top of page

Gerard de Lairesse (Liège 1640-1711 Amsterdam)

Europe Freed from the Nets of War by William of Orange

signed with initials ‘G.L.’ (recto) and with inscription ‘Gerard L’airesse’ (twice)
pen and brown ink, incised, pen and brown ink framing lines
26.4 x 18.1 cm

The Hague, private collection, at least since 2001, until 2023

From Liège to Amsterdam
Gerard de Lairesse was born in Liège in French-speaking Wallonia, the son of the painter Reinier de Lairesse (d. 1667) and his wife Catharina Taulier (d. 1676). In 1664, following a violent incident involving a knife and a sword – De Lairesse had promised a woman to marry her but broke his promise, after which she and her sister angrily confronted him – he and his girlfriend Marie Salme fled town, and via Maastricht and Utrecht arrived in Amsterdam in 1665. [1] The ‘new kid in town’, De Lairesse quickly made name for himself as the highly ambitious, virtuoso painter of often large-scale, flamboyant history pieces and spectacular allegorical scenes reminiscent in style of Liège’s greatest painter, Bertholet Flémal (1614-1675), who had worked in Rome in the circles of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). With his strict conceptual emphasis on ‘Recht antiek’, the radical following of antiquity as the sole example for his art, De Lairesse presented Amsterdam’s elite art-lovers with a new, internationally flavoured, and attractive alternative to the work of the older generation of Amsterdam artists, such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680). [2] The public stood in line. As to his goals, De Lairesse later stated that ‘my sole ambition was to surpass all the painters of my time, or at least to be equal to the best.’ During the following 25 years the incredibly productive De Lairesse painted, etched and drew together a lavish oeuvre – only comparable to that of Rembrandt in its range, ambition and diversity – becoming to large extent responsible for the late summer of the Golden Age of Dutch art. In 1690, while his career flourished, doom struck. De Lairesse (who suffered from congenital syphilis) turned blind but lived for another 21 years. For over two decades he earned his living by teaching, and published two instructional art treatises, his Grondlegginge Ter Teekenkonst (1701) and the extremely influential Groot schilderboek (1707). Two of his sons, Abraham de Lairesse (1670-1722) and Jan de Lairesse (1673-1748) became artists like their grandfather and father.

During and after his lifetime, De Lairesse was held in extremely high esteem, but his popularity dwindled in the 19th and early 20th century, a time of burgeoning nationalism, when his art was deemed un-Dutch, and his critique on Rembrandt (according to De Lairesse in his Groot Schilderboek, artists should paint evenly and smooth and not, like Rembrandt or Lievens, have the paint run down the canvas ‘gelyk drek’, like muck) cost him whatever sympathy was left. [3] In more recent years, the attention for and appreciation of De Lairesse has greatly increased, catalysed not in the least by the first monographic exhibition on the artist, the successful Eindelijk! De Lairesse organised by the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede in 2016-2017.

An expanding oeuvre of drawings
Whereas De Lairesse’s painted oeuvre is fairly well catalogued, this cannot be said about his drawings. In Alain Roy’s still indispensable catalogue raisonné on De Lairesse (1992) the number of drawings – two exceptional cycles excluded – is limited to a mere 38 sheets. [4] Following Roy, Janno van Tatenhove (Leiden University, print room) and Erwin Pokorny (Vienna, Albertina) added to the knowledge on De Lairesse’s drawings with various articles and new attributions. [5] More recently, the present author has sought to provide an overview of the current state of affairs in research, and draw attention to more overlooked and/or unrecognised drawings by De Lairesse. [6]

The drawing
The present allegorical drawing, executed with pen and ink over an initial pencil sketch (visible, for instance, in the lower right) and signed with initials G.L., is a spectacular example of such a hitherto unpublished sheet. [7] De Lairesse used widely diverging drawing techniques for different purposes. The virtuoso, sketchy style of the present drawing, which makes use of extensive hatching to increase three-dimensionality, and shows De Lairesse’s characteristic predilection for rapid, square-shaped facial types, was mainly used to capture an initial compositional creative idea. We find it in a significant number of designs, such as his Esther Accusing Haman in the Presence of Ahasuerus (former Van Regteren Altena Collection), an initial design in preparation for a painting of the same subject, or Abraham Entertaining the Angels, likewise a preliminary preparation for a painting. [8] Tellingly, these sheets – specifically the latter – are of near-identical size.

