Fit for a Queen: Amsterdam’s 1898 Rembrandt exhibition

The Late Rembrandt exhibition in London and Amsterdam prompted me to reflect on the first Rembrandt exhibition held in Amsterdam in 1898. Any comparison between a pioneering exhibition held 127 years ago and a so-called “blockbuster” staged today would be pointless and unfair, but it is interesting to see where it all started, what the motivations of the organisers were and how the exhibition was received by the public. In addition, the 1898 exhibition was the point of departure for attribution debates which still continue today.

The new Queen and the new King of Painters

Thérèse Schwartze, official inaugural portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898, Dutch Royal Collecion

Thérèse Schwartze, inaugural portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898, Royal Palace Amsterdam

In 1898, when she would have reached the tender age of 18, Princess Wilhelmina’s inauguration as Queen of The Netherlands would take place in the capital, Amsterdam. The solemn event was to be accompanied by festivities, pageants and historic and folkloric exhibitions in the young Queen’s honour. These had been years in the planning but it was not until January 1897 that the idea for an Old Masters exhibition was launched. On the initiative of the influential Abraham Bredius, a member of Amsterdam artist society Arti and Amicitiae, and his former assistant art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, this idea was rejected in favour of an exhibition dedicated to the newly rediscovered King of Dutch Painters: Rembrandt. The 1898 exhibition would be the first ever exhibition dedicated to a single Old Master. With royal approval duly received in September 1897, exactly one year before the exhibition would open, the special exhibition committee, which included artist members of Arti et Amicitiae and honorary member art historian Wilhelm von Bode, could set to work in earnest.

Securing loans: success and disappointment

It was evident that the very few remaining Rembrandts in Dutch collections would not suffice and that foreign loans would have to be secured. Once Queen Victoria agreed to lend two Rembrandt paintings, the German Emperor and other (mostly aristocratic) collectors and institutions soon followed suit. In six months Hofstede de Groot secured the loans of 124 paintings and over 350 drawings from all over Europe, an astonishing feat.

Portrait of an old woman, perhaps Elisabeth Bas, possibly by Ferndinand Bol, c. 1640-5, Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol (?), Portrait of an old woman, perhaps Elisabeth Bas, c. 1640-5, Rijksmuseum

From the start the Rijksmuseum had made its four Rembrandts, the Night Watch, the Syndics, the Jewish Bride and the fragment of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deyman, available for the exhibition. For the public favourite, however, the Portrait of “Elisabeth Bas”, today no longer considered an autograph work, the museum’s insurance demands were so excessive that the painting could not be included. The reason for this may have been a furious letter sent to Rijksmuseum’s director Van Riemsdijk by the family that had bequeathed the painting to the Dutch State in 1880, stating unequivocally that such a loan would violate the conditions of the bequest.

Other disappointments followed: Stockholm’s Museum declined to send Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis and some drawings on the – understandable – grounds that it considered the transportation risks too high; the Scottish National Gallery simply replied that it never lent art works. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the Six family’s refusal to lend Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six, a decision that met with criticism in the local press.

Exhibition label from the back of Rembrandt's "Diana and Actaeon", Wasserburg Anholt collection, Isselburg

Exhibition label from the back of Rembrandt’s “Diana and Actaeon”, Wasserburg Anholt collection, Isselburg

Venue: the Stedelijk Museum

The Stedelijk Museum in its opening year 1895 with the Rijksmuseum in the background, photographer Jacob Olie, City Archives Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum in its opening year 1895 with the Rijksmuseum in the background, photographer Jacob Olie, City Archives Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum, which had opened its doors to the public in 1895, had been selected as venue from the first and graciously agreed to make a number of its galleries available free of charge. That the Rijksmuseum, which had opened only ten years earlier, was not considered may have been due to public disappointment with its poor lighting conditions. Although the Stedelijk Museum had been built along the same lines (ground floor rooms with light flooding in from windows and first floor galleries lit by skylights), the size of windows, skylights and rooms were better aligned so that the Stedelijk Museum’s lighting plan was deemed more successful.

One of the rooms in the Stedelijk Museum exhibiting Rembrand drawings, 1898

Room 26 in the Stedelijk Museum exhibiting Rembrandt drawings, 1898

Paintings and drawings formed the nucleus of the first Rembrandt exhibition but it also included 400 reproductions of absent paintings which had been made available by the French publisher of Bode’s 1897 book on the artist so that Rembrandt’s painted and drawn oeuvre was represented in its entirety (according to the standards of the time). Rembrandt’s etchings would be exhibited simultaneously in the Rijksmuseum, but few people would bother to go there. Drawings were grouped according to lenders: Museum Fodor, Teylers Museum, the Dresden and Weimar collections and private collectors among whom A. von Beckerath (Berlin), John Postle Heseltine (London) and Léon Bonnat (Paris). There appears to have been no catalogue of the drawings, nor are there photographs of the display of the reproductions.

“Aesthetic hangings”

Today monograph exhibitions are organised chronologically or thematically. The Rembrandt exhibition of 1898 was organised aesthetically which involved rigid, strictly symmetrical groupings of paintings.

