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.

The fate of Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis (1) – the paintings for the galleries of Amsterdam’s Town Hall

From 21 March Rembrandt’s most ambitious painting of which only a fragment (now in Stockholm) remains will be temporarily exhibited in the Rijksmuseum. The Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, its full title, was created for one of the galleries of the newly built Town Hall (now Royal Palace) but it hung there only briefly. Why was it taken down? Who reduced the large canvas to the much smaller central fragment and why? An investigation, starting with the peculiar genesis of the series of paintings for the galleries of Amsterdam’s Town Hall, of which Rembrandt’s painting formed part.

View from Citizens' Hall (the "Burgerzaal") into one of the galleries

View from Citizens’ Hall (the “Burgerzaal”) into one of the galleries

Anyone visiting the galleries today will immediately be struck by the monumentality of these vast spaces, more than eleven meters high. On their outer sides they gave access to administrative chambers (now Empire period rooms) while on their inner sides windows look out on two inner courtyards. The galleries receive daylight only from the windows giving on to the inner courtyards so that the corners are especially dark, yet this is precisely where the paintings depicting the Batavian Revolt are placed.

The enormous arch-shaped works (5.5 x 5.5 meters) are situated above the lower moulding and are enclosed by the galleries’ barrel vaulting. In the north-east corner hang two canvases by Jacob Jordaens, in the south-east corner a work by Jan Lievens and a work by Govaert Flinck and Jürgen Ovens, the latter replacing Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis, in the south-west corner two frescos by Giovanni Antonio de Groot. The series was never completed: the fourth corner has always remained empty. Similarly unfinished is the series with four biblical heroes by Jordaens that was planned in the arches of the east and west galleries with access to Citizens’ Hall (the Burgerzaal). Only two (scenes with Samson and David and Goliath) were completed.

The analogy between the Batavian Revolt and Dutch Revolt against Spain

When the Town Hall was inaugurated on 29 June 1655, the building was far from finished but the destruction by fire of the medieval town hall next door necessitated the city’s administrators to move in prematurely. The idea for a series of gallery paintings depicting the Batavian Revolt against the Romans (69-70 AD) and complimentary Old Testament and classical heroes stemmed, so the poet Joost van de Vondel tells us, from Cornelis de Graeff (1599-664), one of Amsterdam’s four Burgomasters and a member of one of the city’s powerful and wealthy regent families.

As early as 1584 the Stadtholders of Holland, princes of the House of Orange, military commanders in the Eighty Years’ War against Spain that had ended in 1648, were likened to Claudius Civilis and Brinio, the leaders of the Batavian uprising. The story had become hugely popular after 1600 following the publication of Tacitus’ Histories (in Latin) and was featured prominently both in texts and images, the most important set of which, and also the most important iconographic antecedent of the paintings in the Town Hall, was produced by the Italian Antonio Tempesta based on designs by Otto van Veen (1612). In the spirit of the Twelve Year Truce (1609-1621), a lull in the hostilities, the prints did not glorify the war itself but rather the resulting peace which must have struck a chord with Amsterdam’s Burgomasters who envisaged not only a stunning town hall expressing Amsterdam’s growing prosperity but also a monument to the restoration of peace.

Govaert Flinck and Jürgen Ovens

Govaert Flinck, study for the Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis

Govaert Flinck, study for the Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, 1659-60, Hamburger Kunsthalle, b/w image

Naturally, to receive a painting commission for the magnificent new Town Hall, soon to be known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, was extremely prestigious. Nothing had happened by 1659 but in that year the commission suddenly had to be rushed on account of the impending visit by members of the House of Orange on 24 September of that year. As Vondel tells us in another poem, it was Govaert Flinck who managed to complete four gigantic sketches in August 1659 in the space of only two days. Because of this bravura act and because his designs, largely based on Tempesta’s prints, pleased the Burgomasters, he was awarded the commission for the entire series: he was to paint “12 works for the galleries, two a year at 1000 guilders a piece.” But Flinck died unexpectedly on 2 February of the following year without having completed any of the permanent canvases. This time, the Burgomasters prudently decided to spread the risk and invited several renowned painters to submit sketches and drawings for the series.

