The remarkable case of Johannes Torrentius (3) – the camera obscura

The excessive contemporary praise lavished on the still life paintings of Johannes Torrentius (1589-1644) led to irritation among his colleagues to such an extent that Constantijn Huygens’ close friend, the established artist and still life specialist Jacques de Gheyn (1565-1629), felt provoked into challenging Torrentius to a contest in painting skills. The painting De Gheyn offered for comparison has been identified as the large Vanitas Still Life dated 1621. Which painting Torrentius contributed is not known.

Jacques de Gheyn (II), Vanitas Still Life, 1621, Oil on panel, 117.5 x 165.4cm (46 1/4 x 65 1/8in.), Yale University Art Gallery

Who won? Huygens is diplomatic about the outcome, saying he did not see the two paintings together. He does say that there was nothing in De Gheyn’s manner and method that could not be recognised by connoisseurs. In other words: there was nothing supernatural in De Gheyn’s art, whereas Torrentius “tires the doubtful minds, as they are searching in vain, in what manner he used colours, oil and – if the Gods may wish – also brushes.” And a camera obscura?

Huygens’ suspicions

Constantijn Huygens in 1627, by Thomas de Keyser, detail, National Gallery

Poet, composer, architect, scientist and diplomat Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) had a keen interest in the artistic and scientific developments of his day and counted several painters among his close friends. In 1622 he purchased a camera obscura from Cornelis Drebbel, a Dutch inventor who had settled in London. Back home, Huygens enthusiastically demonstrated his new camera to his painter friends and one day Torrentius “accompanied by several men of standing” urgently asked to see him. Huygens’ account of this visit is worth quoting in full:

[Torrentius’] excuse was that he wanted to see my optical instrument [Drebbel’s camera] with which in a closed space on a white surface one can project the contours of things that are outside the room. Torrentius, who displayed his usual submissive modesty and polite manners, looked with feigned amazement at the dancing figures and asked if these little people he saw were actually present as living creatures outside the room. I confirmed this. As soon as my friends left I remembered his naive question and his feigned ignorance concerning something everyone knows about these days. I suspected that he was very well aware of the invention but had wanted to create the impression that he was not.

It is quite possible that Torrentius heard of Huygens’ new camera and was anxious to ascertain whether it offered new possibilities as the camera obscuras of the early 17th century were still rather primitive. Could Torrentius’ desire to keep the secrets of his painting methods to himself be the reason why his studio was apparently in his attic? An attic would have the added advantage that the influx of incoming light was limited and could easily be controlled which was essential for camera obscura projections. His secretiveness could also explain Torrentius’ insistence that he used extremely toxic, even “explosive” paints which would keep the curious at bay. As discussed in the previous post his paints were, after all, rather conventional.

Still life versus figure paintings

Johannes Torrentius, Self-portrait? Undated, Weimar

The uncertainty about his methods contributed to another myth which Torrentius apparently was keen to perpetuate and which, in Huygens’ words, ran among his “uncritical followers”: that “in a moment of divine ecstasy he was suddenly blessed with the gift of this unknown art.” But, Huygens continues, if this was indeed a divine gift, something must have gone very wrong concerning the most important aspect of it: Torrentius’ rendering of human figures and other living creatures “for which one would expect the same appreciation as for his other work” was “so shamelessly primitive that connoisseurs hardly consider them worth a glance.” The painter Joachim von Sandrart in his Teutsche Academie (1675-80) more or less confirms this: “Apart from these still life paintings I have not seen anything special from him.” How weak a draughtsman Torrentius was is confirmed by the drawing in Weimar – if in fact it is his.

The discrepancy in the rendering of different subjects also seems to confirm that Torrentius used a mechanical device, most probably a camera obscura, for his exceptional still lifes. Given the limitations of the 17th century camera a projection of a live model would have to be finished in one single session. After a break in that session it would be impossible to recreate the same situation, whereas a still life set-up remains the same over several sessions.

An experiment

In 2006 Torrentius Emblematic Still Life was subjected to an experiment. Could a painting be made using the lenses available in the 17th century? First a small portable camera was used, most likely dating from the 17th century. The results were then compared with observations using a camera probably dating from the 18th century.

Reconstruction of Torrentius’ still life, set-up in front of an old camera obscura. Image: Max Planck Institute

17th century lenses still had various shortcomings: straight lines projected with them become slightly curved at the edges of the image. Examination of the painting with infrared reflectography revealed lines drawn along a straightedge or ruler under the paint layers. Torrentius’ adjustments to his underdrawing to compensate for the distortions supports the theory that he used a camera obscura.