The "aesthetic hang" in one of the exhibition galleries, 1898

The “aesthetic hang” in room 27, 1898

In the center of each wall would be a large and preferably important painting, flanked by three, four and in a few cases even five corresponding formats, preferably in comparable frames and with the necessary thematic diversion among pairs. Three artists and Arti et Amicitiae members, among whom the painter George Breitner, were responsible for this concept which today would be unthinkable.

Room 28 of the exhibition, looking into room 27

Room 28 of the exhibition, looking into room 27

At the time, the “aesthetic hang” met with great approval. Art critic Paul Schumann, writing in the Dresdener Anzeiger (late October 1898), was delighted that the paintings

… are hung with great artistic sensibility. Everything that could distract from Rembrandt’s masterpieces has been avoided; these alone shine, happily not in chronological order but solely according to aesthetic merit so that one’s appreciation for the genius who created the works only increases.

The Night Watch light controversy

An amusing controversy accompanied the exhibition. In 1898 Rembrandt’s Night Watch was to be shown in one of the Stedelijk Museum‘s smaller ground floor rooms: the outcome of heated debates that had started as soon as the Rijksmuseum had opened its doors in 1885. In the Trippenhuis, the Rijksmuseum’s precursor, the painting had been lit from windows on its left, the same light direction Rembrandt had applied to his painting.

Cartoon on the light controversy by W. van Konijnenbelt in the Nederlandsche Spectator, 12 November 1898. Rembrandt's statue despairs as Josef Israëls (on the ground) and others battle it out

Rembrandt’s statue despairs as Josef Israëls (on the ground) and others battle it out. Nederlandsche Spectator, 1898.

From 1885 the painting was housed in the specially designed Rembrandt Gallery in the new Rijksmuseum. No longer could the painting be admired in its familiar domestic environment but instead was fixed in a monumental, immovable frame between two columns in a pompously decorated gallery hung with theatrical draperies where – even worse – it was lit by skylights. Contemporary artists in particular protested vehemently and veteran artist Josef Israëls fulminated in an 1889 newspaper that the “once so resonant and lively painting now hangs in the Rijksmuseum and is trampled to death.” Not surprisingly, the “pro side light lobby” anxiously awaited the opportunity to prove its point. On 30 August 1898 the enormous painting, newly framed and securely crated, was transported from the Rijksmuseum across Museum Square to the Stedelijk Museum. Once it had arrived at the Stedelijk Museum, the painting – not without difficulty – was hoisted through the window of Room 6.

Sketch by Jozef Israëls of the Night Watch in its room at the Stedelijk Museum, 1898

Jozef Israëls, sketch, 1898, Rijksmuseum

No images of the Night Watch in its temporary housing have survived other than a hasty sketch by Jozef Israëls, but its display with the desired lighting conditions was a resounding success with most art lovers. The Rotterdamsche Courant raved:

This room on the ground floor receives a warm sunlight coming from two windows on the side which can be darkened by curtains if desired. In addition glass curtains ensure that sunlight does not fall directly on the painted surface. The painting, in a simple rosewood frame, stands on the floor. Visitors coming from the dark front hall and entering the room find themselves immediately in the most favourable lighting conditions.

Visitor numbers

The success of an exhibition, then as now, is measured in visitor numbers. The 1898 exhibition counted on the most “civilised” part of the population which becomes clear from the exhibition poster (in French!) and the prohibitive entrance fee of 2.50 guilders. During the official run of the exhibition 43,000 people from the “better classes” visited. A three-day extension was proposed and granted so that the less affluent would be able to visit the exhibition for the much lower admission fee of 25 cents. With 8,000 additional visitors the total visitor number rose to 51,000, an average daily total of 800 “affluent” people during the first two months and 2,500 during the additional three days.

Various publications in four languages accompanied the exhibition, all with texts by Hofstede de Groot. A sober catalogue listed all paintings chronologically, but people could also subscribe to a series of forty photo-engravings which came in handsome, patterned portfolios designed by Lion Cachet. The portfolios were available in various colours, materials and price ranges; the most luxurious cost 600 guilders in 1899. With these luxury products the publishers also aimed at the American market where Rembrandt was just being discovered. In the next decades many Rembrandt paintings that had belonged to European collections were sold overseas.

A tour of the exhibition with Jan Veth

Jan Veth, self-portrait,

Jan Veth, self-portrait, 1887, Dordrechts Museum

Jan Veth (1864-1925), accomplished portraitist and art critic, published profusely on contemporary art and old masters, especially Rembrandt whose etchings he collected. Veth’s observations on the exhibition appeared in an article published on 3 October 1898. They are typical of the Dutch artistic movement of the time: emotional and hyper-individual. But Veth also had a keen eye for quality and was not easily hoodwinked when it came to attributions.

