Image: Andries de Graeff painted by Gerard ter Borch approx. 1672

Of the ceiling paintings by Gérard de Lairesse from the Peace Palace


The paintings which, for almost a century, have embellished the ceiling of the Ferdinand Bol room of the Peace Palace in The Hague, were originally painted for the ‘Sael’ [ballroom] of the imposing home of Mayor Andries de Graeff (1611-1678) on the Herengracht (currently No. 446) in Amsterdam. De Graeff, a scion of an important family of regents, had a monumental double canal-side house built along the ‘Gouden Bocht’ [the Golden Bend, the most prestigious part of the Herengracht] between 1669 and 1672. The building is still there, but the ceiling paintings have long since disappeared from the garden room. In 1903, the three ceiling paintings were purchased at auction in Amsterdam by the Carnegie Stichting [Carnegie Foundation] for the yet to be built Peace Palace.

At the time, people were of the opinion that the paintings represented the Triumph of Peace and referred to the Treaty of Munster. Although the latter theme naturally suited the principles of the Peace Palace beautifully, it is basically incorrect as the ceiling can be read as a visual statement of the principal’s political ideas and those of the group of Amsterdam regents he belonged to. The paintings portray the city of Amsterdam as the proponent of the republican state, as the protector of ‘Ware Vrijheid’.

Naturally, the client, Andries de Graeff, was closely involved in the subject matter of the ceiling painting for his new home. The paintings’ message can be reconstructed in detail as a great deal is known about Andries’ personal circumstances during the commissioning.

Andries de Graeff followed in his father and brother’s footsteps and, between 1657 and 1672, was appointed mayor some seven times. De Graeff was a member of a family of regents who belonged to the republican political movement also referred to as the ‘state oriented’ (as opposed to the Royalists). Both his brother Cornelis and Andries were very critical of the Orange family’s influence. Together with the Republican political leader Raadpensionaris [Grand Pensionary] Johan de Witt, the de Graeff brothers strived for the abolition of stadtholdership. They desired the full sovereignty of the individual regions in a form in which the Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden [Republic of the United Seven Netherlands] was not ruled by a single person. Instead of a sovereign (or stadtholder) the political and military power was lodged with the States General i.e. with the regents of the cities in Holland.

During the two decades the de Graeff family had a leading role in the Amsterdam administration, the city was at the peak of its political power. This period was also referred to by Republicans as the ‘Ware Vrijheid’ [True Freedom]. It was the Eerste Stadhouderloze Tijdperk [First Stadtholderless Period] which lasted from 1650 to 1672. During these twenty years, the regents from Holland and in particular those of Amsterdam, controlled the republic. The city was flush with self confidence and liked to compare itself to the famous Republic of Rome. Even without a stadtholder, things seemed to be going well for the Republic and its regents both politically and economically.

However, cracks appeared in Amsterdam’s power base just as Andries de Graeff was having his imposing house built in the ‘Gouden Bocht’ around 1670. The Republic was in a dangerous position and war with France and England seemed imminent. The call for the return of a strong military leader from the Orange family was gaining momentum, particularly among commoners. A number of Amsterdam regents had started to realise that they needed to seek rapprochement with the Orangists. This put increasing pressure on Raadpensionaris Johan de Witt’s position. In 1670, the Amsterdamse Vroedschap [Amsterdam City Council] led by Mayors Gilles Valckenier and Coenraad van Beuningen decided to enter into an alliance with the Orangists and to offer the young prince a seat on the Council of State. This caused a definitive split between De Witt and the Orangist Amsterdam Group of regents around Mayor Valckenier. However, De Witt managed to push the turncoats into the Amsterdam city administration and they were sidelined during the vroedschap elections of February 1671.

Andries de Graeff was once again put forward as mayor and managed to gain control with his Republican faction. During the winter of 1671 it seemed as if – at least in Amsterdam – the Republicans were winning. It was an exceptionally opportune moment to commission a monumental ceiling painting on Amsterdam’s independent position for the ‘Sael’ of his mayor’s residence. De Graeff had a clear message in mind for the ceiling painting: the ‘Ware Vrijheid’ of the Republic was only protected by the Republican regents of Amsterdam. The paintings glorify the de Graeff family’s role as the protector of the Republican state, defender of ‘Freedom’. The work of art can be viewed as a visual statement opposing the return of House of Orange.

More on the iconographic programme of the ceiling and the meaning of the ‘Ware Vrijheid’ in the politics and art of the seventeenth century in the near future.

Text: Jephta Dullaart