Rembrandt, 350 years after his death

Rembrandt (and follower, see below, Simeon in the Temple, 1669, oil on canvas, 98,5 x 79,5 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

On the 5 of October 1669, 350 years ago, a day after Rembrandt’s passing, notary Gerrit Steeman came round to take stock of his possessions. There were 22 paintings, “both finished and unfinished”, stored in the entrance hall in the small rental house on Rozengracht in Amsterdam where Rembrandt lived with Cornelia, his nearly 15-year-old daughter with Hendrickje. Rembrandt and Hendrickje, who had died in 1663, were not married and so Cornelia, as their illegitimate daughter, had no claim to any of Rembrandt’s belongings. There were more unfinished paintings, number not mentioned, in the parlour.

This time, unlike his bankruptcy inventory, Rembrandt wasn’t around to tell the notary what was what so we are kept guessing. Present that day, apart from Titus’ widow Magdalena van Loo (who would die not two weeks later, she was buried in Westerkerk on 21 October), was Christiaen Dusart, young Cornelia’s guardian. According to the notary: “The remaining property, including paintings, drawings, curios, antiques and other objects have been placed in three separate rooms, the door of which were locked by me, the notary, in addition, this door was sealed with my signet and the keys were taken into my custody.”

Detail from a page from the probate inventory drawn up on 5 October 1669, Amsterdam City Archives

The reason was very likely that Magdalena, and Dusart on behalf of young Cornelia, were undecided whether to accept the inheritance. I don’t blame them. Knowing Rembrandt’s pattern of spending, there may have been more stuff encumbered with debt than there were assets. But that hesitation has deprived us from knowing what Rembrandt was working on when he died.

“Curios, antiques and other objects” – Rembrandt, in spite of his bankruptcy, had started collecting again. Although these objects were locked away and not itemised in the death inventory as they were in the bankruptcy inventory we nevertheless get a glimpse of what they comprised through Pieter van Brederode van Wieringen (1631-1690).

Portrait of Pieter van Brederode van Wieringen by Redolphus van Walsburgh, before 1670, HRvA, The Hague 

Van Brederode was a bit of a social upstart. The son of an Amsterdam whitesmith and shopkeeper, he became an amateur genealogist who strove his whole life to prove that he was descended from the aristocratic Van Brederode family – without much success. Nevertheless, as can be seen in the portrait Redolphus van Walsburgh painted of him, he appropriated the name and the Van Brederode coat of arms. His interest in heraldic paraphernalia took him to Rembrandt’s house. Pieter was especially interested in a helmet reputedly once worn by 13th century lord Gerard van Velsen.

Facsimile page from one of Pieter van Brederode van Wieringen’s notebooks, HRvA, The Hague.

In his notebook he jotted down what he saw in Rembrandt’s house under the heading “Antiquities and curios collected over a time by Rembrant van Rym 2 October 1669”. Interesting that he notes, beside the helmet and a few other objects, “four pieces of flayed arms and legs anatomized according to Vesalius”. Whether he spoke with Rembrandt and if so in what condition he found the painter (was he already ill?) he alas does not say.

We know, thanks to the invaluable Abraham Bredius who published it in 1909, that the painter Allaert van Everdingen and his son, the playwright Cornelis van Everdingen saw Rembrandt working on a painting representing “Simeon” in the months prior to his death. This has to be the sadly damaged and fragile painting now in Stockholm. There is no proof that I am aware of that this was “on his easel” when Rembrandt died, as some have published, but it must have been among the “works finished and unfinished” as noted by the notary.

Incredibly fragile today, it is one of Rembrandt’s most moving paintings on a theme he had so often depicted in his career: the story in the Gospel of Luke of devout Simeon who, as an old man, had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Saviour. Holding the new-born baby Jesus in his arms, sings his canticle “Nunc dimittis”. The passage in the Gospel of St. Luke reads as follows:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” – Luke 2:25.

Next to Simeon a woman can be seen. But there’s another twist: the painting was once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who is known to have “improved on” the Rembrandts paintings in his collection. Could the rather unconvincing figure to the right of Simeon be his? It wouldn’t surprise me. 



An ambitious widow and a room full of Bols

For over a century four gigantic paintings by the Amsterdam painter Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) have hung in the Peace Palace in The Hague. Together with a fifth painting in the Provincial Executive of North Brabant they once formed an impressive series that hung in a town house in Utrecht. How they were originally hung and why there is no apparent thematic connection between them has long been a mystery. An intriguing question was who had commissioned such an ambitious and extravagant series of paintings? Recent research revealed many hitherto unknown facts, but has the mystery been solved completely?