Depicted in the middle foreground is a female figure tangled up in a net, sided left and right by two antique warriors – with more soldiers carrying vexilla (Roman military standards) behind them – who seem to struggle around her as she is trying to extricate herself from this net. At the woman’s feet we see a horn of plenty and a caduceus. The background is dominated by a central round monumental architecture with alternating columns and niches, and metopes carrying symbols: a balance (Justitia) to the left, and two crossed fasces (alluding to governance) to the right. The symbol on the middle metope is difficult to decrypt. On top of the monument, seated between two obelisks whose pedestals are ornamented with a cock (left) and an owl (right), we see a crowned man holding a staff in his hand, with a globe at his feet. To the monument’s left side we see a female figure with a caduceus and a horn of plenty (presumably Abundance or Peace) and opposite of her on the right a helmeted soldier with a shield and a spear (probably War).

An Orangist book, a frontispiece, and an explanatory text
How can this allegorical imagery be explained? In search for an answer, we are aided by the frontispiece of a book published in Amsterdam in 1675 by the brothers Hendrik (1644-1709) and Dirk Boom (1645/46-1680). This book, ’t Verwerd Europa, written by the Orangist (a supporter of the House of Orange) Dutch lawyer and diplomat Petrus Valkenier (1638/41-1712) reflects the author’s thoughts on the political state of Europe at the time. [9] The word ‘verwerd’ in the book’s title should be understood as ‘verward’, meaning tangled up, or confused. The elaborate subtitle further elucidates the author’s intentions: ‘the political and historical description of the true fundaments and the causes of the wars and revolutions in Europe, mostly in and around the Netherlands since 1664, and caused by the pretended universal monarchy of the French’. [10] It thus deals with the aggression of – before all – France, and the events from the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) leading up to and including 1672, the traumatic ‘Disaster Year’ (from the Dutch perspective), when the Republic was attacked by France, England, Cologne and Münster. Upon huge public demand, Prince William III of Orange (1650-1702) was asked to return from his English exile, thus restoring the stadholdership after the First Stadholderless Period (1650-1672) and lead the State’s Army against the enemies. According to Valkenier, Europe was thus confused by the aggressive French aims for a universal monarchy, while the Netherlands, specifically, were confused by the 22-year absence of a stadholder, both situations that were restored by the ascendence of William of Orange. By 1677 the book had enjoyed a reprint and a German translation.

As said, the book’s etched frontispiece – the informative illustration facing the book’s title page – is of great help to us, as it depicts the composition of our drawing and includes several explanatory captions (fig. 1). [11] Moreover, the book includes an entry on the interpretation of the frontispiece (‘Op de titelprint van het verwarde Europe’) written by B. Vollenhove, who seems well informed. Before analyzing this frontispiece, it should be noted that it mentions in the lower left as its inventor and executor the Amsterdam printmaker Coenraet Decker (1650-1685): ‘Cet. DECKER / In. et fecit’. Half of this information – the ‘In[venit]’ part – is clearly at odds with the attribution of our drawing to De Lairesse, about which there can be no mistake. Decker’s possible reasons for passing on De Lairesse’s design as his own will be discussed below.