In the first room of the exhibition hung Christ and the adulterous woman from the Weber collection in Hamburg. Veth was not impressed:

It is inconceivable to me that someone should think this a Rembrandt. The signature is palpably false but how fake, too, is the coarse, lumpy old guy with monstrous hands, how fake the female head with holes torn in it, how fake the grumpy chimpanzee that has to assume the role of Christ, how fake Van Dyke [sic] and not at all Rembrandtesque the action, the entire clumsy composition. Certainly, at first sight there is something attractive in parts of the coloration, but that is all.

Christ and the adulterous woman, in 1898 given to Rembrandt

Christ and the adulterous woman, (signed “Rembrandt f. 1644”), 1898 collection Ed.F. Weber, Hamburg; 1980s deaccessioned by the Walker Art Gallery; sold at Bonhams in 2011

Veth’s comment was later confirmed by Bredius who did not include the painting in his authoritative 1935 Rembrandt catalogue.

Opposite Christ and the Adulterous Woman hung Rembrandt with Saskia at her dressing table, a then famous painting lent by Queen Victoria. “A disappointment”, Veth concluded,

… one would have expected more from this painting. Does it hang poorly in Buckingham Palace so that no one questions it? Here in strong light something tawny seems to come over it. Notwithstanding the richness of the jewelry and gown it is not at all effective. The piece from Dresden is so much better. [By the latter Veth meant Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son in the Tavern, c. 1637]

Rembrandt, a woman trying on earrings, 1654, Hermitage

Rembrandt, 1654, Hermitage

Veth was not alone in his disappointment and it can be said that Queen Victoria’s painting lost its reputation in Amsterdam. Today it is thought to be a pastiche of the Young Woman Trying on Earrings from the Hermitage St Petersburg and a lost likeness of the painter from the 1630s.

Among the other paintings Veth thought very little of was the Portrait of an Old Man with dishevelled hair: “Generally called the bellowing ox. Out of respect for the master I refuse to believe in its authenticity.”

Saul and David in the second exhibition room, on loan from the Parisian art dealer Durand-Ruel, on the other hand impressed Veth:

This masterful painting becomes more perfect the more I see it. The cunning David playing his harp with downcast eyes – and soul-sick Saul and his daring, but in its simplicity moving, gesture of wiping away a tear with the curtain – and the regal nature of that Saul … With minimal treatment the tonality could be restored and then one would enjoy the painting even more.

Abraham Bredius in 1905

Abraham Bredius in 1905

Nevertheless, some Rembrandt connoisseurs, among them Bode, doubted the painting’s authenticity. Abraham Bredius, however, shared Veth’s enthusiasm. When Hofstede de Groot promised to make 25,000 guilders available from the exhibition’s revenues, the Rembrandt Society was prepared to buy the painting on condition that one-fourth of the total sum of approximately 100,000 guilders should come from private donations and one-fourth from the State. The Ministry refused. Bredius, undeterred, and above all very wealthy, announced to the world (that is to say: to The Hague where he lived) that he would sell his horse and carriage to acquire the painting. It was not an empty threat: on 7 November 1898, three days after the exhibition finally closed, he sent the following telegram: Saul bought so not back Paris but direct to Mauritshuis The Hague deux cent mille! = Bredius. 

"Lysbeth van Rijn", 1898 Coll. Hofstede de Groot; today Groninger Museum (c. 1675)

“Lysbeth van Rijn”, 1898 Coll. Hofstede de Groot; today Groninger Museum (c. 1675)

In the same room hung the painting then known as Rembrandt’s Kitchen Maid, today attributed to Rembrandt pupil Willem Drost, which epitomised the popular view of the artist at the time: Rembrandt’s paintings mirrored his life. At the 1898 exhibition all were present: his father and mother, his brother Adriaen, his sister Lysbeth (lent by Hofstede de Groot himself!), Saskia and Titus, Hendrickje (Geertgen had not yet emerged from the archives) – and the kitchen maid. Veth saw “something tame” in the latter, “notwithstanding the clarity of light and wildness of subject”.

In one of the smaller rooms on the first floor the Man in Armour from Glasgow dominated one of the walls (“Delacroix’s dream painted by Vollon,” was Veth’s comment) with on its left the Portrait of a Boy (in 1898 owned by Earl Spencer, Althorp Park; today Norton Simon Museum) which Veth considered “a beautiful thing”.

Room 24, 1898

The sensation of the exhibition, certainly for art lovers, hung in the center of the long wall in this room: the painting then known by the impossible title Portrait of a Polish Rider in the costume of the regiment of Lysowsky in a landscape (today simply The Polish Rider), discovered in Poland by Bredius only the year before. Veth:

One look at the painting and only a few seconds of studying its technique convinced me that one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces hung in that god-forsaken place for a hundred years. Something of the surprise in the Landscape with Tobias, the things where he [Rembrandt] seems to step out of his skin as it were. The entire composition is permeated with sonority. 

Here Veth’s critical eye momentarily let him down: the Tobias and the Angel in a Mountainous Landscape is hardly a Rembrandt and was not included in Bredius’ 1935 catalogue.

Concerning the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cloak, recently re-attributed to Rembrandt by the Rembrandt Research Project for (seemingly) no other reason than that they regard it as a study for the man in the Jewish Bride, Veth was brief. “Seen”, he noted.