The "Bolzaal" at the Peace Palace in The Hague

The “Bolzaal” at the Peace Palace in The Hague

An unwelcome gift

In 1892 the paintings by Bol together with a painting by the Utrecht painter Jan van Bijlert were donated to the Dutch State by the Royaards family of Utrecht who wished the Bol series to be displayed in the Rijksmuseum. The museum must have received the gift with mixed feelings: not only were the paintings in Bol’s late Flemish manner and not considered his best but their size made it impossible for them to be displayed: all are over four meters high and even wider, the largest is almost five meters in width. By comparison Rembrandt’s Nightwatch is 363 cm high and 437 cm wide.

The house at Nieuwegracht 6, Utrecht

The house at Nieuwegracht 6, Utrecht

Until recently not much was known about the ensemble. Given their style, Bol’s paintings were dated between 1655 and 1669, the year he retired from painting. Old Rijksmuseum catalogues only mention that the paintings were “a series of wall coverings consisting of five large compositions by Bol from a room in the house at 6 Nieuwegracht in Utrecht”. What precisely that “room” was or how the paintings were hung remained a mystery until in 1982 an exchange of letters concerning the gift was discovered in the museum’s correspondence “Copyboek”. One of the letters records that the paintings were then in the “large back room”, the best room of the house, which was 10 meters long, 6.7 meters wide and 4.3 meters high. They were built into the panelling and covered the walls completely except for narrow strips of panelling between them. The detailed description of their location in the room helped form an idea about the order in which the paintings might have been hung originally.

In Utrecht’s municipal archive an old ground-plan of the house was discovered which afforded an even better understanding of the room’s layout. It had three large windows facing east and overlooking the garden. The other walls had Bol’s paintings and the painting by Jan van Bijlert while the hearth was decorated with a painting by Utrecht artist Joost Cornelisz. Droochsloot.

Ground plan of Nieuwegracht 6. The red dot marks the room where the paintings hung. Municipal Archives, Utrecht

Ground plan of Nieuwegracht 6. The red dot marks the room where the paintings hung. Municipal Archives, Utrecht

What paintings can tell us

Nail marks, remnants of varnish and of paint from the original frame

Nail marks, remnants of varnish and of paint from the original frame

As luck would have it, various elements such as nail holes, remnants of old varnish and traces of paint from frames on the canvases were still intact; these are usually deemed unimportant by museum restorers and in most cases removed. Now that they were preserved they revealed how the canvases were stretched and framed. For example, vertical cuts were found which made it possible for the canvases to be slid between the ceiling’s beams. Today, the house is an office building and nothing of its original layout remains. The back part where the parlour was has been converted into an extension with an unattractive lowered ceiling but probes revealed that the 17th century beams with remnants of their original red paint are still present. Measurements confirmed that the cuts on the paintings fitted the distance between the beams exactly which provided vital clues about the order in which the paintings were hung originally.

A digital reconstruction of the back room

Digital reconstruction of the west and north wall. From left to right: the Finding of Moses, Solomon Receiving Gifts, the Pool at Bethesda (mantlepiece), Venus and Adonis

Another aspect that was fairly unique was the discovery that the paintings had started life much smaller. Bol had enlarged them at a later time by sewing new strokes of canvas onto them. The Aenaes Receiving his Armour and Weapons, the first painting, had been conceived as a smaller painting that was extended at the top to its present height. Next, the Finding of Moses and Abraham Receiving the Three Angels were painted. Again these had begun as smaller canvases that achieved their present height through added strokes of canvas. In the third and last phase the series was completed with the The Lord Appearing to Joshua and Solomon Receiving Gifts. At that time both the Aenaes and the Moses were widened with a stroke of canvas of about one meter on the left.

Ferdinand Bol, Aenaes Receiving his Weapons and Armour, image Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol, Aenaes Receiving his Weapons and Armour, image Rijksmuseum

Jan van Bijlert’s Venus and Adonis which hung to the right of the hearth on the north wall has not survived intact. The painting had been given to the Centraal Museum in Utrecht where, during restoration in 1934, it was deemed beyond repair. The complete painting was photographed but only a fragment was preserved. The surviving portion bears such similarity to the style of Van Bijlert’s more famous townsman Van Honthorst that it was attributed to him; Van Bijlert’s signature on the discarded section of the painting had apparently been forgotten. Since the light in this painting comes from the left and given its position to the left of the windows it would seem that the Venus and Adonis were not specifically painted for the room unless, perhaps, the painting had been in the house prior to Bol’s interventions and had been rehung.

