“In all their glory”: Amsterdam civic guards portraits – (2) Jan van Dyk and the paintings in the Town Hall

Civic guards did not cease to exist in The Netherlands in their traditional form until 1903, but with Amsterdam’s economy waning during the last quarter of the 17th century, the civic guards’ golden age of sumptuous banquets, silver brocaded costumes and group portraits painted by the great masters was over. The headquarters of the three civic guards companies with their magnificently decorated Great Halls were given a different destination and the many group portraits reverted to the city while some were sold at auction. In a gradual process starting in 1683, paintings were transferred to the Town Hall. Group portraits from the Voetboogdoelen on the Singel were the first to be moved from their original location although not all at once: two of them were still seen in situ in 1753. Some of the paintings were sold at auction. The orphaned civic guards paintings satisfied two purposes: as appropriate decoration of the empty walls in the Town Hall and as a reminder of the glorious past.

That the paintings were welcomed at the Town Hall is shown by especially commissioned name plates listing the members in a specific civic guards painting. For instance, on 29 April 1687, one Jan Rosa is paid 84 guilders for “cleaning, painting, writing of names etc of and below the paintings in the War Council Room.” The oldest of the three name plates that have been preserved was made for Govaert Flinck’s civic guards portrait of 1648.

Name plate (after 1683) for Govaert Flinck's 1648 civic guards portrait, wood, black varnish, gilding, 44x274x17 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Name plate (after 1683) for Govaert Flinck’s 1648 civic guards portrait, wood, black varnish, gilding, 44x274x17 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Although there are several early books and documents on Amsterdam’s history, buildings, sites and institutions, tracking the whereabouts of civic guards group portraits in the 17th and 18th century is not easy. The most valuable of the contemporary descriptions are those by Gerard Schaep in an unpublished manuscript of 1653, the unpublished “Egerton Manuscript” of about the same time and, for our purpose, the book on the paintings in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, the Kunst- en historiekundige beschrijving en aanmerkingen over alle de schilderijen op het stadhuis te Amsterdam (Artistic and historical description and remarks on all paintings in Amsterdam’s Town Hall) by Jan Van Dyk, first published in 1758, on which the arrangement of civic guards paintings in the current exhibition in the Royal Palace (then the Town Hall) is based.

Title page of Jan van Dyk's book on the town hall, 1758

Title plate of Jan van Dyk’s “Beschryvinge”, 1758, image: Royal Palace Amsterdam

The Egerton Manuscript now in the British Library consists of watercolour copies of the group portraits in the Crossbowmen’s headquarters (Voetboogdoelen) commissioned by the guild’s governors. It is invaluable as the watercolours faithfully record the state of the paintings as they were in the mid-17th century. History has not been kind to them. Their original homes, the three headquarters of the civic guards companies, were, after all, not museums; the buildings were intensively used. Once the paintings left these buildings,  they were often ruthlessly reduced in size to fit into their new homes.

Copy of Rembrandt's "Night Watch" showing the 1715 cropping

Copy of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” showing the 1715 cropping. Image: Wikipedia

The story of Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), which was cropped on all sides to make it fit between two doors in the Small War Council Room at the Town Hall in 1715, is legendary but other paintings suffered even worse treatment. Aert Pietersz’ Civic Guards Meal of the Company of Pieter van Eck of 1604, for instance, only survives in three fragments as superimposing them on the watercolour copy in the Egerton manuscripts illustrates.

Another early painting, Cornelis Ketel’s Civic Guards Company of Captain Dirck Jacobsz Rosecrans en Lieutenant Pauw (1588), was reduced on all sides, particularly on the right where as much as 1.27 meters are thought to have been cut off.

Cornelis Ketel, Civic Guards Company of Captain Dirck Jacobsz Rosecrans en Lieutenant Pauw (1588), oil on canvas,  208x410 cm, Rijksmuseum. The men on the extreme right and left are only partially shown, a sign that the painting was cropped

Cornelis Ketel, Civic Guards Company of Captain Dirck Jacobsz Rosecrans en Lieutenant Pauw (1588), oil on canvas, 208×410 cm, Rijksmuseum. The men on the extreme right and left are only partially shown, a sign that the painting was cropped. The top of the flag missing as well as some of the feet suggests it was cropped above and below

Jan van Dyk (ca. 1690-1769) – the first professional restorer?

Jan van Dyk’s book on the Town Hall paintings is interesting for several reasons. With hardly any illustrations existing of the interior of the rooms of the building when it was still a functioning Town Hall, his book gives an idea about the paintings’ arrangement in 1758. Several paintings had been commissioned for the Town Hall, but with the city’s economy waning from the second half of the 17th century (as mentioned in earlier posts, the lunette paintings in the Town Hall’s galleries were never finished) paintings that had over time reverted to the city such as the civic guards portraits were moved to the Town Hall: a welcome opportunity to decorate the offices, halls and landings with portraits depicting men who had served the city honourably. The second edition of Van Dyk’s book, published posthumously in 1790, was intended to contain illustrations, but only two of them are known today. By that time the paintings must have been rehung as the civic guards paintings listed by Van Dyk in this room are not included.

In 1747 Van Dyk was employed by the city as restorer of the city’s paintings collection under the painter Jacob de Wit and he continued in this function until his death in 1769. As such he is sometimes seen as “the first professional restorer”, a claim that seems supported by his portrait by Jan ten Compe (1754) that shows him sitting at an easel while in the process of cleaning a landscape painting. But was he really?

Jan van Dyk portrayed by  Jan ten Compe in 1754, oil on panel, 35.5x30.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Jan van Dyk portrayed by Jan ten Compe in 1754, oil on panel, 35.5×30.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Divisions were not as clear-cut then as they are now. Certainly Van Dyk stood at a turning point in art history: on the one hand he was a typical exponent of his time as an all-round 18th century artist; on the other he stood at the basis of the independent profession of restorer as we know it today. Significantly, perhaps, his profession on his death certificate is given as “artist”.

