The remarkable case of Johannes Torrentius (2) – “magic” paint

Like his life the art of Johannes Torrentius (1589-1644) is in every way remarkable. Whereas in most cases we lack contemporary comments, especially from painters themselves, and their paintings are the sole evidence for their working methods, in Torrentius’ case it is the other way around. Only one painting today can be ascribed to him with certainty and yet the artist has been credited with, among other things, being the “first photographer”. Looking at contemporary evidence and what his one surviving painting tells us: in how far is his art, as one of the charges that led to his conviction in 1628 reads, “a sort of magic”?

An Emblematic still life

In 1913, a painting was discovered in an unlikely place: it served as the lid of a raisin-barrel in a grocery shop in the east of the Netherlands. When the signature and date (T. 1614) were discovered it was acquired by the Rijksmuseum as a Torrentius.

Johannes Torrentius, Emblematic Still Life, signed and dated "T. 1614", Rijksmuseum

Johannes Torrentius, Emblematic Still Life, signed and dated “T. 1614”, Rijksmuseum

Roemer-Visscher, “Each his own” from “Sinnepoppen”, published in Amsterdam, 1614

Painted on a round oak panel (a highly unusual shape for a 17th century still life painting) are a flagon, a wine glass with two clay pipes and a stone water jar placed on a shelf with above them a bridle. The glass stands on a piece of paper with on it musical notations and an inscription reading ER+ wat bu-ter maet be-staat, int on-maats gaat ver-ghaat. The painting has been associated with an emblem in Roemer-Visscher’s book Sinne-poppen, published in the same year as the date on the painting: 1614. Both emblem and painting convey the virtues of temperantia. The objects on painting and emblem support this meaning: wine can be diluted with water and thus represent temperance and moderation. The text on the painting can be translated as: “That which exists beyond measure, will perish in evil beyond measure” with a pun on “measure” (maat) in the musical sense. The mysterious ER+ at the beginning of the text has led to speculations that Torrentius was a member of the Rosicrucian movement: ER+ in this theory stands for Eques Rosae Crucis but so far this interpretation is not conclusive. The composition on the sheet has, as far as I know, not been researched or identified. On the reverse of the panel is the brand of Charles I indicating that the painting once formed part of that monarch’s art collection. Indeed, the painting appears to be listed in Charles I’s State Papers:

1. On a round bred donne 1614 is his fynest piece which is a glass with wyne in it very well donne, between a tynne pott and an errthen pott, a sett song under it and a bitt of a Brydle over it.

“… a glass with wyne in it very well donne” (photo: Rijksmuseum)

“Magic paints”

Looking at the painting, one understands why contemporaries described Torrentius’ style as “translucent”. It is certainly very different from still life paintings by his contemporaries such as Balthasar van der Ast or Jacques de Gheyn. As Constantijn Huygens wrote: “… not easily would a man stand up who would represent glasses, earthenware and tin or iron things, almost translucent, through the power of the brush”. The engraver Michel Le Blon wrote in a letter to the Swedish envoy in The Hague in 1635: “at the work beginning nor end could be seen, so that it seems to be washed or painted like a mist.”

Johannes Torrentius, Self-portrait? Undated drawing, Weimar

Purely on the basis of observation of the Emblematic Still Life it has been suggested that Torrentius may have achieved his peculiar “translucent” effect by applying glazes – thin, transparent layers of paint. When the painting was examined during restoration in 1993/4, however, the number of layers appeared to be rather limited. But what was this “magic” paint the artist claims to have used? Torrentius seems to have made a distinction between this and conventional pigments: in a letter to Dr Jacob Hogenheym of 17 February 1620 (Hogenheym’s would later testify at the trial) the painter wrote somewhat cryptically “… as I would not dare to risk Judgement on the fundamentals of my Art, in this case I will make do with the means that are commonly used ….” When asked during the trial whether he had refused to buy ordinary paints on the grounds that he had a “different way” of making paintings Torentius declared:

… that he paints with other paints than other painters, and therefore also works with these in a different manner than other painters. That he sometimes had to lay panels flat on the floor so that the paint would blend flat on the panel, from this mixing or combining of the paint often arises a sound or a buzz, that finally ends when the paint has taken. But if he uses paint like other painters, he would also use brushes.

This seems corroborated by Huygens who wrote that the painter “tires the inquisitive minds, as they are searching in vain, in what manner he used colours, oil – and if the Gods may wish – also brushes.” Not only were his paints different, Torrentius’ painting method was also highly dangerous. From the trial records:

[Torrentius] declares having said that if he prepares and contrives certain paints, there is such a deleterious vapour in the room that a person could not stand to remain there, staying healthy. Therefore the room would not need to have lock on those occasions because the bad fumes would be sufficient to keep people out […] and if he then quickly had to go into the room, he would plug his ears and nose to escape from the noxious vapours.