The painting that had been highly praised by Rembrandt’s contemporary Constantijn Huygens, Judas returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, disappointed many, including Jan Veth: “In the conventional figures surrounding the high priest there are poorly executed areas that remind one of an old copy or of overpaintings.” He was right: the version shown in the exhibition, then owned by Baron Arthur de Schinckler, was an early copy. Only in 1939 would the version acquired by Lord Iveagh in 1874 be acknowledged as Rembrandt’s original.

What did Veth think of the Night Watch now that it finally hung in a room where it was lit from the left? His only comment was an enigmatic: “Well …”

The return of the Night Watch

Rembrandt's Night Watch photographed outside the Stedelik Museum

Rembrandt’s Night Watch photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum

On 7 November 1898 the Night Watch, having been photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum on two consecutive days, returned to the Rijksmuseum. Its return was as eagerly anticipated as its temporary home in the Stedelijk Museum had been: the detractors of the painting’s location in the Rijksmuseum were keen to compare. First on the scene was Abraham Bredius and in his reaction, published the next day, he did not mince words: “The location of Rembrandt’s masterpiece is vandalism of the highest order.” The press, amused by the controversy, contributed a tongue-in-cheek compromise: “Light from above AND from the side.”

Cartoon by G. Kerkhoff in "De Amsterdammer", 20 November 1998: "The Night Watch matter resolved - light from above AND from the side (stiff necks after the visit)

Cartoon in “De Amsterdammer”, 20 November 1998: “The Night Watch matter resolved – light from above AND from the side (stiff necks after the visit)”

Eventually the “side light lobby” won a Pyrrhic victory: Rembrandt Year 1906 saw the opening of the “Rembrandt extension” at the Rijksmuseum, a newly built exhibition space behind the Night Watch Gallery where visitors could admire the painting under the same lighting conditions it had had in the Trippenhuis and in its temporary home at the Stedelijk Museum. Twenty years later, however, a new generation thought differently and the painting was restored to its original location in the Night Watch Gallery.

The Rijksmuseum's "Rembrandt extension" in 1906

The Rijksmuseum’s “Rembrandt extension”, 1906

London and beyond

Contrary to the Late Rembrandt exhibition today, the 1898 exhibition took the reverse route. After its successful run in Amsterdam the Rembrandt exhibition traveled to London’s Royal Academy as the institution’s 30th Winter Exhibition (2 January-11 March 1899). 102 paintings were exhibited in four rooms, a fifth room was devoted to drawings. Only six paintings came from Europe’s mainland so that for the first time virtually the entire collection of Rembrandt’s paintings in the United Kingdom and Ireland were united under one roof. Such an exhibition had not been possible in The Netherlands: while the Dutch were Rembrandt’s rightful heirs, his inheritance had largely been sold abroad.

Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, image KNAW

Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, image KNAW

The attribution aftermath was fierce. At the time of the Amsterdam exhibition, criticism had been mostly verbal which had upset Hofstede de Groot, its organiser. Vexed, he stated categorically that “all exhibited paintings are authentic”, but this only fuelled the debate even more. Perhaps tragically, for Hofstede de Groot the Rembrandt of the 1898 exhibition remained the one and only Rembrandt until his death in 1930. Bredius was more flexible: of the 124 paintings shown, 29 did not make his 1935 catalogue.

As for the exhibition’s objective, to honour the new Queen of the Netherlands through its King of Painters, this had been achieved in more ways than one. In The Netherlands the popularity of the monarchy had been waning, as had Rembrandt’s reputation. The exuberant inauguration festivities in Amsterdam revived the monarchy’s popularity while the first Rembrandt exhibition established the artist’s reputation once and for all. As Hofstede de Groot concluded in his catalogue introduction:

The Dutch could have paid no nobler homage to their young Queen and her coronation, than by bringing together a collection of the masterpieces of the greatest painter to whom Holland has given birth.

Notes:

  1. The images of the exhibition are from a folio containing fourteen silver collodion photographs of the preparation and installation of the 1898 Rembrandt exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum
  2. Jan Veth’s extensive tour of the exhibition appeared in De Kroniek, no. 201, 4 (1898), pp. 335-151 under the title “Uit een geannoteerden catalogus van de Rembrandt-tentoonstelling” (From an annotated catalogue of the Rembrandt exhibition)

“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)

“In all their glory”: Amsterdam civic guards portraits – (1) Humble beginnings

Dutch civic guards group portraits of the 17th century are world famous both for their artistic merit and as a genre unique to art. Invariably we see in these incredibly large paintings men dressed in all their finery, posing formally or seated around a table enjoying copious festive meals. A unique summer exhibition in Amsterdam’s former Town Hall, today the Royal Palace, has united several Amsterdam civic guards paintings in their 18th century location following the description by the city appointed painter/restorer Jan van Dyk (c. 1690-1769). What makes this exhibition even more unique is that it is held in two rooms on the third floor of the Palace that have not been open to the public in two hundred years: the Large and Small War Council Rooms (fig. 1).