Govaert Flinck/Jürgen Ovens, the Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis during recent restoration

It was Rembrandt’s Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis that replaced Flinck’s temporary painting of the same subject but when that was taken down, with another important visit (that of the Bishop of Cologne) scheduled soon afterwards, the empty space needed to be filled in a hurry and Flinck’s gigantic sketch was retrieved from storage. The German artist and former Rembrandt pupil Jürgen Ovens was commissioned “to work up a sketch by Govert Flinck into a complete ordonnation.” Ovens painted over Flinck’s faded water-colour and charcoal composition in oils and added another ten or twelve figures. On 2 January 1663 he was paid a paltry forty-eight guilders for the four days he had spent completing Flinck’s work. The planned replacement of Flinck/Ovens’ painting never materialised.

In 1664, due to a shortage of finance, the city governors decided to postpone all commissions or purchases of paintings for the Town Hall for five years. Almost illegible now, the painting still hangs in the arch in the south-east gallery today. Already severely compromised – unprimed and painted with water-based paint so that it discolours as it ages – the painting’s problems were compounded by earlier treatments by people who had no understanding of its unique nature. In the 18th century, for instance, the painting was lined using glue, a treatment that involves considerable amounts of water so that Flinck’s gum paint was partially dissolved. In addition the painting was varnished several times which is totally unsuitable for water-based paint. But the most damaging of all was the wax-resin lining of 1960 which permeated the fine linen so that it has now acquired a dark orange-brown colour.

Jan Lievens

Jan Lievens, Brinio raised on a Shield

Jan Lievens, Brinio raised on a Shield

Somewhat better fared Jan Lievens’ painting next to it. Lievens received his commission on the same day as the Antwerp master Jacob Jordaens, 13 January 1661. Both finished their paintings within six months, both executed the final touches in situ. Lievens’ Brinio raised on a shield shows the Batavians’ allies, the Canninefates, electing Brinio as their leader. To honour him, Brinio’s warriors raise their new commander on a shield, a scene also illustrated in Tempesta’s prints. The scene was significant for the Dutch Republic. Heated discussions concerning the Stadtholder’s hereditary leadership were taking place in which Cornelis de Graeff was a key figure. Brinio’s election made the point that military leaders should be elected and not installed by right of birth, a model of government that the Amsterdam Burgomasters strongly supported.

Jan Lievens, small scale study for Brinio raised on a shield, oil on paper on canvas, 60x59 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Jan Lievens, small-scale study for Brinio raised on a shield, oil on paper on canvas, 60×59 cm, Amsterdam Museum

The painting is more colourful and lighter than most of the other canvases in the series but even so specific passages such as in the sky have darkened considerably. In addition, Lievens did not wait for underlying paint layers to dry thoroughly before applying further layers and as a result, particularly in shadow paints, the paint surface has crinkled and developed deep cracks which makes it difficult for layers of old varnish, grime and wax to be removed.

Jacob Jordaens (and workshop)

From an account referring to his accommodation at the Lijsveltse Bijbel (an inn on Warmoesstraat) it appears that the Antwerp master Jacob Jordaens submitted his first painting for the series shortly before or after 17 June 1661. A Roman camp under attack by night is the only battle scene in the galleries. It is a complex, baroque composition showing a mass of writhing figures and the impact of the work is heightened by strong contrasts between light and dark. His Peace between the Romans and the Batavians illustrates the final episode of the story. In addition, Jordaens made a painting for the series of heroes in 1662, showing Samson defeating the Philistines. The Burgomasters were delighted with his work and awarded the painter a gold medal which was presented to him on 13 June 1662, along with his fee of 3000 guilders: 1200 guilders for the two Batavian paintings and 600 guilders for the Samson.

Jordaens' two paintings in the .... gallery

Jacob Jordaens’ two Batavian paintings in situ

In November 1664 as we have seen, the Burgomasters adopted a resolution not to buy or commission any further paintings for a period of five years, but two weeks later they made an exception:

Approval is given to fill the space in the gallery that has already been reserved for a painting with a work that Jordaens has already begun, representing the story of David and Goliath. Taking consideration for his advanced years [Jordaens was 71 years old at the time], one may assume that the master will not be working as an artist five years hence.

Jordaens completed David and Goliath, the second and final painting for the series of heroes soon thereafter.