Sadly the original hearth with Droochsloot’s painting has not survived. It was transferred to the town hall of Soest after 1892 but was lost when the building was demolished around 1960. The last trace of the painting was a Utrecht exhibition in 1892. The catalogue states that the painting was signed and dated 1643 and gives its measurements but the painting’s current whereabouts are not known. Droochsloot painted several copies of The Pool at Bethesda, none of which, however, have the correct measurements.

The commission

Love letter from Carel Martens to Jacoba Lampsins, Utrecht Municipal Archives

Love letter from Carel Martens to Jacoba Lampsins, Utrecht Municipal Archives

Since no correspondence or accounts regarding the commission have been preserved, the only way to find out who commissioned the series would be to determine who had lived in Nieuwegracht 6 in the late 1650s. Here, the municipal archives proved helpful. It turned out that the house had been sold in 1657 to a wealthy widow, Jacoba Lampsins, who had lost her husband Carel Martens eight years before. Martens, a wealthy lawyer and tax broker, had been a staunch Calvinist but also a passionate art collector. His ledger includes paintings by Ambrosius Boschaert, Joachim Wtewael and in 1645 “a figure in full” by Rembrandt. His wife continued to collect paintings after his death. Theirs must have been a very happy marriage: several love letters from Carel to Jacoba have survived.

Like her husband, Jacoba Lampsins was the daughter of an old and influential Calvinist family. Her ancestors belonged to the governing elite of Ostend in present day Belgium. She was born in the province of Zeeland where the family had moved to escape the violence and religious persecution of the catholic Spanish during the Eighty Years War. Given the status of her family it seems logical that Jacoba intended her three sons to climb the social ladder in Utrecht. Although a respected citizen and extremely wealthy thanks to the lucrative United East India Company shares owned by her family, more than mere money was needed to gain access to Utrecht’s upper crust, the regents, since important functions were limited to only a few of the ruling families. The only way for newcomers to become part of the elite was to marry into that circle.

Buying the town mansion on Nieuwegracht was the first step in that direction since this meant that Jacoba and her four children now lived among the wealthiest and most respectable burghers of Utrecht. She must have engaged Ferdinand Bol to decorate her parlour where she could receive distinguished guests in style and where she could present her three sons to their fullest advantage.

Digital reconstruction of the back room at Nieuwegracht 6

Digital reconstruction of the back room at Nieuwegracht 6. Left to right: The Lord Appearing to Joshua, Aenaeas Receiving his Armour and Weapons, Abraham Receiving the Three Angels and the Finding of Moses

Thematic unity?

At the time, ensembles of the magnitude of Bol’s could only be found in Amsterdam’s Town Hall and in the Sael van Oranje in Amalia van Solms’ palace at Huis ten Bosch in The Hague. There perfection was sought not only through the choice of painters but also by selecting subjects that were logically compatible and meaningful. At first sight, Jacoba’s paintings appeared to display no such unity or logic: for example the mythological Aeneas was wedged between two Old Testament scenes. It was therefore assumed that the paintings were not intended as a coherent ensemble and perhaps were even transported to the house on Nieuwegracht at a later time. The latter option seemed plausible: Ferdinand Bol painted almost exclusively for the Amsterdam elite and not for that of Utrecht. Cities reserved that right mostly for local artists.

Ferdinand Bol, The Finding of Moses, the largest paintings in the series. Bol was one o few painters who portrayed the women naked.

Ferdinand Bol, The Finding of Moses, the largest paintings in the series. Bol was one of few painters who portrayed the women naked. Image Rijksmuseum

In a 1992 article the art historian Albert Blankert assumed that Bol had recycled the paintings he sold to Jacoba since the Solomon Receiving Gifts was a far larger version of another painting. Blankert even suggested that Bol may have sold her bits and pieces lying unfinished in his studio from commissions that had failed to materialise.