Panorama overview of the east wall of the Great War Council Chamber in the Royal Palace Amsterdam. Photo: Stichting Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam

1. Panoramic overview of the exhibition “In All Their Glory”, showing the east wall of the Large War Council Chamber in the Royal Palace Amsterdam. Photo: Stichting Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam

The exhibition is an excellent opportunity to explore Amsterdam civic guards portraits in more detail. In this first post: artistic and historical origins. As we shall see, the artistic beginnings were humble. In addition, early civic guards portraits are generally poorly preserved, a fact that was noted as early as 1653 when Gerard Schaep writes: “An old piece. In which my great-grandfather Jacob Schaep Pietersz is in the foreground. But the painting is becoming unrecognisable because of the flaking.” I nevertheless think it is worth while to trace the artistic and historical background of this unique genre of paintings.

Jerusalem pilgrims

Amsterdam Jerusalem Pilgrims, anonymous, c. 1520, oil on panel, 99x23 cm, Catharijneconvent Utrecht

2. Amsterdam Jerusalem Pilgrims, anonymous, c. 1520, oil on panel, 99×23 cm, Catharijneconvent Utrecht

Chapel of St Olof today. Photo: BMA Amsterdam

3. Chapel of St Olof today. Photo: BMA Amsterdam

Perhaps the earliest manifestation of Dutch group portraits, that is to say: still within a religious context but no longer on (memorial) altars and consisting of groups of individuals rather than of members of a family, are portraits of Jerusalem Pilgrims. The majority of these are lost but it is known from archival sources that several were produced in Amsterdam. Not all members made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land: to become a member it sufficed to have the intention to go there. A rare survival is the portrait of four Amsterdam Jerusalem pilgrims showing them kneeling in much in the same way as families were depicted on traditional memorial altars, but here they are shown in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a long way from home (fig. 2). Jerusalem pilgrims, mostly non-clergy belonged to a confraternity consisting of wealthy men and women. They had their own dedicated chapel: Saint Olof’s next to the medieval Saint Olof city gate (fig. 3).

Jerusalem Pilgrims portraits seem to be a strong personal influence in the development of certain artists such as Jan van Scorel (1495-1562) (fig. 4) who, as we have seen, was a pupil of Amsterdam painter Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen. It is tempting to think that Jacob’s son Dirck Jacobsz (1487-1567), painter of the earliest surviving civic guards portrait (1529) was familiar with his work. As suggested in my second post on Van Oostsanen, it is not inconceivable that Van Scorel, upon his return from Italy, spent some time in Amsterdam visiting his former Master’s studio.

Jan van Scorel, Twelve Jerusalem Pilgrims, c. 1525, 61.7x 288.1 cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Van Scorel has depicted himself as the fifth figure from the right

4. Jan van Scorel, Twelve Jerusalem Pilgrims, c. 1525, 61.7x 288.1 cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Van Scorel has depicted himself as the fifth figure from the right

Dirck Jacobs’ portraits certainly betray manneristic influences such as we see in Van Scorel’s paintings after his return from Italy in 1518. Van Scorel may have been the first artist to dispense with a religious spiritual setting and to portray his sitters in a static row. The palm branch each pilgrim carries symbolises both their participation in the pilgrimage and their role in the annual Palm Procession where their task was to accompany a “Palm Donkey”, a life-size sculpture of Christ on a donkey, the symbol of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Apart from their religious and charitable duties, the confraternity also gathered socially, for instance during annual festive meals. In this, it did not differ from the civic guards guilds. Both had communal duties, both enjoyed privileges in return. Another similarity was that civic guard membership, given the expensive equipment members were expected to acquire at their own costs, was restricted to the more affluent citizens. And of course, if you wanted to be included in a group portrait, you had to be able to afford to pay your share. Both the Jerusalem Pilgrims and the civic guards did differ from other guilds in an important respect: in a traditional guild people practising the same craft united whereas the Jerusalem Pilgrims and civic guards members practised different professions.

Seventeen civic guards of Division (Rot) A of the Kloveniers, 1531 attributed to Cornelis Anthonisz (?), oil on panel, 115x195 cm, Amsterdam Museum

5. Seventeen civic guards of Division (Rot) A of the Kloveniers, 1531
attributed to Cornelis Anthonisz (?), oil on panel, 115×195 cm, Amsterdam Museum

An early Amsterdam civic guards group portrait, today tentatively ascribed to Dirck Jacobsz nephew Cornelis Anthonisz (1500-1561) shows a composition very similar to Van Scorel’s Jerusalem Pilgrims (fig. 5). In addition, apart from the seventeen civic guards being clad in full harnass, the imaginary Italianate landscape is reminiscent of Van Scorel’s work. Given Van Scorel’s demonstrable influence on his portraits, I am inclined to suggest Dirck Jacobsz or an anonymous collaborator as its possible author. The inscriptions on the labels quoting the philosopher Seneca in Latin and Dutch emphasise the Christian moral duty of the civic guards: “We are bonded by this solemn oath to bear worldly matters patiently and to not let us be affected by matters we do not have the power to avoid. Seneca”. The Latin word Sacramentum refers to the Miracle of Amsterdam and at the top right the host (the sacrament) is being shown by angels. In spite of the first signs of the Reformation having reached Amsterdam, this is still very much a catholic painting.