Schloss Oranienstein, Dietz an der Lahn, Germany, built 1672-1684

Schloss Oranienstein, Dietz an der Lahn, Germany, built 1672-1684

Van Dyk had been trained as a carpenter and gilder and may have left Amsterdam in 1707 to accompany his master to the House of Orange’s baroque castle Oranienstein in Dietz, Germany. There he gradually worked himself up to become court painter, restorer, connoisseur, appraiser and drawing instructor. Between 1710 and 1716 he executed eleven ceiling paintings in Oranienstein, the only paintings by him that survive today. They are competent but lack artistic merit. Although not a very successful artist himself, he nevertheless appears to have enjoyed the appreciation of the court which enabled him to secure such an important commission and in 1735 he was appointed overseer of all palaces and public building in the counties of Diez and Beilstein by the future Stadtholder Prince Willem IV.

Back in Amsterdam, Van Dyk came to devote more and more of his time t0 restorations, in particular cleanings, and from his writings it appears that he certainly did not regard the work as inferior. He saw it as his mission to rescue “badly mistreated paintings” from the “claws” of the “Know-nothings of Art”. He also remained in the court’s employ: during his tenure as city restorer he was also commissioned to restore the paintings in the Hall of Orange in The Hague about which he published a book entitled Beschrijving der schilderijen in de Oranjezaal van het Vorstelijk Huys in ‘t Bosch (Description of the paintings in the Hall of Orange of the Noble Huys ten Bosch), 1769.

Van Dyk and the civic guards paintings in the Town Hall

Van Dyk’s book on the Town Hall covers all the paintings located there in 1758, including chimney pieces by (among others) Bol and Flinck, ceiling and wall paintings and the lunette paintings in the galleries, but he clearly thought the civic guards paintings of special importance. The men depicted in these portraits, he writes in his foreword, “are people from our city who have not only girded the sword but many of them did not spare themselves to cast the Spanish Yoke from their shoulders”, a reference to the Eighty Years Revolt of the Dutch Provinces against Spain which had ended in 1648.

In his foreword Van Dyk deplores the compromised condition of the civic guards group paintings in his care: “Many old Jewels of Art, ruined by bunglers’ hands, or better: ignorant claws, […] that are so abraided that one can see the wooden panel through the paint.” He calls these “bunglers” “evil spirits” and “bastards” and on one occasion expresses gratitude towards his employer, Mayor Pieter Rendorp, for having rescued three civic guards group paintings that had suffered damage at the time of their sale. The historian Jan Wagenaar also remarks on this incident in his books on the city published between 1760-1767, stating that the damage had occurred at the time of the public auction of the paintings “or some other public gathering”. Not only, says Van Dyk, did these “evil spirits” ruin “the best pieces” but instead of restoring them, they had made their condition “far worse”; it seemed as if they had “conspired with Satan to completely destroy the much loved ancient art works and so one is justified in crying instead of O Tempera, O Mores: O Times, O Bunglers!”

Badly abraided and overpainted 16th century civic guards portrait, painter unknown, Schutters van een Rot voetboogschutters , oil on panel, 112x204 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Badly abraided and overpainted 16th century civic guards portrait, painter unknown, oil on panel, 112×204 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Unfortunately Van Dyk gives no insight in his own restoration methods or the solvents he uses to clean paintings. Concerning Rembrandt’s Night Watch he writes that he has removed “the many oils and varnishes applied to it over time” so that the men can once more be seen. In particular he is pleased with the fact that the names on the shield on the right are once more legible so that the members of the company can be identified. He erroneously assumed that these names were written by Rembrandt himself: the shield is a late 17th addition by an unknown artist. Van Dyk describes Rembrandt’s masterpiece in glowing terms:

Rembrandt, "Night Watch", 1642, oil on canvas, today measuring 379.5x453.5 m, Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt, Civic guards of District II of the Kloveniers, led by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, known as the “Night Watch”, 1642, oil on canvas, today measuring 379.5×453.5 m, Rijksmuseum

This painting is admirable because of its great force and its brushwork; it is [like] a strong sunlight, the paint very thickly applied, and it is remarkable that with such forceful brushwork nevertheless such great refinement could have taken place, because on the embroidery on the Lieutenant’s uniform the paint stands up so high that one could grate nutmegs on it and Amsterdam’s emblem held by a lion [is] so neat and delicate as if it were finely painted. The face of the drummer seen up closely is exceptionally nicely done. It is to be regretted that this piece has been so much reduced in order for it to be placed between two doors.

Another painting, the Officers and other Civic Guards of District XI in Amsterdam under Captain Reijnier Reael and Lieutenant Cornelis Michielsz Blaeuw (dated 1637 on the painting), begun by the Haarlem painter Frans Hals and, after Hals left Amsterdam abruptly never to return, finished by Pieter Codde, elicits from him the following comments that inadvertently launched the painting’s nickname, the Meagre Company, by which it has become known ever since:

This painting is of entirely different nature as all the others because when one looks at it closely it appears as if it is painted immediately on the canvas without grounding. Because it is painted very rapidly [it is] very beautifully drawn, the poses of the figures are so wonderful as is the entire composition [and] the funny thing is that they are all so thin and withered that one would be justified in calling them the Meagre Company. The ensign [the figure on the extreme left] has such a cheerful countenance that his face convinces everyone that he must have been quite a merrymaker. The piece contains thirteen figures but without names.

Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, the "Meagre Company", date inscribed "Ao 1637", oil on canvas, 209x 429 cm, Rijksmuseum

Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, the “Meagre Company”, date inscribed “Ao 1637”, oil on canvas, 209×429 cm, Rijksmuseum

Indeed, there are no inscriptions on the painting and no name plate for this painting has survived. Attempts have been made to identify the men in the Meagre Company by comparing their faces with contemporary portraits of known sitters, though not convincingly. There has been a suggestion, for instance, that Van Dyk’s “merrymaker” could be Nicolaes van Bambeeck, portrayed by Rembrandt about a decade later.

The second person from the right has been very tentatively identified as Jean Pellicorne, of whom two other contemporary portraits exist.

