Ceiling paintings (1672) by Gerard de Lairesse for Andries de Graeff

Since 1913 a tripartite ceiling painting by Gerard de Lairesse (1641-1711), one of the most famous painters of the late Dutch Golden Age, crowns the monumental conference room of the The Hague Peace Palace, which was completed the same year. The Carnegie foundation, responsible for the construction and maintenance of the building, acquired the ceiling in a 1903 auction as Triumph of Peace; a title which matched the future destination of the paintings well. Originally the ceiling series was commissioned by the well-known Amsterdam burgomaster Andriess de Graeff (1611-1678) for the salon (zaal) of his newly constructed residence at the Herengracht’s Golden Bend (present day no. 446). De Lairesse signed his canvases in the “disaster year” of 1672, when the Dutch Republic was at war with France, England and the bishoprics of Munster and Cologne.

The three scenes collectively depict a cloudy sky with various allegorical figures and objects. Several authors have attempted to explain the meaning of this complex composition, however without reaching a final verdict on its interpretation. A highly remarkable discovery, which came to light during a restoration and with the aid of technical research, now makes it possible to provide convincing answers to the questions that have long surrounded the series. All three scenes seem to have, as it appears, undergone significant revisions: while some significant figures and objects were added at a later moment, others were in fact painted over. Research has demonstrated that the changes date in part to the disaster year 1672 and were carried out by De Lairesse himself, or at the very least occurred under his supervision.

In the first version (which would be significantly revised afterwards) the canvases formed an allegory on the Peace of Breda, reached in 1667, which ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). The paintings were, however, changed on at least two additional occasions in the second half of 1672, following the dramatic political situation in the Republic as well as troubling circumstances in Andries de Graeff’s personal life. In this manner, the ceiling provides surprising new insight into the ways in which seventeenth-century elites used interior decorations to present themselves to the public, and even ordered alterations of their contents if topical politics necessitated this.

The reception room of Herengracht 446 also underwent architectural color research and limited architectural archeology, which revealed the manner in which De Lairesse’s canvases were installed in the ceiling and what the original color scheme of the architectural elements originally looked like. A digital reconstruction of the canvases in their original architectural context will be created in order to give a good impression of the visual effects the paintings were intended to have. An analysis of De Lairesse’s instructions on the topic of ceiling paintings in his Groot Schilderboek (1707) demonstrates that he designed these works in close relation to the architectonic space, which therefore is of crucial importance to the experience of his ceiling paintings.

The material technical research commenced during the paintings’ restoration in 2010. This restoration was carried out by Milko den Leeuw and Ingeborg de Jongh of Atelier voor Restauratie en Research van Schilderijen. Research was conducted by Margriet van Eikema Hommes, together with the conservators Manja Zeldenrust, Arie Wallert and Joana Pedroso of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Thread Count Automation Project (TCAP) and students of the University of Amsterdam. Analysis of the paint sample cross-sections, as well as architectural color research and art historical study, took place in the context of the research project From isolation to coherence. The on-site research in the Herengracht 446 building was carried out in collaboration with Ruth Jongsma (Bureau voor kleuronderzoek & restauratie), Restoration workshop Enkzicht, architect Rogier Zinsmeister, and Pieter Vlaardingerbroek (Bureau Monumenten and Archeologie (BMA).

M. van Eikema Hommes en Tatjana van Run, ‘Een hemel op aarde voor burgemeester Andries de Graeff: de samenhang tussen De Lairesses plafondschilderingen en de architectuur’ in: Beauty Rules. Gerard de Lairesse en de Maakbare Schoonheid, exh. cat. Rijksmuseum Twenthe, September 10, 2016 – January 22, 2017.

M. van Eikema Hommes, T. van Run, K. Keune, I. Verslype, A. Wallert, M. den Leeuw, I. de Jongh, “Discoveries during the technical investigation of Gerard de Lairesse’s earliest known ceiling painting (1672)”, in: A. Wallert (ed.), Painting Techniques, postprints of the conference, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, September 2014 (publication date 2016)

An English book about the iconography of the different versions of De Lairesse’s paintings and their original visual context by M. van Eikema Hommes and T. van Run is forthcoming, and expected to be published late 2016.

The research into De Lairesse’s ceiling will be published in Tatjana van Run’s PhD Dissertation, with the work title “Hemelen op aarde. De Amsterdamse productie van plafonddecoraties in particuliere woningen tijdens de late Gouden Eeuw” (expected 2017)

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