Ferdinand Bol or Rembrandt, sketch for the Finding of Moses, Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol or Rembrandt, sketch for the Finding of Moses, Rijksmuseum

An interesting theory that seemed to be supported by Bol’s drawing for The Finding of Moses which, judging from its Rembrandtesque style, was conceived much earlier than the painting. The drawing was in fact attributed to Rembrandt for many years. What may be in favour of Blankert’s theory is that all Bol’s paintings, as we have seen, started out as smaller versions and were extended to fit the room’s proportions. Researchers have now contradicted this and have sought to discover a thematic unity on the basis of what we know about Jacoba’s biography and the fate of her ancestors.

Ferdinand Bol, Abraham Receiving the Three Angels, image Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol, Abraham Receiving the Three Angels, image Rijksmuseum

As we have seen, the first painting in the series was the Aeneas and just like Aeneas, Jacoba’s and her husband’s families had had to flee their home. Crucial in this analogy is that Ostend, home to her ancestors, was at the time compared with Troy (it was even known as Nova Troja) because of the long siege and bloody conquest by the Spanish. The same analogy fits the Old Testament stories of Moses and Abraham who were forced to leave their native countries too and became symbols for Southern Netherlandish refugees. In addition, these three main protagonists were destined to become founders of influential dynasties and therefore epitomise Jacoba’s social ambitions for her sons.

Cyrus or Solomon?

Ferdinand Bol, Solomon Receiving Gifts. Image Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol, Solomon Receiving Gifts (?). Image Rijksmuseum

During the last stages of the commission Jacoba added the Solomon and the Joshua. A possible explanation for these subjects, so researchers assume, could lie in a conflict between liberal and orthodox factions in Utrecht’s city council concerning the management of former catholic church goods. Any income generated from them was destined for charitable purposes but in practice the managerial tasks had fallen to a few wealthy families who used the profits for their own financial gain. Jacoba sided with the orthodox faction that advocated the return of the goods to the protestant church of Utrecht. This conflict, it has been argued, could be reflected in the story of Joshua: those who shamelessly enriched themselves could be compared with Achan who is guilty of plunder against God’s command. But Achan can barely be seen in Bol’s painting, if at all. The analogy must then have been by implication. In addition, the Solomon receiving gifts is now thought to depict King Cyrus who returned robbed temple treasures to the Jews. Since Bol painted a smaller version of this painting for Amsterdam’s Zuiderkerk, this would mean that such a highly unusual subject would be depicted there too. Has the painting been fitted to suit the theory?

Ferdinand Bol, the Lord Appears to Joshua. Image Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol, the Lord Appears to Joshua. Image Rijksmuseum

Researchers have further suggested that Jacoba’s standpoint in the conflict may also have been inspired by the fact that one of the leaders of the orthodox faction, Johan van Nellesteijn, was the guardian of the extremely wealthy regent’s daughter Aletta Pater. Whether this was behind it or not, in 1663 Jacoba’s eldest son married Aletta. The marriage proved lucrative in many ways as through it he and his brothers secured honourable functions that continued for many generations.

Remaining questions

While many mysteries concerning Bol’s five paintings seem to have been resolved, there are some aspects that still depend on conjecture such as why the paintings, originally conceived as smaller works, would have been enlarged to fit the walls in Jacoba’s parlour. Would not Jacoba, had she commissioned them for that specific room, ordered the correct sizes to begin with? The identification of the subject in one of the paintings (Cyrus or Solomon) also needs further consideration. For now the Rijksmuseum sticks to the traditional title of Solomon Receiving Gifts. Another matter needing more research is Van Bijlert’s Venus and Adonis, the function of which, perhaps because of its sadly trunkated state, is as yet unclear. In spite of admirable and very sound research, I believe that, although very close, this intriguing case has not quite been cracked.


Van Eikema Hommes investigated various attributes such as the nail holes, old varnish remnants and paint remnants from frames on the canvasses. These revealed how the canvasses have been stretched and framed. For example, she found cuts which ensured that the canvasses could be pushed between ceiling beams. In a prominent house along a canal in Utrecht Van Eikema Hommes found the ceiling beams that fitted the canvasses. Further research revealed that the widow Jacoba Lampsins had resided in this house during Bol’s time. The canvasses formed a spectacular decoration that covered all the walls of a large reception room.Read more at:
Digital reconstruction with the original setting of Bol’s paintings in the reception room of Jacoba Lampsins in Utrecht. At the time, the paintings would be standing directly on the ground under the ceiling beams. In the 18th century, they were pushed up between the beams, to create space for panelling belowRead more at:
Digital reconstruction with the original setting of Bol’s paintings in the reception room of Jacoba Lampsins in Utrecht. At the time, the paintings would be standing directly on the ground under the ceiling beams. In the 18th century, they were pushed up between the beams, to create space for panelling belowRead more at:

The fate of Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis (2) – the mystery

Rembrandt, the Noctornal Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1661/62 (?), National Museum, Stockholm

Even in its tragically truncated state Rembrandt’s Nocturnal Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis is, to quote the Dutch 19th century poet and painter Jan Veth: “stirring, exciting, overwhelming, astounding”. This is very much the impact the painting has on spectators today but its current museum setting does not really do Rembrandt’s boldest and most ambitious work justice. As we have seen in the previous post, it was painted to be seen from a distance and from below: in its original setting in one of the arches of the Town Hall galleries it hung six meters above floor level.

An impression of a gallery in the Town Hall by Pieter de Hoogh, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. Note the muted wall finishes (as opposed to today's white marble) and the doors opening to a lit stairwell (r.) and one of the council chambers (l.)

An impression of a gallery in the Town Hall by Pieter de Hooch, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. Note the muted wall finishes as opposed to today’s white marble (see previous post)

This setting explains the bold style in which it was painted for as Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten (who may very well quote his master) wrote:

You will assuredly regret it if, in paining a piece that has to hang high up, and has to be seen from a distance, you have wasted much time on small details. Don’t hesitate then to take brushes that fill a hand, and let every stroke [of the brush] stand on its own and [let] the colours remain in many places almost unmixed: for the height and thickness of the air will show many things merged together which should [seen closer] stand out separately.

Seeing the painting at eye level today in a museum setting it is clear that this is exactly what Rembrandt has done. The coarse brushwork with its thick impasto, the visual presence of smears of paint applied with palette knife and fingers, the mask-like faces, makes the painting appear almost “modern”.

Mask-like faces

Mask-like faces

Rembrandt’s commission for the Town Hall

For Rembrandt to secure such a prestigious commission from Amsterdam’s Burgomasters was by no means self-evident. At the time (1660) the city magistrates were less than enchanted with the painter and this had everything to do with his voluntary bankruptcy (cessio bonorum) of 1656. Rembrandt had been involved in some underhanded deals to prevent his creditors from claiming what was due to them which, although perhaps not strictly illegal, had tainted his reputation. In May of 1656, very shortly before the cessio bonorum, he went so far as to sign over the deed of his house on Breestraat (the current Rembrandt House Museum) to his son Titus, ostensibly in fulfilment of his deceased wife Saskia’s will but in fact a transparent attempt to keep the house out of the hands of his creditors. Again, this was not strictly illegal, but it prompted the magistrates to immediately implement new regulations preventing others from doing the same.

Cornelis de Graeff in 1660 by Artus Quellinus, Rijksmuseum

Cornelis de Graeff at the time of the Batavian commission (1660) by Artus Quellinus, Rijksmuseum

In addition, Rembrandt had failed to cultivate elite patronage such as the brothers De Graeff (as we have seen, Cornelis de Graeff was the prime mover behind the Batavian series for the town hall). Govert Flinck, for example, had taken great pains in cultivating his relationship with the De Graeffs and this may have been in part why he not only executed two paintings for mantelpieces in the Town Hall but was eventually awarded the commission for the whole Batavian series. But when (as we have seen) Govert Flinck died unexpectedly in February 1660 and the Burgomasters invited several painters to submit sketches for the Batavian series, Rembrandt’s reputation as an artist was apparently still sufficient for him to be considered to paint one painting.

We do not know what fee was offered to Rembrandt for the Claudius Civilis but it stands to reason that he could not demand his customary high prices and that bargaining was out of the question. Flinck would have received 1000 guilders for each of his paintings, Lievens received 1200 guilders for his Brinio; it is therefore likely that Rembrandt’s fee would have been around that course.