A “peculiar piece”

On 17th century civic guards portraits the men are generally shown in an interior or posing in an urban setting in front of a building associated with that particular company. One exceptional civic guards portrait that, as far as I know, is the only one situated outside Amsterdam, is that by Nicolaes Lastman, brother of the more famous Pieter. The painting was completed by Adriaen van Nieulandt in 1623. It originally hung in the Crossbowmen’s headquarters on the Singel where it was noted by Gerard Schaep in 1653 as hanging in the “other upper chamber, called Saint George”. In Van Dyk’s time, 1758, it hung in the Large War Council Room at the Town Hall.

Nicolaes Lastman and Adriaen van Nieuland, Civic guards company under Captain Abraham Boom and Lieutenant Oetgens van Waveren, 1623, oil on canvas, 245x572 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Nicolaes Lastman and Adriaen van Nieulandt, Civic guards company under Captain Abraham Boom and Lieutenant Oetgens van Waveren, 1623, oil on canvas, 245×572 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Van Dyk notes:

There is something peculiar about this piece in that these persons apparently have been portrayed in front of an earthwork that can be seen in the distance, so that one cannot just guess, but certainly believe, that these men have been in the Field, and probably did something praiseworthy near or in front of an earthwork.

Detail showing the now illegible piece of paper, the earthwork and man practicing (?) in the background

Detail showing the now illegible piece of paper, the earthwork and the men once more in the background

As usual he complains that “imprudent cleaning” has erased the text that was no doubt written on the paper painted in the foreground. He is unable, therefore, to ascertain who these men were, what their mission was, or who painted them.

As to the “peculiarity” of the painting, Van Dyk was absolutely right as already noted by Schaep in 1653:

Ao 1623 […] 9 or 10 persons from head to toe, being Captain Abram Boom, Lieutenant Lut. Ant. Oetges. Which piece was started by Lasman [Nicolaes Lastman] but due to his death was completed by Nuland [Adriaen van Nieulandt]. This company had been outside the city in a garrison in Swoll [Zwolle].

After the Twelve Year Truce had ended, the fighting between Spain and the Provinces had resumed  and many guardsmen answered the call to help defend other cities. The men in Lastman’s and Van Nieulandt’s painting were volunteers who, led by Captain Abraham Boom, had marched to Zwolle in 1622 for that purpose. The guards had been recruited from various Districts of the Amsterdam Crossbowmen’s company: Captain Boom (the man in black), for instance, was Captain in District IX while the Lieutenant (here holding a partisan) was lieutenant in District XVII. The group portrait was clearly meant to commemorate the campaign. The men are not depicted realistically in the sense that their costumes in the painting were modeled on the Wapenhandelinghe, a military handbook with copper engravings by Jacob de Gheyn II published in 1607. In the background on the right we see the men once more, grouped close to the earthwork with their flag.

(Partial) copies

The mission of the volunteers was apparently so memorable to the participants that they commissioned at least three individual portraits copied from it for their private homes. One of these was painted by the young Delft painter Antonie Palamedesz and is dated 1626. It represents a young Willem Backer who would later be the head of one of Amsterdam’s Regent families. Another partial copy, of the second man from the right, is tentatively attributed to Adriaen van Nieulandt who finished the original group portrait. A note on its back identifies the guard as Ferdinand van Schuylenburgh. The copies differ from the group portrait in that their costumes have been slightly updated, particularly their collars, and that they show more of the landscape around Zwolle. A third copy, portraying Captain Abraham Boom, is known to exist as well.

An interesting small copy of the Kloveniers civic guards of District V led by Captain Cornelis de Graeff and Lieutenant Hendrick Lauwrensz painted by Jacob Adriaensz Backer (1642) shows two young boys who were no doubt added upon the request of the unknown guardsman who commissioned it. In Van Dyk’s time the original hung in the Small War Council Room and it caused some confusion as people believed it to be by Rubens. Van Dyk correctly gives Backer as the artist who painted it.

Werner van den Valckert, “Wapenhandelinghe” and the Prince of Orange

The Wapenhandelinghe engraved by Jacob de Gheyn II (1565-1629) plays a role in several civic guards group paintings including Rembrandt’s Night Watch. It is also explicitly present in another early civic guards painting: Werner van den Valckert’s Civic Guards Company of Captain Coenraetsz Burgh and Lieutenant Pieter Evertsz Hulft, signed and dated on a lance “Warner v. Valckert f: 1625”, and also dated on the mantlepiece: “ANNO 1625”. In spite of the signature Van Dyk, who in all probability was not familiar with this painter, attributes it to “Moreelse” (the Utrecht painter Paulus Moreelse) which he does with several other civic guards portraits the painters of which are no longer known to him.

Werner Jacobsz van den Valckert, Civic Guards Company of Captain Albert Coenraetsz Burgh and Lieutenant Pieter Evertsz Hulft, 1625, oil on panel, 169.5x 270 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Werner Jacobsz van den Valckert, Civic Guards Company of Captain Albert Coenraetsz Burgh and Lieutenant Pieter Evertsz Hulft, 1625, oil on panel, 169.5x 270 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Werner van de Valckert (1585-1627) was a renowned painter and engraver in his time but already in Van Dyk’s time all but forgotten. Like most Amsterdam painters he lived and worked in the newly developed district outside Saint Anthony’s city gate, the Sint Anthoniebreestraat, and it is assumed that most civic guards portraits were painted in this district. What strikes one about his group portrait is its composition which is compact, yet each individual (who would separately have paid for their inclusion in the group portrait) is given ample space and attention. Prominently in the center of the composition is ensign Arent Willemsz van Buyl, whose figure divides the composition in two. The sergeant on the right hands a note with the names of the sitters to his captain, a painterly device that connects the two sides of the composition.

Detail with map

Detail with map

Detail with "Wapenhandelinghe"

Detail with “Wapenhandelinghe”

A page from the "Wapenhandelinghe" by Jacob de Gheyn (II), published 1607

A page from the “Wapenhandelinghe” by Jacob de Gheyn (II), published 1607, The Hague, Royal Library

Captain Burgh and his Lieutenant, the brewer Hulft, are the only ones shown seated, which confirms the customary hierarchy. The men were entrusted with guarding and keeping order in District VIII of the Crossbowmen’s company. Burgh indicates the area on a map. The officers on the left thereby seem to emphasise that they will guarantee the continued security in their District. One of the men on the right confirms the group’s military prowess: he points emphatically at a copy of De Gheyn’s Wapenhandelinghe. The book had been commissioned by Prince Maurits of Orange so that its inclusion in the painting also confirmed the men as supporters of the Prince, as does the Stadtholder’s escutcheon on the flag. This is not surprising as both the Captain and his Lieutenant owed their appointments as members of the city council to the Prince.

