Exhibition Review

Gerard de Lairesse. Enschede

WRITING A CATALOGUE and mounting an exhibition on the life and work of Gerard de Lairesse (1640–1711) was the favourite project of the Dutch art historian Bob van den Boogert. The exhibition, scheduled to be held at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, was postponed when the much-loved Van den Boogert died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-six in spring 2015. The museum staff addressed the situation courageously and enlisted a group of Bob’s colleagues and friends to carry out the project: the result was the exhibition Finally! De Lairesse, the first ever devoted to the artist (closed 22nd January 2017).

Lairesse’s work is a powerful demonstration of the phenomenon of changing taste in art, because the perceived value of his work has varied greatly over time. At the age of twenty-four he fled from Liège, his birthplace, after a broken engagement. During a short stay in Utrecht, the noted Amsterdam art dealer Gerrit Uylenburgh succeeded in persuading him to move to Amsterdam. The few paintings by Lairesse that Uylenburgh saw convinced him of the artist’s extraordinary talent. Lairesse, however, did not stay with Uylenburgh long. Within a short time he became one of the most highly esteemed and well-paid painters in Amsterdam, receiving numerous commissions from its financial and political elite.

Lairesse did not adopt the Dutch practice of painting medium-size cabinet pieces of contemporary scenes. Instead, he preferred to create vast wall and ceiling paintings like the great Italian masters (although he never visited Italy). The Regents of Amsterdam offered him numerous commissions to decorate their palatial homes and government buildings, almost exclusively with history paintings. Lairesse’s colleagues, as well as his critics, agreed that he was the outstanding Netherlandish painter of his time.

Fate treated the artist cruelly, for Lairesse went completely blind in 1690, but he did not lose heart and, making a virtue of necessity, began dictating the Groot Schilderboek to his sons, who recorded his words and illustrated the book following their father’s directions. Its frontispiece proclaims that it ‘teaches the Art of Painting and all its parts thoroughly by way of reasoning and printed illustrations’. The first edition of four hundred pages appeared in 1717, preceded by the only slightly less voluminous Grondlegginge der Teekenkonst of 1701. Lairesse was as successful as a writer as he had been as a painter. Both books appeared in countless editions in a host of languages, including a Japanese version in 1787. For more than a century the Groot Schilderboek was the standard international handbook on painting. Lairesse also expounded his ideas in lectures held at his home, which were attended by luminaries of Amsterdam’s intellectual elite, including prominent members of Spinoza’s circle. His clear and ordered manner of reasoning and writing undoubtedly derived from this milieu, and explains the tremendous success of his books. 

Lairesse presents himself as a man on a mission: the teacher and preacher of the infallible rules of painting. He argued that a serious artist should select as his model the most beautiful aspects of nature and avoid the depiction of ugly or old women, ragged beggars, dilapidated buildings or skinny animals. To attain perfect beauty, the painter should model his art on Antique statues and the work of Raphael. By far the most important category was history painting, in which the figures should be drawn with elegant outlines, arranged in an orderly manner and interact with one another in convincing poses. They should also be painted in agreeable colours and lit evenly, while the perspective of the scene should be correct.

These are tenets of classicism, and Lairesse presents them in the most thorough and rigorous manner. As a painter he had practised what he preached in superb fashion, as many of the paintings in this exhibition attest. They show classicism in its perfect and purest form, obeying the ‘rules of art’ that he later propagated in his writings. His œuvre could, so to speak, be by a nephew of Poussin. Classicist tendencies had been current in Holland long before Lairesse, as can be seen in the work of the earlier classicist Caesar van Everdingen (see pp.156–58 of this issue), but never in such ‘undiluted form’. 

The perfection that Lairesse so successfully aspired to, however, gradually lost its appeal around 1800. After that date his theories and paintings were perceived as ‘unnatural’ in a period in which most European intellectuals embraced the ideas of Rousseau,1 and for the first time the masters of realistic Dutch landscape and genre were hailed as great artists. In 1858 the influential French critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger even called works by Lairesse ‘pitoyable’ and ‘très-bête’. Lairesse’s books, too, were described as ‘worthless’ because they were ‘academic’. In 1913 Frederik Schmidt-Degener, director of the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam and later of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, showered abuse on Lairesse’s head, calling him ‘Aterling!’ (Miscreant!). 