Decker’s etching provides a significant amount of detail absent from De Lairesse’s drawing. The allegorical figure on the right is identified from the caption as Pax (Peace), the man waving his scepter on top of the monument has become a woman identifiable as the personification of State, and the soldier on the right is, as suspected, Bellum (War). Next to State a faithful dog chases away three snakes coming from the side of War. The monument of the State is supported by not three but five columns, which’ capitals (no longer metopes) read ‘Militia’ (a set of weaponry), ‘Justitia’ (the balance), ‘Religio’ (depicted by the Tables of the Law, in hindsight recognizable in the drawing), ‘Politia’ (the fasces) and ‘Ærarium’, the Treasury in Ancient Rome (a pouch). For the lower register we turn to Vollenhove’s description:

‘Who can disentangle caught up Europe? / It’s the Netherlands’ hero [William III of Orange], full of courage and fire, / Born from a heroes-dynasty, / And chosen for this job by God. / From underneath shines the gracefulness / Of beautiful Europe, who red from crying, / Looks towards Orange for emergency-aid / Who next to Eagle [Habsburg, the German Emperor], and Spain, / And Brandenburg, with his hand / Saves her from the world’s firebrand [Louis XIV]; / Who in his net full of unwanted ties, / Wants to choke her throat and artery. / Her dress, full of islands and seas, / Rivers, streams, proud cities, / Full of opulence, wealth and capital / Enchants everyone’s heart and eyes / But most of all Bourbon, the Lily king [Louis XIV]; / Who carries on his head a crown, / And helmet, with proud peacock feathers, / And a mousetrap, to defile her [Europe]; / Followed by the head of the English kingdom, / Who with his ship-crown proudly, / Displays the power of the British fleet, / And threatens to lock up the sea. / Behind him rises the Elector of Cologne, / And Munster, eager for heist and loot: / Two leaders of many warriors, / Who fiercely fought the Free State [the Dutch Republic], / The Horn, full of plenty, / Lays down here at the foot, / Just like the Merchant-God’s snake staff, / So beneficial to the fatherland and everyone. / Europe’s throne of proud arduin, / Now turned into a ruin. / One sees here rise the flames of war, / Of which a stone heart freezes over. / Thus shows the art with much bravura / This grand work on a small paper.' [12]

Vollenhove’s introduction thus satisfactorily explains all the elements seen in the frontispiece. To the left of entangled Europe we see William of Orange and his allies, to the right Louis XIV (1638-1715), depicted with fox epaulets on his shoulders, and the French Lily on his chest, the English king Charles II (1630-1685) with his boat-crown and sword, and – depicted as one helmeted soldier – Munster and Cologne. All these details are not merely added to embellish the image, they truly add the extra layer of understanding needed to correctly interpret the image – after all a reflection of the book’s content. At the request of the publishers Hendrik and Dirk Boom, De Lairesse will have delivered the preliminary design, after which Decker was asked to produce the frontispiece. Probably asked by the publishers and/or the author, Decker then added all the details. And herein will lie Decker’s appropriation. He must have considered his additions – including portraits of the protagonists – so vital that he thought it opportune to claim the invention as his.

Subsequent collaborations
That De Lairesse did not seem to have minded too much appears from a subsequent project, in which both artists were involved. For the publication of the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher’s Turris Babel, published in 1679 in Amsterdam by Johannes Janssonius van Waesberghe (1616/17-1681), De Lairesse provided the design to the frontispiece, whereas Decker was responsible for several plates inside the book. [13] As it turns out, De Lairesse also collaborated again with the Boom brothers. The often-reprinted botanical treatise Hortus Malabaricus, of which the first volume was published in 1678 by a consortium including Hendrik and Dirk Boom, contains a frontispiece designed by De Lairesse. De Lairesse’s final preparatory design for the frontispiece is kept in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. [14] The design’s detailed, neat execution with pen and brush in grey makes clear that this was the final step in preparation for the print, for which De Lairesse no doubt based himself on an earlier draft executed in the style we see in the present, creative sketch.