In general it is unclear on what occasion Amsterdam civic guards portraits were commissioned. In Haarlem, for instance, it was customary for militia officers, who served according to a rota, to have their portraits painted as a group when they stood down from their posts but in Amsterdam this practice did not exist. Quite possibly Maurits’ death in 1625 may have initiated the commission for this group portrait.

“In all their glory” – a different perspective

In 1650 the young Stadtholder Willem II converged thousands of cavalry on Amsterdam following a bitter power struggle with the Province of Holland and the powerful Regents of Amsterdam. The town council, hastily summoned by Burgomaster Bicker, decided to “mobilise the citizenry.” These, “amply supplied with shot, gunpowder and lunt, spread out to all the city gates.” Among them were 340 members of the peat-carriers’ guild, less well-off citizens who, unlike the civic guards, could not afford fire arms and were therefore supplied with hitting and stabbing weapons as is stated on the contemporary frame: “In the year sixteen hundred forty ten. Then the Prince’s forces in front of Amsterdam were seen. Anno 1652” (top) and “Our guild three hundred forty strong, both young and old in years. The government supplied us as well with broad-swords and long spears” (bottom). “It was a miracle how eager everyone was to defend the city”, observed the Hollantze Mercurius in its 1651 annual overview of notable events in Europe.

M. Engel, The arming of the peat-carriers' guild in 1650, oil on panel, 565x176 cm, Amsterdam Museum

M. Engel, The arming of the peat-carriers’ guild in 1650, oil on panel, 565×176 cm, Amsterdam Museum

The attack was repulsed and the peat-carriers, clearly proud of their role as defenders of the city’s freedom, had themselves immortalised in 1652 posing on Dam Square with their peaks and swords. Unlike the distinguished members of the civic guards who could afford master painters like Van der Helst and Rembrandt, the peat-carriers had to make do with the obscure painter “M. Engel” by whom no other paintings are known. The painting would never have been deemed worthy to decorate the hallowed offices in the Town Hall and Jan van Dyk never saw it, although he would certainly have appreciated their heroic stance. Stiff and primitive in its execution as the painting may be, certainly when measured against the artistic standard of the day, it nevertheless leaves us a unique record of the brave peat-carriers at a crucial episode in Amsterdam’s history. “In All their Glory” is certainly a phrase covering more than one meaning.

Note:

Exhibition "In all their glory", Royal Palace Amsterdam, until 31 August 2014

Exhibition “In All Their Glory”, Summer exhibition at the Royal Palace Amsterdam until 31 August 2014

The exhibition “In All Their Glory” is on view at Amsterdam’s Royal Palace. Informative website here. It offers a reconstruction of the Large and Small War Council Rooms with their civic guards paintings  as Jan van Dyk saw them in 1758. The reconstruction is largely limited to the Large War Council Room; a reconstruction of the Small War Council Room is problematic since Van Dyk’s descriptions of the paintings is not always clear and some of the paintings are meanwhile lost.

See also part (1) for the early history of Amsterdam’s civic guards portraits, here.

Relevant sources (selected):

  1. Schaep, Gerard (Gerrit Pietersz) (manuscript), “Record and list of the public paintings kept at the three civic guard halls: as I have found them, after my return to Amsterdam in February 1653”, Amsterdam City Archives. I have used the transcription in Pieter Scheltema, “De schilderijen in de drie doelens te Amsterdam, beschreven door G. Schaep, 1653,” in Aemstel´s oudheid of gedenkwaardigheden van Amsterdam, vol. 7 (1885). Unfortunately Scheltema was not able to decypher the entire text
  2. Jan van Dyk, Kunst- en historie-kundige beschryving van alle de schilderyen op het stadhuis van Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1758
  3. Jan Wagenaar, Amsterdam in zyne opkomst, aanwas, geschiedenissen, voorregten, koophandel, gebouwen, kerkenstaat, schoolen, schutterye, gilden en regeeringe, beschreeven, 1760–67
  4. Jan Six  and W. Del Court, “De Amsterdamsche Schutterstukken”, Oud Holland 21 (1903), which offers a description of the Egerton Manuscript (BL MS Eg. 983)
  5. W.F.H. Oldewelt, “Eenige posten uit de thesauriersmemorialen van Amsterdam van 1664 tot 1764”, Oud Holland 51 (1934)
  6. J. Bos, “Capitaele stucken. De lotgevallen van zeven belangrijke schilderijen uit het bezit van de stad”, Jaarboek Amstelodamum 88 (1996)

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Gustav Rau’s troubled legacy comes to Groningen

The exhibition “Natural beauty – from Fra Angelico to Monet” at the Groninger Museum

What is it about art that brings out the worst in some people? The answer is, sadly, that its monetary value increasingly takes over from its artistic and emotional merit. On 7 December 2013 the exhibition Natural Beauty, from Fra Angelico to Monet opened at the Groninger Museum. The exhibition shows part of the collection of the excentric German millionaire Gustav Rau (1922-2002) who, over a period of four decades, built a collection consisting of 786 paintings, sculptures and artifacts spanning six centuries. Unintended by Rau who designated his collection to be sold after his death to benefit charity, the collection has been the subject of legal and even political battles for years, starting during Rau’s lifetime and continuing until today.

Two passions

Gerard Dou, The Cook, 1660-5, 29 x 23.2 cm, oil on panel, purchased 1958

Gustav Rau was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for the prosperous Stuttgart family business in auto parts. At the outset of World War II he was drafted into the Wehrmacht but managed to escape to London where he was held captive as a German national. Having returned to Stuttgart after the war, he started to collect art at the age of 38, his first purchase being Gerard Dou’s small trompe l’oeil painting of a cook.