The most essential features of Torrentius’ painting, the highlights on the flagon and the jug, are remarkably soft and blend smoothly with the darker tones while the highlights on the glass have a “soft focus” appearance corresponding to another limitation imposed by 17th century lenses: light coming from the side and hitting the curvature of the lens at an angle would reduce contrast and definition and would also cause a lack of sharpness which is most prominent in lighter coloured areas or in highlights on darker objects. The reconstructed camera obscura image and Torrentius’ painting share similar features: an intensified rendering of light and dark with brilliant highlights and rich shadows also noticed by Huygens and De Gheyn:

This suspicion [that Torrentius used a camera obscura for his still life paintings] is so far confirmed by the close similarity of Torrentius’ painting with these shadows, as well as by the “undisprovable, the certitude” which is attributed to him, of his art compared with the real shape of the objects about which all spectators agree in every respect.

The image of the still life reconstruction as projected by the camera obscura. Image: Max Planck Institute

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

Given the instrument’s limited depth of field, it is interesting that all objects in the Emblematic Still Life are placed in a row on the same focal plane. At the same time, since images projected by the camera obscura are circular, a circular (as in the case of Torrentius’ Emblematic Still Life) or a square panel would make the most efficient use of the image projected by it. Round panels were extremely rarely used for Dutch still life paintings from the first half of the 17th century: I know of only five or six other examples.

The search for other paintings by Torrentius

Charles I in 1628 by Van Honthorst, National Portrait Gallery

There is every reason to believe, with Huygens, that Torrentius used a camera obscura. It would be interesting to be able to compare the Emblematic Still Life with other still life paintings by Torrentius. His paintings were thought to have been confiscated at the time of his trial and subsequently destroyed. There is, however, no evidence for this. A list drafted in September 1627 by the Haarlem authorities mentions nine paintings, of which four (pornographic) paintings were seized by the schout (sheriff). Seven paintings are listed in the English King Charles I’s State Papers: “Of Torentius Pictures There be at friends house, lyes in Liss(e) neer Leyden, 7 pieces” which is followed by a rather curious note: “His other bawdye pictures such as his friends saye he intended should never be seen are to be seen in the town house at Harlem.” At least one of the paintings in Lisse, our Emblematic Still Life, found its way into Charles I’s collection since his brand is on the back of the panel. At least one other painting “by Torrentius given to the King by Lord Dorchester” was auctioned in 1649.

Still life in Dundee, by "William Torrens" (?)

Still life in Dundee, by “William Torrens” (?)

In 1893, the eminent art historian Hofstede de Groot visited the art gallery of Dundee. A still life painting there attributed to a “William Torres”, he thought, could very well be a Torrentius but upon inspection he concluded that it must be by an 18th century Heda follower.

Van Gelder reconstructed Torrentius oeuvre in 1940. He lists twenty-four paintings, nine of which are still lifes. Apart from the Haarlem and Charles I lists, several paintings are mentioned in late 17th and 18th century inventories and (mostly English) auction catalogues as late as 1928. It is likely that some of these and other still unknown or misattributed works still exist, languishing in a private collection somewhere, most likely in the United Kingdom or in Sweden since a 17th century Swedish envoy to the Netherlands is known to have owned Torrentius paintings. Perhaps, as in the case of the Emblematic Still Life accidentally discovered in Enschede, some day someone will strike gold.


In recent years paintings have been attributed to Torrentius on anecdotal (Rosicrancianism for instance) rather than art historical grounds. They do not convince and I therefore have not included them in this post.

In addition to (selected) sources mentioned in the previous two posts on Torrentius:

  1. Wolfgang Lefèvre (ed.), Inside the Camera Obscura – Optics and Art under the Spell of the Projected Image, Max Planck Institute, 2007.
  2. J.G. van Gelder, “Johannes Torrentius (1589-1644)”, Oud Holland, 1940.
  3. G. Thiere, Cornelis Drebbel (1577-1633) (dissertation Leiden University), 1932.
  4. C. Hofstede de Groot, “Hollandsche Kunst in Schotland”, Oud Holland, 1893.
  5. Joachim von Sandrart, Teutsche Academie der Edlen Bau-, Bild- und Mahlerey-Künste, 1675-80.

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

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

An Emblematic still life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magic paints”

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

Johannes Torrentius, Self-portrait? Undated drawing, Weimar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The remarkable case of Johannes Torrentius (1) – Life

Johannes Torrentius (1589-1644) was a painter with a reputation as a “seducer of burghers, a deceiver of the people, a plague on the youth, a violator of women, a squanderer of his own and other’s money”. Moreover, his paintings, according to his own statements, were painted “with other paints than all other painters”, indeed, he claimed that his art was sheer magic: “it is not me who paints …”. His eccentricity and incaution led to imprisonment, cruel torture and even condemnation to the stake. His paintings were believed to have been wilfully destroyed at the time of his conviction. Only one has survived but it was not rediscovered until the previous century.