Law, order and privileges

In the Middle Ages, guarding Amsterdam’s city wall and gates was very much a communal affair. In addition to a small number of paid gatekeepers, nightwatchmen and the schout (sheriff) and his men, each “honest” citizen (that is to say: men who had something to lose should the city be under threat) was required to serve the communitas: they had to contribute to day and night watches and civic militia expeditions, to maintain order, extinguish fires and such. These tasks were clearly defined and strictly controlled in regulations issued by the city’s magistrates.

The oldest surviving civic guards portrait is the center panel depicting 17 civic guards of the Kloveniers, by Dirck Jacobz, 1529. The "wings" depicting 7 figures each, were added later, 1529 and or 1532-35, oil on panel, signed ANO DNI 1529 DMI, Rijksmuseum

6. The oldest surviving civic guards portrait is the center panel depicting 17 civic guards of the Kloveniers, by Dirck Jacobz, 1529. The “wings” depicting 7 figures each, were added 1532-35, oil on panel,
signed ANO DNI 1529 DMI, Rijksmuseum

Crossbow of Saint George's guild, 1580-99, wood, iron, ivory, rope, Amsterdam Museum

7. Crossbow of Saint George’s guild, 1580-99, wood, iron, ivory, rope, Amsterdam Museum

In addition, Amsterdam had some six hundred schutters (shooters) organised in three guilds. The oldest, that of the archers of Saint George, was probably founded in the mid 14th century. In a document of 1471 two other guilds are mentioned, the “young archers” of Saint George (meaning simply founded later than the older guild of the same name) and the crossbowmen of Saint Sebastian (fig. 7). The old Saint George guild ran into financial difficulties and was disbanded in 1516; in 1520 it re-emerged as the Kloveniers, immortalised, among others, in Rembrandt’s Nightwatch over a century later. They were named after the klover (arquebus), the firearm that replaced the old-fashioned longbow. The klover was also, after some resistance, adopted by the other guilds although they kept their traditional names of archers (handboog) and crossbow (voetboog) guild. Each company was initially divided into twelve rotten (divisions) of seventeen men each.

The civic guards guilds had their own headquarters (doelen) with well appointed shooting ranges. These can clearly be identified on Cornelis Anthonisz’ bird’s eye view map of 1544 (figs. 8 and 9). In addition to their militia duties, the men also had specific privileges such as annual shooting contests held in May, participating in parades and processions (for instance on the occasion of an important foreign visit such as that of the Emperor Charles V in 1515), copious banquets enlivened by music and plays (fig. 10) (described by their detractors as “gorging, boozing and reveling”), and holding religious services in beautifully appointed guild chapels in one of the city’s churches.

The annual shooting contests were called papegaaischieten. The men could demonstrate their prowess with firearms, longbow and crossbow by shooting a wooden bird (the “parrot”) from a tall pole and the winners were crowned “king” of a respective guild for one year. Winners were entitled to wear the costly guild chain and to carry the guild’s scepter. The exquisitely crafted guild chains of the mid-16th century preserved in the Amsterdam Museum testify to the wealth of these guilds (figs. 11 and 12).

Bartholomeus van der Helst, Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild, 1648, detail, Rijksmuseum

15. Bartholomeus van der Helst, Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild, 1648, detail, Rijksmuseum

Elaborately decorated drinking horns (figs. 13 and 14) commissioned around the same time as the chains were obviously a symbol of pride for the civic guards companies as they feature in several 17th century guards portraits (for example see fig. 15). They continued to have a ceremonial function: important agreements were symbolically concluded by the governors of a civic guard company drinking wine from the beautifully crafted guild drinking horn. Sometimes a winner of the parrot shooting contest got extremely lucky: a painting of a “prize ox” adorned with laurels, dated 1564 (fig. 17), describes on the frame and on the painting how one Jacob Reyersz Boon won the parrot shooting contest in two consecutive years, so that apart from becoming “guild king” he was also awarded the additional prize of a magnificent ox, 1.5 meters tall and measuring three meters in circumference. Amsterdam was not yet as urbanised as it would become in later years and the cattle market was still held in the Kalverstraat close to Dam Square. An ox therefore does not seem such a strange prize at the time.

A curious group portrait dated 1534 shows eighteen civic guards including two “kings” in a prominent position, identifiable by the guild chains they wear (each guild only had one so the painter simply copied it) and the scepter they are holding (fig. 16). The second “king” is presumably a civic guard of the same division who won the shooting contest the year before and who, in 1534, was no longer a member of the division which explains why eighteen and not the customary seventeen guards are depicted. Between the two “kings” stands a rifleman loading his klover; apparently they are men of the Kloveniers guild. The landscape is a fantasy landscape with castles, just as in the group portrait attributed to Cornelis Anthonisz above (fig. 5). The panel is heavily overpainted and attribution is therefore difficult: the “king” on the left, for instance, is entirely the work of an early restorer.