An artist's attic, drawing attributed to Andries Both, 1624-1640, British Museum

An artist’s attic, drawing attributed to Andries Both, 1624-1640, British Museum

On another occasion, at night, Torrentius had to interrupt a session with friends and hurry back home: “I have to be home in time because if I would not pay attention to it, my attic and roof would catch fire as if a small barrel of gunpowder would ignite.” Strong stuff indeed!

Surprisingly, or perhaps disappointingly, paint analysis using various scientific methods, including analysis of a number of paint samples and microscopic investigation of cross-sections did not yield anything unusual: Torrentius’ pigments were no different from those used by other 17th century painters. His grounds, too, seemed to have been made up of the usual components: “the area of the cartellino showed conventional calcium carbonate ground, a double application of lead white and a layer of lamp black. The paint for the greyish metal of the flagon is build [sic] up of lead white mixed with lamp black over a lighter mixture and some bone black applied over a tan calcium carbonate ground”, the researchers concluded. This left one option open: the binding medium.

Flagon, detail from “Emblematic Still Life”, photo: Rijksmuseum

Analysis of the binding medium did yield some surprises: the presence of pectin substances and sugars. Pectins are neutral, water-soluble substances obtained from plant or fruit extracts. The sugars contained in them may eventually dry up to an insoluble substance which would then be useless to work with. To render it soluble possibly an acid was used. The action of this acid would then have produced the strange effect described in a contemporary pamphlet recording the trial:

And then, from out of his prepared paints, there comes a sweet sound, right above the panel. As if a swarm of sweet bees were humming and singing, or similar melodies.

This refers to a statement made at the trial by Dr Hogenheym and corroborates Torrentius’ own trial statement about “a sound or a buzz” that ended when the paint had taken. The use of acid and the chemical reaction it caused possibly also explains Torrentius’ statement about the highly toxic vapours that forced him to “plug his ears and nose” when going into his studio before the paint had set. That 17th century paint contained toxic substances is well known. It must have been the peculiar chemical reaction produced by the pectid acids in his binding medium that made Torrentius’ working methods so extraordinary that they may have even contributed to his conviction. As Le Blon notes, Torrentius’ painting method was “by some of the most prominent painters, not unjustly considered a work of magic for which there is no comparison in the world.” As we have seen in the previous post, the 17th century Republic had no use for magic.

Reservations

While the above gives a more or less satisfactory scientific explanation for the “magic” paints used by Johannes Torrentius, I have two reservations:

First, we do not know how or when the Emblematic Still Life came back to the Netherlands after it had been in Charles I’s possession. It can be traced back to the city of Deventer in the mid-19th century where it hung in a bakery shop and it later passed to the owner of a grocery shop in Enschede. The painting was saved from the disastrous fire of 7 May 1862 which practically destroyed the entire city. How damaged it was is not recorded, but it was relegated to serving as a lid on a raisin-barrel possibly from that time. Since the presence of sugars in the binding medium are not yet fully understood, could it be that they are remnants from the painting’s time in first a bakery and then a grocery shop?

B.W.F. van Riemsdijk by Jaap Weyand, 1920

Secondly, Dr Van Riemsdijk, the then director of the Rijksmuseum, writing about the discovery of the painting in 1915, reports that when it was brought to him it was in a very sorry state: “Very dimly some crockery could be seen and far more clearly a piece of paper with music and a poem.” He undertakes the painting’s restoration himself: “It did not go very smoothly because the usual cleaning solvents did not have any effect and therefore others had to be used to remove the almost impenetrable, opaque oil layer that covered the paint.” Unfortunately Van Riemsdijk does not mention what cleaning solvents he used. If they were aggressive it could explain the absence of several layers of glazes and they could also in other ways have affected the paint layer.

This still does not explain the various contemporary witness statements concerning Torrentius’ still life’s “translucency” or that “beginning nor end could be seen”, leaving an effect as if “washed or painted like a mist”, an impression one gets when looking at the painting even today. A possible explanation for this is the assumption, first expressed by Huygens, that Torrentius used a camera obscura. We will look at this possibility in the next post and will also see how, in Sandrart’s words, the fact that “next to his paintings no others could stand up in the comparison, and that therefore they were considered miracle things that fetched high prices” frustrated a contemporary painter so much that it came to a painting competition.

Notes:

For selected literature on Torrentius I refer to the previous post. In addition:

  1. B.W.F. van Riemsdijk, “Een Schilderstuk van Johannes Torrentius” in Feest-Bundel Dr. Abraham Bredius, 1915.
  2. A. Wallert, “A peculiar emblematic still-life painting from Johannes Torrentius” in Art Matter, 2007.
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