Soon after he turned forty Rau began studying medicine, specialising in tropical diseases. He had never loved the family business and had only studied economics to please his parents. At forty-eight, a year after his father died, he sold the family business for DM 400 million (USD 110 million) and found his true calling in Africa, eventually settling in Zaire (now Congo-Kinshasa), building a clinic in Ciriri where he lived in spartan conditions. Not surprisingly, his great example was Dr. Albert Schweitzer. But corruption ran rife in Zaire with in its wake appalling poverty and it was not easy to accomplish much of anything there. Perhaps art was an antidote to all this. Every few months Rau traveled to Europe where, in his ankle-high hiking boots and khakis he was a frequent and memorable sight in auction rooms.

Rau, a devout Christian, never married and died childless. It seems almost impossible to reconcile the dichotomy in the man’s character: on the one hand a passionate art collector, spending millions on priceless artworks; on the other equally passionately dedicated to alleviating suffering in a small corner of Africa. Neither was an affectation. In both, it seems, he was equally sincere. When it came to art, after having been repeatedly duped in the early years of buying, Rau selected each work personally, shunning professional advice. The economist in him made that he was rarely tempted to offer more than the price he had intended to pay. He did not focus on a single area of art or attempt an academic survey of period or theme. Each individual work triggered his personal esthetic and emotional response and each acquisition was bought for the pleasure of looking at it. Only: he did that very rarely. Everything remained stored in a duty-free warehouse in Embrach, Switzerland for decades.

If there is any unifying theme running through the collection it has to be the human face, not surprising perhaps for a great humanitarian. One feels the humanity in the characters in his collection, not only in paintings, but also in the sculptures, in the medieval depictions of the suffering Christ. But his business sense never left him: he would seldom spend more on an art work than he had originally intended.

Due to health problems (a cerebral hemmoraghe after complications from double knee surgery) and the increasing instability in the region, Rau left Ciriri forever in 1992, settling in Monaco and later returning home to Germany. Throughout Rau built his art collection to form a legacy that would ultimately benefit the Third World by diminishing misery and disease through preventative practices and the distribution of medication and food. To this aim Rau established three foundations in the 1970s and ’80s. His plan at the time was to donate his entire fortune in the Crelona Foundation which would then pay his living expenses; everything remaining after his death would go to a fourth foundation: the Rau Foundation for the Third World.

Downhill

Harmen Evertsz. van Steenwyck, Still-life, ca. 1650, 32.2×44.2 cm. Photo: Hans G. Scheib, Cologne

But in Monaco the ailing Rau had begun to medicate himself, devising a pharmacological programme for himself that proved disastrous. He was sometimes discovered roaming the streets, lost and disoriented. This raised doubts about his mental faculties and lawsuits followed to prove him incapable of running his affairs. In March 1998 a financial administrator was appointed by the Monaco court. Later that same year a Zürich lawyer and board member of one of Rau’s charitable foundations successfully petitioned the Swiss government to freeze Rau’s Swiss bank account and the art works on the grounds that his “entourage” (Rau’s personal secretary and his confidente, a graphologist) might take advantage of the ailing collector. The “entourage” appealed and legal battles in Switzerland, Monaco, Germany and Liechtenstein followed.

In 1998, with the legal battles over his competency raging, Rau took action to prove that he was not the helpless vegetable his detractors made him out to be. With the help of a former art lecturer at the Sorbonne exhibitions of his masterpieces were staged, originally intended to go to only five Japanese museums. The Swiss government permitted the art to leave the country on condition that it would return immediately but it did not: after Japan Rau sent it to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, igniting a diplomatic battle that pitted the French government against the Swiss. The exhibition then traveled to Rotterdam, Cologne, Munich and Bergamo and caused a sensation wherever it went.

An emotional and frail-looking Gustav Rau at the September 2001 press conference

Rau eventually seized control over his affairs and held a press conference in September 2001 announcing the donation of his entire collection to UNICEF Germany. “I know my material possessions are in good hands now. I entrust them to an organisation that is committed to one cause only, to which I have given my own life: helping destitute children”, an emotional Rau said. At the same time he stipulated that the core collection, some 125 paintings, should stay together for a twenty-five year period, which will end in 2026. Gustav Rau died in early January 2002. But it didn’t stop there. The legal wrangles did not only follow from doubts about Rau’s mental capacity but also from his many wills: which was actually valid? Moreover, if the court would rule that Rau had been mentally incompetent in September 2001, the donation to UNICEF Germany would become null and void.

On top of it all, Rau’s death was considered suspect. In 2003 the Stuttgart district attorney opened a homicide investigation on the suspicion that the doctor had been poisoned. Excessive doses of Parkinson medication had been found in Rau’s body that could not be justified as medication; it was further believed that Rau, greatly weakened, could not have administered these doses himself. The case was eventually dismissed but doubts remain to this day.

More legal hassles

Jean Honoré Fragonard, Portrait of François-Henri, 5th duc d’Harcourt, 81x 65cm

In spite of a 2008 German verdict deciding that Rau was competent at the time when he left his collection to UNICEF Germany and that the organisation is therefore the rightful heir, the legal wrangles only continued. It would go too far to list them all here, but the latest inquiry is being conducted by the Zürich prosecutor’s office on the basis of a complaint brought by the council of Bülach, the district where Rau had stored the collection for years, just days before a major auction at Bonhams in London of ninety-two works from the collection that included paintings by Pissarro and Fragonard. The auction, on 5 December 2013, went ahead and Fragonard’s portrait was sold for a record 17.1 million pounds ($27.9 million). The painting had been Rau’s personal favourite. The aim of the current complaint seems to be to have Rau’s collection returned to Switzerland. But there is no destination envisaged should the district council win the case which, in any case, is very doubtful. Most likely it would end up in the duty-free warehouse once again.