Power

Were armed civic guards, consisting essentially of armed, well-to-do citizens, necessary? Certainly Amsterdam faced threats from the outside. In the Middle Ages the Bishops of Utrecht, for example, sought dominance over the city and a military siege was a realistic threat. Not for nothing was the city wall gate facing in the direction of Utrecht ominously called Swych Utrecht (literally: “be silent, Utrecht”; presumably from the word “zwicht” which means “surrender”). As long as the danger came from the other side of the robust city walls, the city was fairly well protected by its well organised and committed community.

Caricature of a parrot shooting contest: civic guards against the clergy, 1566, Rijksmuseum

18. Anonymous caricature of a parrot shooting contest: civic guards against the clergy, 1566, Rijksmuseum

But as soon as the city’s peace was threatened from within, the city’s civic militias proved less adequate. Two causes can be named in this respect: the rapid growth of the population, bringing with it over-population with its resulting rise in criminality and, a greater threat, the problem posed by the Reformation which essentially came to divide the city in the 16th century (fig. 18). It is not surprising that the series of civic guards group portraits, steadily added to from 1529 onwards, was interrupted during times of civic unrest: the Anabaptist rebellion of 1535 resulting in the change of the city’s government in 1538, the Iconoclasm of 1566 (during which the civic guards chose the side of the rampaging Calvinists) and the “civil war” of 1617-1619. In 1578 the civic militias played a decisive role in the city’s ultimate adoption of Protestantism, the Alteration, and it was they who physically ousted the catholic magistrates from the city. Important as they were in keeping the peace within the city walls, being armed and organised they also posed an inherent danger to that very peace and order. To keep this danger at bay, the city magistrates saw to it that the guards’ captains and governors were appointed from within their intimate circles.

Competition and new artistic impulse

When the old Saint George’s guild was disbanded, its headquarters were sold to pay off the guild’s debts and when, in 1520, they re-formed as the Kloveniers guild, the city placed the medieval city wall tower Swych Utrecht at their disposal to use as headquarters (fig. 19). Once the oldest, now the youngest and lowest ranking of the civic militia companies, the cramped premises of Swijgh Utrecht contrasted sharply with the magnificent headquarters of the Voetboog and Handboog civic guards on the Singel; particularly the latter could boast of a splendid building rising high above its surroundings (fig. 20).

It is possible that envy caused artistic rivalry: once the Kloveniers had initiated the first group portraits, the other civic guards companies could not stay behind. Art historically this coincided with the secularisation of the painted portrait in Amsterdam, something that had already occurred in Flanders and Italy. For Amsterdam painters, who were faced with the demise of the Catholic Church as their main source of income, this must have come as a godsend. Given the civic guards portraits from the 16th and 17th century that have survived and even taking into account that several have not, the sheer number is staggering and the many commissions must have kept painters extremely busy. It helped that some such as Dirck Cornelisz were civic guard guild members: they no doubt acquired commissions that way.

Dirck Barendsz, civic guards of division G of the Voetboogdoelen, 1562, oil on panel, 142x182 cm, dated top left: Anno a Christo nato 1562, inscription on the note: In Vino Veritas

21. Dirck Barendsz, civic guards of division G of the Voetboog guild, 1562, oil on panel, 142×182 cm, dated top left: Anno a Christo nato 1562, inscription on the note: In Vino Veritas, Amsterdam Museum

A new artistic impulse was given upon the return from Italy of the painter Dirck Barendsz (1534-1592) who, according to Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck (1604), had been “nursed at the great Titian’s bosom”. Titian, of course, never painted group portraits. But whereas the earliest group portraits are stiff and formal, with men grouped mostly in one or two rows and that so rigidly that Houbraken (in 1718) remarked that one could “chop off their heads with one single blow” (see for instance fig. 6), and any variety was only achieved in hand gestures or objects men are holding, Barendsz, in his Civic Guards of Division G (1562) (fig. 21), although largely sticking to compositional conventions, nevertheless achieved a freer arrangement, particularly in his far more accomplished treatment of individual facial features. The inscription In Vino Veritas (in wine there is truth) on the note on the table indicates that by the mid-16th century the civic guard companies, apart from their civic duties, enjoyed a rich social life.

