependence on the older Van der Poel, however, it probably dates to between 1654 – the year Van der Poel arrived in Rotterdam – and Colonia’s departure for London in 1670.11