The district attorney of Stuttgart has just announced that he has opened a homicide investigation in relation to the death of the renowned art collector Gustav Rau , who compiled a formidable collection of art that he donated to Unicef, to whose work in Africa he dedicated the last decades of his life. The newspaper “Der Standard” from Vienna and a public Austrian television station commented that Gustav Rau could have been poisoned. Eckhard Maak, a spokesman from the district attorney’s office in the capital of Baden-Württemberg, confirmed to a reporter that there is enough suspicion that encouraged them to reopen their investigation months ago. According to him, “doctors found in his body excessive doses of a substance that would not be justified with a medication”, he declared to the online edition of “Focus”. Rau died two years ago, at 79 near Stuttgart, the auto capital of Germany, where he inherited and multiplied a massive fortune. Institutions and foundations had been fighting over Rau’s inheritance for years, even trying to prove that he was mentally incapacitated ever since he decided to work as a doctor in Africa, build a hospital in Congo, and modify his testament to donate 750 works of art to Unicef. His collection of art from the Renaissance to the XX Century includes paintings and sculptures by artists such as El Greco, Munch, Degas, Monet and Renoir. He began to collect art in 1958 attending auctions throughout the world. His collection, valued at about 500 million euros, is the second largest private collection in the world after the Thyssen Collection.

The remaining art has gradually been sold through three auction houses to benefit UNICEF Germany’s humanitarian work: Sotheby’s and Bonham’s in London and Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne. One of the works recently auctioned at Sotheby’s is an exquisite and rare early French ivory triptych with scenes from the Life of the Virgin with traces of original polychromy and gilding, dated c. 1310-20, fittingly known today as the Gustav Rau Triptych.

The question can validly be asked whether UNICEF Germany is not being compromised by all this and whether, with hindsight, they might even regret Gustav Rau’s donation. Time and time again reactions to new allegations appear on their website – it keeps their lawyers very busy. It is sad that a well-meant and generous humanitarian gift has become so encumbered.

Michael Sweerts

Readers of this blog will remember my fascination with the Flemish painter Michael Sweerts. Two works in the Rau collection to be exhibited until 2026 are by him, that is to say: one of them is in such a deplorable state that it can no longer be established if it is an autograph work or a contemporary free copy of the painting called The Schoolroom, discussed in an earlier post.

The other is an autograph work now in the exhibition in Groningen: it is one of the paintings of the Seven Acts of Mercy series. The Rijksmuseum so far owns four of the series. I hope that when the time comes, 2026, they will consider buying Harbouring the Stranger, which is every bit as mysterious and compassionate a work as the others in the series. The composition is evidently based on the iconography of the travellers on the road to Emmaus where Christ, dressed as a pilgrim, meets two of his disciples. It is the man in the middle who is of particular interest. He is staring straight at the viewer, drawing us into the scene. It is Michael Sweerts himself. About thirty at the time, his features are recognisable from, for example, his self-portrait in the Uffizi. Not only would the Rijksmuseum acquire another painting in this magnificent series, but at the same time a Sweerts self-portrait. The economist in Gustav Rau would be pleased: two for the price of one.

Note:

For a full overview of the Rau Collection (texts in German), see:

The three catagories were compiled in September 2013 and do not incorporate the sales results of the auctions held in the fall of 2013.

The most expensive tv stand in the world (2)

Years ago I read a book by Peter Watson describing the story of the life of Paolo Veronese’s painting Wisdom and Strength, painted c. 1580 in plague-ridden Venice and covers the four hundred years of the painting’s existence so far, during which it touched the private and public lives of its consecutive owners. If we look up a provenance of a painting on a museum website, in an auction catalogue or in an exhibition catalogue, it looks dry to us: a list of previous owners there to establish a work of art’s authenticity, as closely as possible to the moment when it left its creator’s studio. But the history of the fortunes and failures of the people on that list is shared by the work of art; in a similar and yet a different way. That, to me makes provenance such an interesting field of study and this is the story we now embark on as we follow the Japanese chest we left in the previous post when it was on its way to Europe from Japan, although, as we shall see, the provenance is by no means watertight.

The former VOC warehouse in Amsterdam, demolished 1890. Photo: Stadsarchief

The former VOC warehouse in Amsterdam, demolished 1890. Photo: Stadsarchief

When the chest and its companion lacquer boxes arrived in Amsterdam in the early 1640s, the market for expensive luxury items was poor due to several factors including the Thirty and Eighty Years Wars which at that time raged simultaneously. Money was tight: on September 19, 1648, the Heren XVII (the central command of the United East India Company) passed a resolution to sell their lacquer stock without delay, “in exchange for cash payment.” But it would take until January 1658 before the Japanese chest would find an owner.

Jacques-Auguste de Thou, baron de Meslay, was France’s ambassador in Amsterdam from 1651 to 1661. His covert mission, like that of Alphonso de Lopez for Cardinal de Richelieu before him, was to buy the best art possible for Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602-1661), particularly Japanese lacquers. Amsterdam, with its extensive Asian network, was the perfect place for this. De Thou wrote on 31 January 1658:

One of the best purchases he [Francis Lescot, a French merchant] made for his master was that of 1658. Lescot returned [to France] on a “battleship with beautiful objects for the Cardinal. For this acquisition, Lescot had to compete with an Amsterdam “rogue”. The purchase was most probably made at auction.

Cardinal Mazarin in His Palace, engraving by Robert Nanteuil, 1659. The auction house Rouillac suggests that the table the Cardinal is leaning on is the Rijksmuseum chest. This is difficult to say as it is covered by a cloth but the object has the correct height.

Having little by little become “as powerful as God the Father when the world began”, enjoying the revenues of twenty-seven abbacies, always ready to enrich himself by whatever means, Cardinal Mazarin had more wonderful art works in his own palace than the French king in his. In spite of the political crisis and Civil War (the Fronde), he was able to build an enormous collection that reflected his Italian origins and international connections. He was also particularly fond of Japanese lacquer: the inventory of his furniture warehouse at his death in 1661 lists 206 precious lacquer objects. This “Chinese lacquer furniture” was housed in the first floor gallery of the Palais Mazarin, today the Galerie Mazarine in the Bibliotèque National de France in Paris (see the engraving by Nanteuil above). The measurements of one of the lacquer chests given in the inventory enables us to identify the Rijksmuseum chest as No. 829; the smaller chest, today known as the Mazarin Chest in the Victoria and Albert Museum, as No. 810. Both are described as “Chinese lacquer boxes”.