Rembrandt’s interpretation of the Nocturnal Conspiracy

Rembrandt, Samson's Wedding feast, 1638, Gemäldegalerie Dresden

Rembrandt, Samson’s Wedding feast, 1638, Gemäldegalerie Dresden

Already in 1641 the Leiden painter Philips Angel in his address on Saint Luke’s Day praised Rembrandt for the careful study and thought he gave to the depiction of history scenes. He singled out Samson’s Wedding Feast (1638) which, he said, was a prime example of how not only a Bible passage (Judges, 14, 10) was translated into paint but the painting also showed that Rembrandt had studied other sources in order to faithfully record how wedding feasts were conducted in the past, for instance by showing the wedding guests reclining, not seated, at the festive table. This “diligent spirit” (kloecke Geest) as Angel called it, had not deserted Rembrandt when he received is brief for the Batavian scene he was to paint for the Town Hall, the crucial start of the Batavian Revolt. His rendition is based on Tacitus’ Histories where it says:

Civilis collected at one of the sacred groves, ostensibly for a banquet, the chiefs of the nation and the boldest spirits of the lower class. When he saw them warmed with the festivities of the night, he began by speaking of the renown and glory of their race, and then counted the wrongs and the oppressions which they endured, and all the other evils of slavery. Having been listened to with great approval, he bound the whole assembly with barbarous rites and the national forms of oath.

“Warming with the festivities”

The text under Tempesta’s print (see below) makes no mention of “barbaric rites” or “national forms of oath”, it merely states that Claudius Civilis “took their oath”. Rembrandt, however, stuck to Tacitus; what Tacitus called barbaro ritu he translated by showing the tribesmen making their oaths by touching their own swords to the wide, uplifted blade held by Civilis who is therefore easily identified as the tall man behind the table. While the others are engaged in the oath, one man on the right, perhaps a “bold spirit of the lower classes”, is happily grinning at the glass in front of him, still in the act of “warming with the festivities”. Elsewhere Tacitus had mentioned the fact that Claudius was blind in one eye and the other Town Hall painters (as Tempesta and others before them) had therefore discretely portrayed him in profile showing the side of his face with the good eye but Rembrandt makes him look at us directly so that his disfigurement clearly shows. With his rough appearance and strange ornate hat Rembrandt’s Claudius looks for all the world like a barbaric warlord.

Rembrandt originally used dark blue pigments such as in the hat and some of the gowns. Because he used the cheaper smalt (as opposed to the expensive lapis lazuli, used a.o. by Vermeer) these blues have faded over time

The composition

The scene depicted is nocturnal but it is still possible to see the events evolve thanks to a light source hidden behind one of the figures in front of the table as well as light powerfully reflected from the white table-cloth which is sufficient to illuminate all the figures more or less strongly from below. Rembrandt must have kept in mind how high his painting was to hang in a (as we have seen) rather dim corner and by implementing these light sources, how the legibility of the scene could be enhanced.


Rembrandt. The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (recto). Pen and pencil, brown ink on paper, 19,6 x 18 cm. Staatliche Grafische Sammlung, München, Germany

Very interesting is a drawing that is in itself an unusual document as it is sketched on the back of a funeral card. The text on the card has not survived completely but another copy was found among the papers of notary Sebastiaan van der Piet so that it could be reconstructed. It reads that on Tuesday 25 October 1661:

Munich drawing verso

Munich drawing verso

You are asked to attend the funeral of
Wife of
Mother of
at the Nieuwe-zijdts Achter Burgwal near the Lutheran
Church, at the Hey-bruggetje at 10 o’clock. As a friend
of the house; come!

The rectangle shows approximately how drastic the original painting was cut down.

The rectangle shows approximately how drastically the original painting was cut down.

Long believed to have been a preparatory drawing, the Munich drawing is now thought to show how the painter saw the composition at a certain stage of the creative process. For instance, in the drawing the table is shorter on the left than in the finished painting and Claudius is seen standing next to it whereas in the painting he is stationed behind it. Rembrandt must have realised that to offset Claudius as the central figure of the group he needed the light source coming from the white tablecloth and therefore extended the table to the left, thereby transferring the oath swearing with swords from taking place next to the table to the table itself in the painting. In the drawing it looks as if the figures on the sides were enlarged and that the steps receded into the vast space which must have given the painting an astounding sense of perspective and depth especially when viewed from below. But most startling of all, comparing the painting today with the work drawing, is the realisation that two-thirds of the painting is missing.

What happened?

The page from Fokkens' 1662 book

The relevant page from Fokkens’ 1662 book, Special Collections Library, University of Amsterdam

We know that Rembrandt’s majestic Claudius Civilis once did hang in the Town Hall, next to Lievens’ Brinio, thanks to a description of Amsterdam, a 17th century Baedeker, published by M. Fokkens in July 1662. After elaborately describing the story, Fokkens ends his paragraph: “and this is depicted in the first painting [of the series] by Rembrandt”. But by the time the Archbishop and Elector of Cologne visited the city, 24 September 1662, Flinck’s sketch of the scene, worked up by Jürgen Ovens, had replaced Rembrandt’s masterpiece as we have seen in the previous post. It is impossible to know with certainty why Rembrandt’s canvas was taken down and not reinstated. I let follow a few theories and leave you to decide which is the most plausible.