The worst sin Lairesse was blamed for posthumously was that he had dared to criticise the work of Rembrandt. Only after the publication of Seymour Slive’s book Rembrandt and his Critics in 1953 and Jan Emmens’s Rembrandt en de regels van de kunst in 1968 could Lairesse’s strident objections to Rembrandt’s art be analysed and discussed to allow us to understand them.2 

Lairesse’s paintings were also freed from limbo, but a one-man exhibition has never been mounted, a conspicuous void that needed to be filled; the show in Enschede splendidly filled this gap. As well as approximately fifty paintings, the exhibition included many of Lairesse’s wonderful etchings and drawings. Among the latter, his large anatomical studies for an album illustrating important medical discoveries took pride of place. Lairesse also designed the sets for Amsterdam’s theatre. 

Many, but not all, paintings in the exhibition displayed the same refined, painterly quality as his Venus arms Aeneas (cat. no.C10; Fig.90) or Cleopatra’s banquet (no.C89; Fig.91). Contemporary authors singled out Lairesse’s grisailles for special praise. The splendour of the stylish Amsterdam grachtenhuis (canal-side house) of the 1680s is impressively evoked in the exhibition by a wall of eight grisailles, each nearly three metres high, from two similar series of learned allegories that must have been intended to suggest marble reliefs. In the exhibition it becomes evident that the execution of details in the grisailles from the house of the Mennonite art connoisseur, Philips de Flines (no.C20; Fig.92) is of considerably better quality than that of the series shown next to it from the house of the merchant David Hompton (Musée des beaux-arts, Orléans); it is unclear to what extent the very productive Lairesse worked with the help of assistants.

The beautiful exhibition catalogue contains nineteen chapters by as many authors, each expertly treating an aspect of Lairesse’s life and work, much of which is incorporated into this review.3 The book is a welcome addition to Derk Snoep’s crucial article of 1970 and to Alan Roy’s solid monograph with a catalogue raisonné.4 As an exhibition catalogue, it is unusual in that it lacks the conventional entries for each work in the exhibition; instead a list supplies only the most basic data on each piece. All the works are numbered consecutively, so one is confronted in the catalogue with a random mix of paintings, drawings, prints and books. It has been a long time since an ambitious Dutch exhibition catalogue appeared only in Dutch, as is the case here; the customary English edition is absent and it also lacks an index. It would be most useful if one could be compiled and made available on the internet; otherwise, this rather unwieldy book is difficult to use.


1 Roussseau’s call ‘back to nature’ was probably more influential in forming the negative view of Lairesse than ‘the new Dutch nationalism’ that is mentioned several times in the catalogue as the decisive factor. 

2 Derk Snoep did not believe that the sitter in Rembrandt’s portrait of a man in the Lehman collection was Lairesse, but it is, as usual, reproduced as his portrait (cat. no.3); see D. Snoep: ‘Praal en Propaganda, Triiumfalia in de Noordelijke Nederlanden’, unpublished Ph.D. diss., 4th stelling (Utrecht University 1975). Snoep rejects the traditional identification of the Lehman picture. There is no mention of the present writer’s contributions, see A. Blankert: ‘Rembrandt, Zeuxis and Ideal Beauty’ in idem: Selected Writings on Dutch Painting, Zwolle 2004, pp.31–44. (1st edition 1973).

3 Catalogue: Eindelijk! De Lairesse. By Bob van den Boogert and others. 176 pp. incl. 100 col. ills. (Waander, Zwolle, 2016), €27.50. ISBN 978–94–6262–096–4.

4 D. Snoep: ‘Gerard Lairesse als plafond- en kamerschilder’, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 18, 1 (1970), pp.159–220; A. Roy: Gérard de Lairesse 1640–1711, Paris 1992. A more recent survey is Gerard de Lairesse, An Artist between Stage and Studio, Amsterdam 1998, by L. de Vries, who also contributed to the catalogue.