Three of the seven nieces of Cardinal Mazarin: Marie-Anne (left), Olympia (center), and Hortense (right), 1660s

The next owners are a bit more problematic. It is certain that a large part of Mazarin’s lacquer chests remained in his family after his death, but it is not certain who inherited our chest. To begin with, Mazarin had seven nieces. It was either the eldest, Hortense Mancini (1646-1699), wife of Armand-Charles de la Porte de La Meilleraye, or another niece, possibly Marie-Anne Mancini (1649-1714), wife the 1st Duc de Bouillon, who inherited the chest on the death of their uncle. In his will the Cardinal had favoured Hortense and her husband but he also richly endowed each of his six other nieces, assigning to each of them 40,000 pounds worth of “furniture, jewels, rings and remaining jewelry and silverware […]” for them to divide between themselves as they saw fit. What is certain is that, upon Hortense Mancini’s death, her husband inherited, according to No. 626 of Hortense’s death inventory, “a large Chinese chest with a bridge and a Chinese woman.This description could well correspond with the so-called Mazarin Chest in the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

The V&A's

The V&A’s “Mazarin Chest”. Photo credit: V&A

In 1781, Jeanne Louise Durfort, Duchess of Rethel, Mayenne, La Meilleraye and Mazarin, died at the age of 45. The sale of her collection, the catalogue of which was published by LeBrun, was held on 10 December and the following days. At the very end of the catalogue are listed six lacquer objects, starting with No. 357 which is described as “a large wooden chest, black background with dragons in gold and trimmed with golden brass, placed on carved & gilded foot.” The description could fit our chest, but again, this is not absolutely certain. Jeanne Louise was related to Hortense, Cardinal Mazarin’s eldest niece who may have bequeathed this chest to her. She was the aunt of the last Duc de Bouillon, the next owner of our chest.

The Duc de Bouillon as a child, playing a hurdy-gurdy, with his brother, by François-Hubert Drouais, 1756

The Duc de Bouillon as a child, playing a hurdy-gurdy, with his brother, by François-Hubert Drouais, 1756

Jacques Leopold Charles Godefroy de La Tour d’ Auvergne, 7th Duc de Bouillon (1746-1802), either inherited the chest upon the death of his father (through the husband of Mazarin’s niece Marie-Anne, the 1st Duc de Bouillon) in 1792 or he may have bought it at his aunt Jeanne Louise Durfort’s sale in 1781. His taste for old Japanese lacquer is documented: in 1777, for instance, he bought the much smaller Van Diemen box which came from the collection of the Marquise de Pompadour at the Randon de Boisset sale. However, from March 1800 he was forced to pay an astronomical sum to recover his duchy which had been sequestered during the Revolution and this meant that he gradually had to sell his collections.

The Van Diemen box, so named because the name of the wife of Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the 17th century, is carved on the inside of the lid. Photo credit: V&A

The Van Diemen box, so named because the name of the wife of Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the 17th century, is carved on the inside of the lid. Photo credit: V&A

At one of the Duc de Bouillon collection’s sales, on 21 July 1801, a Parisian haberdasher called Darnault bought 51 lacquer items “for Mr. Beckforth” (sic). Our chest is possibly No. 6 of the invoice sent by Darnault to the Duke of Beckford the following month:

A large trunk 3 feet long by two wide and two high. The panels depict landscapes with figures and animals, mills etc., all inlaid in gold and silver embossed. The frames of said panels represent ornaments and rosettes inlaid in gold and mother-of-pearl […], all in the most perfect state of preservation.

Darnauld paid the sum of 1,280 francs for the chest. In total he spent 5,888 francs on the 51 lacquer items, suggesting that the chest described is possibly the largest item and therefore our chest.

William Beckford by George Romney, 1782

William Beckford by George Romney, 1782

William Beckford, only legitimate son of wealthy plantation owner of the same name, was the heir to an immense fortune. In 1771, when Beckford was ten years old, he inherited £1,000,000 (roughly £100 million today) and an income which his contemporaries estimated at around £100,000 per annum (equivalent to roughly £10 million). Newspapers of the period described him as “the richest commoner in England”. A passionate art collector, Gothic novelist, critic, travel writer and sometime politician, he had acquired an early taste for Japanese lacquers. A few months prior to the Duc de Bouillon sale of July 1801, Beckford wrote in a letter: “I feel I shall never be good for anything in this world but composing airs, building towers, forming gardens, collecting old japan.” The “towers” no doubt referred to Fonthill Abbey, the Gothic revival extravaganza with its extraordinary tower that was being constructed for him by architect James Wyatt at the time. Two Japanese lacquer chests are listed among Beckford’s property at Fonthill Abbey in 1812: on the east side of the Gallery stood “a large Japan chest inlaid with curious devices in pearl and silver; the bordering […] uncommonly rich”. It is thought that Beckford bought the smaller Mazarin Chest at the property sale of “Citizen Juillot” in 1802; it and other lacquer boxes are listed in the oratory at Fonthill.

Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill Abbey from John Rutter’s “Delineations of Fonthill” (1823)

Fonthill Abbey, due to Beckford’s haste in getting it finished, was badly constructed, its tower built with inappropriate materials that were inadequate to support such a massive structure. The tower collapsed twice but when it collapsed a third and final time in 1825 Beckford had already sold the property to John Farquhar, who had made a fortune selling gunpowder in India. Farquhar at once auctioned the art and furnishings in the famous Fonthill Sale of 1823. In the sale, organised by Phillips, our chest gets a rave review:

A SUPERB COFFER OF RAISED JAPAN, presumed the largest specimen known of this superior quality; the LID without and within, as also the FRONT and SIDES, are covered with representations of buildings and landscapes, of the finest raised and spangled Japan, and with animals in SOLID gold and silver. This unique specimen of Japanese art was formerly the property of CARDINAL MAZARIN, and belonged, subsequently to the DUC de BOUILLON.

At the sale, Beckford himself and his son-in-law the Duke of Hamilton were heavy purchasers, often buying items more cheaply than the original price Beckford had paid. On September 27, 1823, on the fifteenth day of sale, the chest was bought for 131 pounds and 5 shillings by a man called Swaby who probably acted as an agent for Beckford. 