1. The contract with Van Ludick

One clue might come from a contract Rembrandt concluded on 28 August 1662 with one of his most persistent creditors, Lodewijk van Ludick. According to the third stipulation in the contract Rembrandt promised “that Van Ludick shall be entitled to one-quarter of all that the aforementioned van Rhijn shall gain from the painting delivered to the town hall, and as much as he, van Rhijn, may claim should he further profit from altering that painting, or otherwise benefit in whatever way.” This has been taken to mean that the painting had already been taken down for Rembrandt to implement changes, but this need not be so since the operative word is “should”. In any case, Rembrandt was highly optimistic in thinking that, should any alterations be demanded, he would get paid for them as it appears that the painters involved in the project received one agreed fee for their work and not a guilder more. There is the example where the painter Jan van Bronckhorst, who had had to alter his painting for another room in the Town Hall, received less than the agreed fee on account of having to adapt it. Since Rembrandt’s work was never reinstated it could well be that he did not get paid at all.

2. Objections to contents

Tempesta's Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1612

Tempesta’s Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1612, Rijksmuseum

Did the Burgomasters object to the contents of the painting and did it therefore have to come down? In style and “decorum” it was certainly vastly different from the other paintings in the Batavian series. After all, Claudius Civilis was seen as the prefiguration of William of Orange who initiated the revolt that led to the liberation of the seven Dutch Provinces from Spanish oppression. Rembrandt’s hero does not conform to the pictorial tradition shown in Tempesta’s print (above) in which the Batavians courteously shake hands to seal their alliance against the Romans. Instead, here was a ruffian with an ugly blind eye and not the civilised leader the church-going Protestant Amsterdam burghers could mirror themselves on. Moreover, the raising of the swords, the mysterious chalice raised, may have looked to them “barbaric”. Had Rembrandt taken Tacitus too literally? But why then had the Burgomasters waited until the painting was put up in the arch? Had they not seen it when it was first brought into the Town Hall?

3. Depressed versus semi-circular arches

Another theory, first opted by A. Noack, suggests that Rembrandt’s drawing is rounded off above with a depressed arch whereas the arch in which the painting was to be hung is semi-circular. In Jacob van Campen’s original design for the Town Hall the lunettes were indeed topped by depressed arches but when the design of the gallery was altered by Daniël Stalpaert, these became semi-circular. Noack suggests that Rembrandt may have based his painting on the wrong construction drawing. Interesting, but unlikely. It was customary that artists participating in such commissions were provided with primed canvases – surely Rembrandt would have received the correct size and shape of canvas.

4. Stylistic clashes with the other paintings in the series

The composition of the other paintings of the Batavian series is pyramidal (see previous post for examples) and the figures fill the canvases whereas Rembrandt’s figures are arranged more or less on the central horizontal plane. Most of the space is taken up by the vast open hall and the forest which can be glimpsed through its arches which would have harmonised well with the then sandstone coloured surrounds, making the painting an integral part of the architecture of the gallery so that the figures in it seem to be actors in a vast theatrical setting. But given the vast architecture in the painting, the figures may have been deemed too small to be seen from a distance. By comparison some of Jordaens’ figures are almost three meters high. There may also have been objections to Rembrandt’s coarse style which contrasts with the more refined classicist paintings by Lievens and Jordaens.

5. Water damage

A reason for the painting’s removal that has not been considered may have been the persistent problems with damp and leakages. A slate roof had been planned but was not put in until 1662. Before that (from 1659) tiles were provisionally used. This inadequate protection caused serious problems of damp in the walls which must also have affected the canvases and indeed during the last restoration of the paintings water damage was clearly visible in all the canvases except Jordaens David and Goliath which dates from after the final slate roofing. Was the damage to Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis so great that it had to come down even if the painting had hung in the gallery only briefly (anywhere between 25 October 1661, the date on the funeral card, and several days prior to the visit of the Archbishop of Cologne on 24 September 1662)?