The notion that Torrentius may have been a Rosicrucian has led some recent authors to interpret historical facts in this light.  Even a recent dissertation (G.H. Snoek, 2007), inventarising the early 17th century documents on the movement in the Dutch Republic, has not been able to provide conclusive proof. But contemporary accounts, too, must be interpreted with caution. In the next post Torrentius’ art, his possible use of the camera obscura, “magic paint” and more: here I will discuss the facts about his extraordinary life and conviction.


Johannes Torrentius at the time of his conviction, print by Jan van de Velde (II), 1628, Rijksmuseum

Jan Simonsz van der Beeck was born in Amsterdam into a Catholic family in 1589. He would adopt the name “Torrentius” from the Latin “torrens”, a translation of the Dutch word “beeck” (brook). In 1596 his father had the doubtful honour to be the very first inhabitant of the newly built prison on Heiligeweg. He at some point left the city or was forced to leave since he was recorded as living in Cologne in 1627, ironically the year of his son’s arrest. Johannes lived with his mother Symontgen on Breestraat near Nieuwmarkt in the house of her brother Elbert.

Nieuwmarkt, Amsterdam, ca. 1780, Isaac Ouwater, Amsterdam Museum

Nothing has so far been discovered about Torrentius’ artistic training. During his trial he merely states that he is a painter by profession and has practised his art from an early age. In 1609 he received a commission for an altarpiece from the prior of the Dominicans or Predikheren in the then still predominantly catholic city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Torrentius, according to the testimony of one Vrouwtgen Dircx, promised that his painting would be better than the altarpiece of Our Lady in the town’s cathedral and that connoisseurs would deem it worth “at least 300 guilders”. The painting is lost, possibly it was never painted, but the story illustrates a typical trait that would repeatedly contribute to his troubles: modesty was not in his character.

According to Dudok van Heel Torrentius went to Spain as a young man and upon his return had abandoned the Catholic faith which does not seem to have been replaced by Protestantism. On 14 January 1612 the bans were read on his marriage with 22-year-old Neeltgen van Camp.

Signature of Johannes van der Beeck and Neeltgen van Camp, 1612, from Bredius, 1909

It was not to be a happy marriage. and the couple separated a few years later. In 1621, Torrentius failed to pay alimony and was briefly sent to prison (a notarial document dated 21 May 1621 mentions that he is “these days in prison in Amsterdam”). Upon his release he moved to Haarlem where he stayed in the house of a friend, the wealthy merchant Christiaen Coppens, on Zijlstraat while maintaining a separate studio.

Conspicuous behaviour

Torrentius’ painting career was successful and his wealth as well as his flamboyance began to attract followers. He was reputedly a handsome man, always dressed in rich satins and silks, groomed to perfection and he spoke with a somewhat posh accent. Not only did he attract male followers, but women were drawn to him like a magnet, many “to the chagrin of their husbands”. Constantijn Huygens, who had met the painter, wonders about the Torrentius phenomenon in his unpublished Memoires of my Youth (begun 1629):

… he has turned the heads of the sect that had formed around him to such a degree that they came to consider his vices as virtues and enveloped his godlessness in a kind of religious cult and adoration.

The intolerant Republic

Satirical print on the Synod of Dordrecht, Simon Goulartius, 1619. Goulartis was a Remonstrant preacher who was ousted from his function in 1619. In the print nearly all the delegates wear devil’s or bull’s horns.

While the war against Spanish catholic dominance was ever present during the first decades of the 17th century, ideological differences between the conservative Dutch Calvinist Protestant minority on the one hand and the Remonstrants and libertines on the other nearly led to civil war in 1617/18. The Calvinists or Counter-Remonstrants achieved a Phyrric victory at the Synod of Dordrecht in 1619. As a result Remonstrants, like the catholics before them, were prohibited from publicly holding religious services; if caught, they were severely fined. In this repressive climate one would do best to behave inconspicuously but that was not in Torrentius’ nature. “What is God, do you know God, did you see him, what kind of little thing is God?”, he is reported to have said. When even the moderate Remonstrants had to keep their mouths shut, a free-thinker like Torrentius had no chance at all.