The Duke of Hamilton by George Raeburn, c. 1812-23

The Duke of Hamilton by George Raeburn, c. 1812-23

Where his father-in-law William Beckford had been called the “richest commoner in England”, Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852) who married Beckford’s daughter Susan Euphemia in 1810, was called in one obituary “the proudest man in England.” He was quite a dandy and a great art collector with a great interest in Egyptian mummies that went so far that he persuaded a mummy expert to mummify him after death. He and his wife had settled in Hamilton Palace, a large country house located north-east of Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland (destroyed in 1927). Interestingly, attached to the bottom of our chest a label was found with the text William Murray Carver & Gilder To His Grace the Duke of Hamilton & Brandon 25 Buchanan Street Glasgow, Architectural Coats of Arms, Ships and Furniture Carving, leaving no doubt that the chest was, either by descent or by purchase, in Hamilton’s possession.

The chest remained in the Hamilton family until, ruined, Hamilton’s grandson William Douglas-Hamilton, 12th Duke of Hamilton, sold off the Hamilton Palace collection in 1882. The sale, arranged by Christie, Manson & Woods lasted thirteen days. Our chest is sold on the eleventh day, 10 July 1882, and is described as:

A VERY FINE OBLONG COFFER, OF OLD JAPAN LACQUER, with a large landscape, buildings, threes and a river, with a bridge and figures in the foreground, in border of birds and scrolls, animals and birds in gold and silver in relief, similar landscapes on the front and ends and inside the lid, black and gold trellis-border, with circular ornaments, inlaid with mother-o’-pearl, chased metal-gilt mounts –on carved and gilt wood stand -4ft. 6 in. by 2 ft 3 in. From the Collections of the Cardinal Mazarin, the Duc de Bouillon and Fonthill.

It was at this sale that the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased the Japanese chest today known as the Mazarin Chest. Our chest was sold to Trevor Lawrence and this gave it its – hopefully temporary – name, the Lawrence Chest.

At the Hamilton sale, Sir James John Trevor Lawrence, 2nd Baronet (1831-1913), President of the Royal Horticultural Society, philanthropist and collector, bought the chest together with other Asian art. His lacquer boxes were exhibited in 1894 at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. The beautifully printed book describing his Japanese art collection was published privately at the expense of the author in 1895. Our chest, numbered 1110, is thus described:

hitsu (a chest) Probably used as a receptacle for dresses.. Size, 4 ft. 8 in. long by 2 ft. 2 in 2 ft high. 4 in. wide, decorated on all sides with scenes in gold on black lacquer, Contained within a triple Bordering of diapers and floral design in gold and mother-of-pearl. The scenes depicts flowers gardens, building, bridges, and ornamental waters, and in Court by All which ladies and children walk and play. The chest is bound with brass and gilt angle plates, decorated hinges, and fittings, the plate surrounding the keyhole. Having an elaborate design with a panel upon a nashiji ground.

The sale of Lawrence’s estate after his death was spread over three sessions in May, November and December 1916.

From 1916 auction catalogue. Photo credit: V&A Museum

Photos from the 1916 auction catalogue. Photo credit: V&A

Our chest was offered on the third day of the first sale, 29 May 1916 and was bought by Sir Clifford Cory (1859-1941),  a Welsh colliery owner, coal exporter and Liberal Party politician. Sir Clifford Corey died in 1941 and in the middle of the turmoil of World War II his estate was sold at auction with the lacquer chest described solely as “a large Chinese chest”. And there, it appeared, the trail ended. Fraught with uncertainties and possible false leads that still need to be thoroughly researched, we were able to more or less follow the Rijksmuseum or Lawrence chest from Japan to the United Kingdom throughout the four centuries since it was created in the lacquer workshops of the Shogun court.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, as we have seen, had purchased a similar, smaller chest, also once owned by Cardinal Mazarin. Its larger counterpart had featured in the same 1882 sale, but where was it? The Museum started looking for it in earnest in the 1980s, launching an appeal in Country Life and again on their website in 2000:

How can a chest of such supreme quality and exceptional size have disappeared like this? Did it suffer at the hands of enemy action during World War II, or is it gathering dust somewhere in a proverbial attic unrecognised for what it is by its current owner? The V&A is very keen to locate the Lawrence Chest or identify who bought it from the 1941 sale as this would be of enormous benefit to our research on the Mazarin Chest.

By a quirk of fate in the 1980s the chest was actually only a few minutes walk from the museum: at the home of a Polish doctor named Zaniewsky who had bought it at the Cory auction for a pittance. He was evidently not a Country Life reader. The doctor sold the chest in 1970 to a tenant of his, a French engineer who worked for Shell Petroleum. It was he who used it as a tv stand in his South Kensington apartment for 16 years and he took the chest with him when, after his retirement, he moved to a modest little house the Loire Valley. There he used it as a bar.

After the deaths of their parents, the family of the engineer engaged the auction house Rouillac to appraise and sell the estate. On 9 June of this year the chest was offered at auction by Rouillac at  Château de Cheverny. And there, as we saw in the previous post, the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum bought it for the largest sum ever paid for a tv stand. Eventually the chest will be exhibited not, as one would expect, in the museum’s new Asiatic Pavillion but in one of the 17th century galleries. Perhaps the thought behind it is that the chest was commissioned for the Dutch VOC company as a luxury export product, but I would rather see it in the Asiatic Pavillion as a testimony to the artistic brilliance of Koami Nagashige and his workshop.

I need not think long of a name for it. Not the Lawrence chest as the V&A and auction house Rouillac have dubbed it, but I would like for it to be called Koami Chest in honour of its maker or, if it has to be a Western name, Caron Chest in honour of the adventurous and entrepreneurial François Caron we met in the previous post at the beginning of the chest’s story. After all, the chest and its companions would never have been created if it had not been for him and we would not have been able to enjoy and admire its lavish beauty today.

At the Château de Cheverny auction with, ironically, Cardinal Mazarin sternly looking on in the background. Photo: Rouillac

Note:

  • I am indebted to the French auction house Rouillac which has, in as far as possible, outlined the provenance of the chest. Where necessary I have verified or contradicted their conclusions. Should the Rijksmuseum publish their new research on the chest and its provenance and should that yield significant new insights, I will post an update on this page.