6. Rembrandt’s stubbornness

If the painting had come down to be altered – for whatever reason – soon after the publication of Fokkens’ book in July 1662 or around the contract with Van Ludick in August, the Burgomasters were on a tight schedule since the visit of the Archbishop and Elector of Cologne was expected in September. If Rembrandt had begun negotiations over the price for these alterations as the Van Ludick contract may suggest (which in any case was useless as we have seen) there may have been more delay than the Burgomasters could afford and moreover, by failing to cultivate important patrons, the artist did not have enough supporters in the right places when obstacles such as this arose. In that same year he was also engaged in painting his masterpiece The Syndics and he was not one who liked to be pressured as we have seen in the story about his Genoese commission.

From Amsterdam to Sweden

Cosimo de' Medici ca. 1665 by Justus Sustermans, Palazzo Pitti (detail)

Cosimo ca. 1665 by Justus Sustermans, Palazzo Pitti (detail)

Whatever happened, down Claudius Civilis came and it was not returned to its niche in the gallery. In all likelihood it was Rembrandt himself who cut the painting down to its present size possibly in the hope that he could still sell the central fragment. It is assumed that he kept the painting in his studio on Rozengracht until is death in 1669 but when the future Cosimo de’ Medici III, on the morning of 29th December 1667, knocked on Rembrandt’s door the Florentine’s journal records that the painter had no finished works to show. But Rembrandt possibly still had the Claudius Civilis and he was not one to turn down a client when the opportunity arose to sell a painting. Did he no longer have it? Or was he still in the process of revising it? X-rays made in Stockholm in 1956 have shown that, for example, the face of the person sitting behind the table was subsequently overpainted with the figure standing with his back towards it on our side of the table. These changes may well have been implemented during the creation process but they also could have occurred after the painting was reduced to its present size.

Be it as it may, on 25 August 1798 a wealthy Swedish widow bequeathed a large painting to the Swedish Royal Academy of the Arts in Stockholm. Tradition in her family had it that the work was by Rembrandt and that it depicted a scene taken from Czech history (The solemn oath between Jan Zizka, Leader of the Hussites and the Calixtines, to defend and preserve the eucharist).

Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis shown in the painting “Gustav III’s visit to the Royal Academy of Arts”, 1782, by Elias Martin, National Museum Stockholm

A treasure hunt at Amsterdam’s Royal Palace

Almost a century later, in 1891, the Amsterdam archivist Nicolaes de Roever discovered that Rembrandt had produced a large painting for the Amsterdam Town Hall showing the nocturnal meal of Claudius Civilis and the Batavians, something that had until then escaped notice. De Roever suspected that the painting may still be in the building on Dam Square, which in the mean time had become the Royal Palace, and sought and obtained royal permission to try to find it. On 18 March 1892 De Roever, together with a number of interested parties, searched the building, but they found nothing. Present at the search was Karl Madsen, Danish art historian and Rembrandt expert. Madsen had come to suspect that, based on De Roever’s archival discovery, the fragment in Sweden may be none other than the lost Claudius Civilis. He subsequently connected the fragment with the drawing in Munich which had until then been thought to represent Christ’s circumcision. The painting is now on permanent loan to the Stockholm National Museum and has come to the Rijksmuseum during the Stockholm museum’s refurbishments, possibly (hopefully) until 2018.

What happened to the two-thirds of the painting that had been ruthlessly cut off? Since canvas was expensive in the 17th century it is quite possible that it was reused, either by Rembrandt or by other painter(s). With advancing technology it may be possible in the future to identify the lost strips of canvas from the Claudius Civilis.

What might have been

In 2011 the Royal Palace organised an exhibition on the paintings for the Batavian series on the occasion of their recent restoration. As part of the exhibition a projection was made of what Rembrandt’s masterpiece would have looked like hanging in the galleries. Compiled of the fragment in Stockholm and the Munich drawing, it gave an impression – albeit a faint one – of how that majestic painting would have looked in July 1662 when Fokkens saw it.

Selected sources:

  1. M. Fokkens, Beschrijvinge der wijdt vermaarde Koop-Stadt Amsterdam, 1662.
  2. N. de Roever, “Een Rembrandt op ‘t stadhuis”, Oud Holland, 1891.
  3. I.H. van Eeghen, “Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis and the funeral ticket”, Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, vol. 25, 1956.
  4. Seymour Slive, Rembrandt and his Critics, 1630-1730, 1953.
  5. Paul Crenshaw, Rembrandt’s Bankruptcy, 2006.