Trial and conviction

As early as 1621 the Haarlem magistrates had consulted the church council about the painter and in 1625 they turned to theologians at Leiden University for advice. On 29 June of that year the Court of Holland in a letter to the Prosecutor, Mayor and Aldermen of Haarlem warns them of the dangers imposed by Rosicrucian sect (secte den Roose Cruce) and of “one Torrentius, who is said to be one of the principal members of the aforesaid sect.” Apparently the allegation was based on hearsay. In his own time, too, there was no definite proof linking him with a “secret society”.

Print marked

Print marked “Torrentius fec” today attr. to Pieter Quast (1605-47), possibly a copy or parody of a work by Torrentius, Rijksmuseum

It is perhaps not surprising that, openly flaunting his critical attitude towards the Bible and Calvinist preachers, Torrentius was finally arrested on 29 August 1627. Moreover, most of his paintings were considered to be pornographic and several of them were confiscated by the Haarlem magistrates and exhibited in the city hall before, presumably, most of them were destroyed. In the State Papers of Charles I, an admirer of his work, is a curious entry marked “A note of Torrentius pictures, 1629, at Liss [Lisse] and Harlem”: “His other bawdye pictures such as his friends saye he intended should never be seen are to be seen in the town house at Harlem.”

It turns out that Torrentius’ main detractors were two Dutch reformed ministers, Henricus Geesteranus and Dyonisius Spranckhuysen, who remained behind the scenes and incited others to testify against the artist. Called to testify, Roeland Clarenbeecq, host of the Haarlem inn De Vergulde Valck remained silent when asked “whether Torrentius drank the devil’s health and in what company.” Lambrecht Maertensz. Schapenburg and his wife, who ran an inn in Delft, testified against Torrentius but afterwards stated that two preachers, later identified as Gideon Sonnevelt and Henricus van Linden, known as the “scourge of the Remonstrants”, had visited them with a letter specifying what they should say in court.

Torrentius was interrogated five times but he would not confess and so he was tortured to loosen his tongue – to no avail.

His shinbones were first clamped in irons. Then his hands were tied behind his back and he was hung on his arms with several weights pulling at his feet. Next the executioner and his assistant pulled his legs with all their might. This not being enough, two other men were called in to assist in pulling till his limbs would separate. (Samuel Ampzing, in: Description and Praise of the City of Haarlem, 1628)

View of the Town Hall on Market Square, Haarlem, Cornelis Beelt, c. 1640, Frans Hals Museum. The Town Hall functioned as administrative center and as courthouse

A letter from Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik dated 13 January on Torrentius’ behalf had no effect and on 25 January 1628 Torrentius, paralysed, was carried on pillows into the courtroom to hear the verdict. His lawyer, Reinout Schoorel, pleaded in his defence, but was told that Torrentius would be sentenced extra ordinaris because of the heinousness of his crimes, meaning that he would not be able to defend himself or appeal against the verdict. The advice of five lawyers from The Hague, sought by the Haarlem magistrates, corroborated this.

No attention was given to the counter statements of defence witnesses, among which the distinguished Nicolaes van der Laen, former Mayor of Haarlem. Torrentius was convicted on thirty-one counts, because of “his godlessness, abominable and horrifying blasphemy, and also for terrible and very harmful heresy” and had to pay legal costs. The Prosecutor demanded death at the stake but this was overthrown by the city council and commuted to twenty years imprisonment. Torrentius was thirty-nine years old; with abominable prison conditions at the time this constituted more or less a life sentence.

The medieval dungeons below Haarlem’s Town Hall

Torrentius did not remain passive. He sent a request to the Court of Holland stating in no uncertain terms that he had been rigorously tortured on account of the false testimony of “an innkeeper and his wife from Delft”, (the Schapenburgs), his injuries still being so severe that he “still cannot move [my] limbs”. He complained about the injustice of the extra ordinaris proceedings whereby all means of defence were taken away from him. This, he stated, was a “violation of all justice, reasonableness and fairness”. The reply was a simple “nihil”. Undeterred, Torrentius sent a request to the Supreme Court, the highest legal authority, but again the reply was “nihil“.

Frederik Hendrik by Gerard van Honthorst, 1631, private collection

Only one road was open now: Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik who had already appealed on the painter’s behalf. In a letter to the Prince Torrentius again invoked his invalidity resulting from the cruel torture. The Prince acted immediately, asking the Haarlem authorities whether Torrentius could not be housed elsewhere so that he could practice his art. It took the Haarlem magistrates months to respond. Torrentius exaggerated, they wrote: he was regularly seen by a good doctor and an excellent surgeon and his friends took delicate spices and food, clean linen and woollen clothing to him. He would be allowed to paint, they said, should he have expressed the desire – but he had not. They added that to allow him to live elsewhere would, since he could not be trusted not to propagate his heresies and corrupt the city’s youth, endanger the good Christian citizens of Haarlem.