What is interesting for our understanding of the architectural context is Jordaen’s modello for the Samson. When King Louis Napoleon took up residence in the Town Hall in 1808, making it his royal residence, its appearance was changed dramatically. Today the galleries and their vaultings are clad in white marble, but in the 1660s the painters would have known that their pieces would connect above with a stone-grey surrounding, just as they knew that in the walls below a marble finish was intended.

This is what Jordaens’ modello shows: the struggle is enacted above a trompe l’oeil arch that was intended as an illusory continuation of the actual arch above the doorway to the Citizens’ Hall. For this arch a white marble finish was envisaged and so the trompe l’oeil arch on the modello is also painted whitish-grey.

Jacob Jordaens David and Goliath lunette

Jacob Jordaens David and Goliath lunette

Giovanni Antonio de Groot’s “secreet”

Giovanni Antonio de Groot, Roman spoils laid at the feet of Claudius Civilis

Even more clues to the architectural finish of the galleries are found in the two frescos by the Italian artist of Dutch decent Giovanni Antonio de Groot who appeared before the Council of Amsterdam in 1667 where he presented ambitious plans for the completion of the decorations. By that time, the paintings were in a deplorable state as damp in the walls had not only damaged the plaster layer but had also caused a number of paintings to deteriorate badly. The Council acknowledged that the existing paintings had already largely perished and that the paintings were barely visible from below. De Groot claimed to have invented a secreet, a secret recipe that could be used to stabilise the plasterwork and prevent it from detaching from the wall. If granted the commission, he would paint eight frescos with scenes from the Batavian cycle. Primarily because of his proposed solution he was granted the commission. On 3 October 1668 he was paid for two frescos but for some unknown reason no other frescos were produced and the – damaged – original paintings remain in place until this day.


Giovanni Antonio de Groot, the Peace Negotiations between Claudius Civilis and Quintus Petillis Cerialis

De Groot’s works are curiously clumsy and do not represent the artistic qualities of this artist. This is because, in spite of his “secret recipe”, during the course of the first half of the 18th century the frescos must have been quite seriously damaged. Jan van Dyk (ca. 1690-1769), a restorer of paintings employed by the City and never one to mince words, described their condition as follows:

In the corner by he Thesaurie Extraordinaris, two pieces have been painted in fresco, which are actually good artistically, were it not for the brackishness in our walls, which have been spoiled by the sweated salt, and not much that could be done about it, [and also] had not one of the Know-nothings [“Weetnieten”] of art scrubbed both these pieces with water and Brussels sand, to which there are still living witnesses who confirm this, yes, who even warned him.

Van Dyk deemed the situation so serious that, in 1756, he thought restoration no longer possible. He decided to overpaint the frescos completely. In doing so, he remained faithful to De Groot’s composition and left remnants of the original composition visible wherever possible. Unfortunately, at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century the works were overpainted once more, this time not closely following De Groot but Van Dyk. The result today is that the works have become even further removed from their original appearance.

Detail from Giovanni Antonio de Groot's Peace Negotiations between the Romans and the Batavians showing the trompe l'oeuil architecture

Detail from Giovanni Antonio de Groot’s Peace Negotiations between the Romans and the Batavians showing the trompe l’oeil architecture

De Groot’s frescos do, however, provide an important clue as to the original 1660s wall finishes envisaged by architect Jacob van Campen, namely that the now white vault must originally have been sandstone-coloured: along the curved upper edges of both frescos is a trompe l’oeil architecture of sandstone blocks which must have been intended as a continuation of the surrounding “real” architecture, creating the illusion that the heroic deeds of the Batavians were actually being acted out before the eyes of the visitors in the galleries.

As a consequence of the present-day white finish of the vaults, we perceive the gallery canvases as darker than they really are. In a surround of sandstone the paintings must have been decidedly more legible even though, as we have seen, the corners in the galleries where they hung were dimly lit from the start. We will see in the next post how Rembrandt was the only artist who, in his majestic Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, took into account the dark location where his painting would hang.


I am greatly indebted to the publications with regard to the recent (2007-2009) restoration of the paintings in the galleries which present hitherto unknown facts regarding the paintings’ genesis and  restoration history.

NB: Amsterdam’s 17th century Town Hall (now Royal Palace) is open to the public when not in use by the Dutch Royal family.