Cornelis Anthonis, the "Braspenning meal" (meal of a division of the Voetboog guild), signed and ated 1533, oil on panel, 130x206.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

22. Cornelis Anthonisz, the “Braspenning meal” (meal of Division D of the Voetboog Guild), signed and dated 1533, oil on panel, 130×206.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

With his broad technique Barendsz accomplished a plasticity that released the Amsterdam portrait from the rather rigid poses of earlier portraits. Following the innovative composition of Cornelis Anthonisz in his Braspenningmaaltijd of 1531 (fig. 22) (so nicknamed because of the guards’ rather frugal meal: a braspenning coin was worth not much more than five cents), where the sitters are arranged around a dinner table, Barendsz, in his Poseters (Ruffe Eaters, named after the fish they are served) of 1566, took this a step further and achieved a relative liveliness that was new in Amsterdam group portraiture (fig. 23). The merits of Cornelis Anthonisz’ painting, who was himself a member of the Voetboog civic guards, pays great attention to the details on the table and the harmonisation of the colour scheme. The beautiful calligraphy of the letter D was a hallmark of the Van Oostsanen workshop (see previous posts). Quite possibly the man portrayed top left holding a lead pencil in his hand, seated right below the date and signature, is a self-portrait of Cornelis Anthonisz, who was thirty-three years old at the time.

Dirck Barendsz, meal of 18 civic guards of the Kloveniers division F (the "poseters") 1566, oil on panel, 120×295, Rijksmuseum

23. Dirck Barendsz, meal of 18 civic guards of the Kloveniers division F (the “Poseters”) 1566, oil on panel, 120×295, Rijksmuseum

Fashion trends

Detail from Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, 1637, Amsterdam

24. Detail from Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, 1637, Amsterdam

What immediately strikes one in 17th century civic guards portraits, such Frans Hals and Pieter Codde’s Militia Company of District XI of 1637 (fig. 24), are the sumptuous colourful costumes, the laces and silks the men are wearing. How different, as we have seen in the examples above, were things during the 16th century. Under the influence of Remonstrantism and humanism but also that of the Spanish court of the Southern Netherlands, both of which prescribed restrained clothing, the men generally wear sober attire consisting of a dark tabard with a doublet underneath. Indeed, observing the earliest group portraits, we see that, for instance in Cornelis Anthonisz’ Braspenning Meal (1533) (fig. 22) all men were the exact same attire, a 16th century custom denoting a group’s social status or class. Fashion followed strict guidelines: decrees and/or social codes dictated who could wear satin, silk brocade, fur or fine and rough linen.

An exception to this is the jerkin with vertical splits originally worn by common soldiers, which was essentially a cheap version of the cuirass. It is rather unusual that both the court and citizens followed common soldiers’ fashion. At the Habsburg court the common soldiers’ jerkin was even regarded as an act of defiance (or caricature). Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of this, the jerkin with slits came to be worn by the nobility (fig. 25). Prosperous inhabitants of the cities adopted it too and so, perhaps, defied the strict division of the classes.

29. Detail of fig.

29. Detail of fig. 23

In 1978 a leather jerkin was discovered during dredging works on Amsterdam’s Oudezijds Achterburgwal (fig. 26). It can be dated circa 1550 and may have belonged to a member of a civic guard company. In certain early civic guards portraits one of the men wears a controversial leather jerkin with vertical slits, such as in the Seventeen civic guards of Division F of the Kloveniers where the central figure wears such a jerkin (fig. 27). In Dirck Barendsz Civic Guards of Division G, one of the figures sitting left of the table wears also wears the jerkin (fig. 29) as does the central figure in a 1556 civic guards group portrait.

Evidently the choice for such a relatively inexpensive piece of clothing held special meaning for civic guards companies. After all, in spite of their considerable privileges, the men were essentially functioning as the city’s main defence in times of trouble; they were the city’s unpaid soldiers as it were. But perhaps a little defiance on the part of the increasingly emancipated citizens of Amsterdam towards those in power also played a role.

In a further conscious or subconscious imitation of the court and nobility, civic guard guilds, who also sported “kings”, employed a fool or tuymelaer (tumbler), a fact that is not generally known. In one unique case, a civic guards painting of the Crossbowmen’s or Voetboog Guild of 1554, a fool is shown (top right), identified by the owl on his shoulder (fig 30). With a small crossbow insignia ironically topped by a crown in his hand, he grins at us conspiratorially. Included too is a hooded falcon, symbolising that ultimate sport of the nobility: the falcon hunt. Of all the civic guards portraits of the 16th century, this is the only painting where some of the men portrayed are actually showing an inkling of a smile on their lips and a twinkle in their eye.

Civic Guards of Division E of the Crossbow (Voetboog) Guild, 1554, attr. to the Master of the Antwerp Family Portrait, oil on panel, 163.5x206.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

30. Civic Guards of Division E of the Crossbow (Voetboog) Guild, 1554, attr. to the Master of the Antwerp Family Portrait, oil on panel, 163.5×206.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Notes:

  1. The exhibition “In All Their Glory” at Amsterdam’s Royal Palace runs until 31 August 2014. There  no catalogue, but there is an informative website in English here.
  2. For more on the Royal Palace, also see my posts on The Fate of Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis, Parts 1 and 2.
  3. Ownership of the 16th and 17th century group portraits commissioned by Amsterdam’s civic guards gradually reverted to the City of Amsterdam from the third quarter of the 17th century onwards. The majority is still owned by the City and are on permanent loan to the Amsterdam Museum and the Rijksmuseum. It is unique that, with only a few exceptions, these paintings are still located in their city of origine.
  4. For selected sources, see the next instalment here.