An interesting event occurred on 29 January 1629: the painters Frans Hals, Pieter Molijn and Johan van de Velde were requested by the magistrates to inspect the cell where Torrentius was held captive and to report on the possibilities to paint there. Alas, the report is now lost.

Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum

Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum

The case had created a stir among Remonstrants who had themselves been persecuted. Preacher Johannes Wtenbogaert wrote to the Remonstrant scholar Hugo de Groot who had escaped and fled abroad: “In the country there is much talk about a Torrentius.” Torrentius himself was not without influential and learned friends. Petrus Scriverius, Haarlem writer and scholar, who had himself been fined several times on account of his Remonstrantism, visited Torrentius in prison on 29 March 1629. On that occasion Torrentius wrote a poem in Scriverius’ Album Amicorum.


Dudley Carlton by Michiel van Mierevelt, c. 1620, National Portrait Gallery

Torrentius and his troubles were the subject of correspondence between English diplomat to the Netherlands Dudley Carleton, who also acted as an art agent, and Charles I. The latter wrote to Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik who in turn appealed once more to the Haarlem magistrates. They responded stating that, although they had encouraged him several times to paint, Torrentius had so far not done so, indicating that to release him so that he could paint again was no valid reason, even if the English had vowed they would be responsible for his conduct. The Haarlem authorities must have given in eventually because a letter from Carleton to the Secretary of State in December 1630 speaks of Torrentius going to England with certain pictures for sale. These in all likelihood were the paintings Torrentius’ friend Van der Laen had kept safe in his country house in Lisse during the painter’s incarceration.

Several paintings by Torrentius are mentioned in Charles I’s inventory but not a trace of them has been found nor any trace of the artist’s life in England. In fact, nothing is known other than a brief general description of the painter’s life by Horace Walpole in Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol. 2 (1826), ending with the somewhat cryptic remark that “giving more scandal than satisfaction, he returned to Amsterdam.”

Why Torrentius left England in 1642 is unclear. One possibility could be the outbreak of the English Civil War which would eventually lead to the beheading of his patron. It remains odd that he chose to return to a country that had essentially banished him. And indeed it did not last long before Torrentius was imprisoned yet again, this time in Amsterdam, on the old charges. His incarceration was brief this time, perhaps because he was ill. He returned to his mother’s house where he died, some say of syphilis. On 7 February 1644 he was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), which is remarkable for someone considered to be a heretic, a blasphemer and a devil worshipper.

Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Jan Veenhuysen, 1665, Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Was Torrentius a Rosicrucian? One cannot exclude it, but there is, so far, no concrete evidence. In all likelihood there was no organised Rosicrucianism in the early 17th century Republic but rather a libertine subculture that was considered dangerous by the newly established Dutch Reformed Church and therefore by the State at a time when religion and politics were inextricably entwined. After all, Torrentius had followers, although Huygens describes the clan around the painter as “dim-witted” and credulous. But the authorities, so soon after closely avoiding civil war, could not afford to take risks. The painter behaved much like a modern pop star and deliberately provoked, loved his wealth and flaunted it at a time when modesty was deemed not only a religious virtue but a duty. Not being a poorter (citizen) of Haarlem, he became an easy target to make an example of to hold up to other free-thinkers in the city.

Selected literature:

  1. Leyds-veer-schuyts-praetgen tusschen een koopman ende borgher van Leyden (etc.), 1628, a popular pamphlet in verse about the case, contains amongst others, the defence plea by sollicitor R. Schoorel.
  2. T. Schrevelius (1645 and 1648) and S. Ampzing’s (1628) Descriptions of the city of Haarlem contain chapters on the case.
  3. Constantijn Huygens, Mijn Jeugd (Memoires of my Youth), written in Latin, was begun in 1629 and abandoned two years later. Intended by Huygens for private circulation, the manuscript was not published until 1897. I have used the 1987 translation by C.L. Heesakkers.
  4. Most court documents and correspondence are quoted in Abraham Bredius, Johannes Torrentius: Schilder, 1909 and, by the same author, “Torrentius: een nalezing”, in Oud Holland, 1917.
  5. A.J. Rehorst, Torrentius, 1939, is devoted to proving Torrentius’ Rosicrucianism.
  6. S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, De jonge Rembrandt onder tijdgenoten: godsdienst en schilderkunst in Leiden en Amsterdam, dissertation, 2006.
  7. G. Snoek, De Rozekruisers in Nederland, dissertation, 2007.