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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mask-like faces

Mask-like faces

Rembrandt’s commission for the Town Hall

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

Cornelis de Graeff in 1660 by Artus Quellinus, Rijksmuseum

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

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

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

Rembrandt’s interpretation of the Nocturnal Conspiracy

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

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

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

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

“Warming with the festivities”

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

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

The composition

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


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

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

Munich drawing verso

Munich drawing verso

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

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

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

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

What happened?

The page from Fokkens' 1662 book

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

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

1. The contract with Van Ludick

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

2. Objections to contents

Tempesta's Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1612

Tempesta’s Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1612, Rijksmuseum

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

3. Depressed versus semi-circular arches

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

4. Stylistic clashes with the other paintings in the series

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

5. Water damage

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

6. Rembrandt’s stubbornness

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

From Amsterdam to Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

A treasure hunt at Amsterdam’s Royal Palace

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

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

What might have been

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

Selected sources:

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

The 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.