Jasper Hillegers

Fig. 1. Coenraet Decker after Gerard de Lairesse, Europe Freed from the Nets of War by William of Orange, etching, 18.1 x 12.8 cm. (frontispiece for P. Valkenier, ‘t Verwerd Europa, Amsterdam 1675), Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

[1] The standard work on De Lairesse remains A. Roy, Gérard de Lairesse, Paris, 1992. For a vivid account of the conflict and De Lairesse’s subsequent rise to fame in Amsterdam, see: F. Lammertse, ‘‘om dat die Haas hem niet ontslippe zoude’: De Lairesses vlucht uit Luik en zijn stormachtige entree in de Amsterdamse kunstwereld’, in: J. Beltman, P. Knolle, Q. van der Meer Mohr (eds.), Eindelijk! De Lairesse: Klassieke schoonheid in de Gouden Eeuw, exh. cat. Enschede, Rijksmuseum Twenthe, 2016-2017, pp. 16-19. For a detailed biography of De Lairesses Amsterdam years, see J. van der Veen, ‘‘Very proud, self conceited, debauched and extravagant’: Gerard de Lairesse en zijn Amsterdamse jaren’, in: Enschede 2016-2017, pp. 20-28.
[2] See E.J. Sluijter, ‘Artistieke integratie van een jonge immigrant: Gerard de Lairesses vroege Amsterdamse werk’, in: Enschede 2016-2017, pp. 36-46.
[3] On De Lairesse’s critical fortunes, see: J. Hillegers, ‘De konstbloem, het grootste genie ooit, en de nijdassige Waal : De waarderingsgeschiedenis van Gerard de Lairesse in vogelvlucht’, in: Enschede 2016-2017, pp. 118-127.
[4] Roy 1992, category D[essin], lists 186 autograph drawings. However, 106 of these belong to a unique project (Bidloo), another 7 were commissioned by the eldermen of the leprosy house, and 35 are ‘ghost’ drawings, that Roy assumes to have once existed because of captions underneath prints that mention De Lairesse as inventor.
[5] J. van Tatenhove, ‘Gerard Lairesse (1640–1711)’, in: Delineavit et Sculpsit 11 (1993), pp. 27-31; idem., ‘Lairessiana I’, in: Delineavit et Sculpsit 16 (1996), pp. 16-27; idem., ‘Lairessiana II’, in: Delineavit et Sculpsit 17 (1997), pp. 28-47.; idem., ‘Lairessiana III’, in: Delineavit et Sculpsit 21 (2000): 23–37. E. Pokorny, ‘Die Lairesse-Zeichnungen der Albertina’, in: Delineavit et Sculpsit 19 (1998), pp. 14-36.
[6] J. Hillegers, ‘The Drawings of Gérard de Lairesse: State of Affairs’, in: Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 12:1 (Winter 2020). See (website accessed February 2024).
[7] The present drawing is registered at the RKD as by Gerard de Lairesse: (website accessed February 2024).
[8] On these scratchy sketches, see Hillegers 2020, 13, 34-37, figs. 12, 13, 40-42.
[9] On the book and its author, see: M. Klerk, Petrus Valkeniers ’t Verwerd Europa (1675), een constructie van traditionele politiek moraal en ‘nieuwe politiek’, MA-thesis Rotterdam, Erasmus University 2010. Available online: (website accessed February 2024).
[10] Petrus Valkenier, ’t Verwerd Europa, ofte politijke en historische beschryvinge der waare fundamennten en oorsaken van de oorlogen en revolutien in Europa, voonamentlijk in en omtrent de Nederlanden zedert den jaare 1664, gecauseert door de gepretendeerde universele monarchie der Franschen, Amsterdam (Hendrik and Dirk Boom) 1675
[11] The etching depicted here is in the Rijksmuseum’s collection. The museum’s website mistakenly mentions – without knowledge of the present drawing – that the etching was done by Decker after (possibly) a design by his teacher Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708). See: (website accessed February 2024).
[12] ‘Op de titelprint van het verwarde Europe, Beschreven door den heer en Mr. Petrus Valkenier, Advt’, in: P. Valkenier, ’t Verwerd Europa, Amsterdam 1675, pp. 2-5 (transl. J. Hillegers, February 2024).
[13] For De Lairesse’s drawn design in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam – executed with red chalk, pen in brown, and grey wash, and much more finished than the present design – see Roy 1992, pp. 390-391, cat. no. D. 48.
[14] Roy 1992, pp. 372-373, cat. no. D. 23.

bottom of page