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Gerard de Lairesse's (1640 - 1711) art theory in relation to his own oeuvre

Gerard de Lairesse (1640 - 1711), was an originally Liège artist who moved to Amsterdam in 1667. He was introduced to the elite of Amsterdam by the well-known art dealer Gerrit van Uylenburgh. The refined way of working and the intellectual impact of De Lairesse impressed the intellectual part of Amsterdam. He was also a graphic artist. In his paintings he strove to represent the “classic ideal of beauty”. De Lairesse gained his fame with large classical ceiling paintings based on Biblical themes, history pieces, mythological representations and allegories. He was one of the most famous painters and very demanded by Amsterdam elite and also worked for Prince Willem III of Orange.[1] “By the end of the 1660s, De Lairesse had fully developed a very recognizable style. He had been educated in the “classicist-romanist” Liège tradition stretching from Lombard to Flémal” [2]. Perhaps it was the change of taste among the elite public of Amsterdam who yearned for aristocratic style, the reason why works by De Lairesse were so popular. But it could be also knowledge of work of Lombard described in the works of Van Mander and Vossius that let elite recognize its style in the work of young De Lairesse. Unfortunately, De Lairesse went blind due to congenital syphilis at the highest point of his career. From that moment on, De Lairesse started to teach other artists and had his knowledge written down in art treatise’s by his son. These have been recorded in two books, namely Foundations on drawing (1701) and Great painting book (1707).

His books were seen as a bible for classicist painting and not only by teachers of the visual arts but also by art historians. In his book Foundations of drawing he emphasizes the importance of knowledge of mathematical terms and argues that geometry should be the basis for drawing. He drew his knowledge from works by the greatest Italian masters such as Raphael, he connected the name of Poussin with the art of Italy, but he also was familiar with works of Charles-Alphonse du Fresnoy and Abraham Bosse on French theoretical art. Also he looked at works of Hendrick Goltzius, Cesare á Ripa (Iconologia book) and Pietro Testa’s.[3] “In his extensive biography of De Lairesse, Abry refers to the artist’s use of Bertholet’s manner when discussing his early work and emphasized that, though he did not visit Italy, he penetrated “la beauté de l’antique” with such skill that it seemed as if he had studied in Italy itself.”[4] Bertholet was an artist of that time who was compared to Raphael. The fact that the De Lairesse's first teacher was his father, who worked as a copyist and had painted many well-known Italian painters such as Veronese and Guidoe Reni, has contributed to De Lairesse's basic knowledge of Ancient Roman art.

Lyckle de Vries argues in his book How to create beauty: De Lairesse on the theory and practice of making art that De Lairesse had in fact not introduced a new art theory and that hisGreat painting book was intended purely as learning material for students of visual arts to bring them on a higher level. On the other hand it was meant for patrons of art to learn distinguish real good painters from not talented ones. In his Great painting book Gerard de Lairesse taught students to paint in such a way that the painting did not look “painting-like”, as was often the case with Rembrandt, because he painted with coarse brushstrokes. De Lairesse disapproved of Rembrandt's realism. Also he disapproved of Dutch genre painting style. “He devised a hierarchy of subjects in which traditional Dutch art ranked very low”. In doing so, he had not only created a solid framework for art criticism, but also created patterns for ideal art. [5] This book has been translated into several languages and was very popular as teaching material within different art schools in Europe. The input for his book might have be influenced by his contact with the erudite elite in the face of Nil Volentibus Arduum's, who tried to determine the content of the Amsterdam theatre in line with Roman classicism.

De Lairesse's art was also subject of criticism. In the second part of the nineteenth century, the quality of art was judged by the criterion of realism. All art that came after Rembrandt was seen as inferior, including the work of Gerard de Lairesse.[6] That is why the work of De Lairesse was for a time regarded as a form of degradation in art, and it was not until the twenty-first century that he was restored to his worth as an artist and art theorist.

Gerard de Lairesse contained all his accumulated knowledge in his Large painter's book that was obtained through his extensive oeuvre. His talent of integrating the classicism of Italian art and knowledge of antiquity, his subject and composition choices created his personal style which was evidently different from that of the Amsterdam artists of the time. Gerard de Lairesse gained fame with unprecedentedly large ceiling paintings, one of which is Diana hunting with her nymphs, (fig.1), a work that, in terms of illusionism, is a pinnacle in his ceiling art. In this work we can see the Roman ideal of proportion and grace. De Lairesse gives architecture the highest place in art, which is in line with the vision of Vitruvius. Sculptures and paintings must integrate into the interiors of an architectural structure. His idea about illusionism runs through the entire Painting book. According to him, it is when a painting has a permanent place in the interior.[7] The architectural illusionism in his ceiling painting Diana hunting with her nymphs, (fig.1), and realistically depicted nymphs hanging over the balustrade enhance the trompe l'oeil effect in this painting. [8] “De Lairesse was very successful with his room and ceiling pieces and when he wrote about art he praised them as the apex of painting.” [9] Without ever having been in Rome, Gerard de Lairesse was a master in the implementation of the Italian Baroque ideal of the integration of arts.


Beckers, D. “Geometry as the short and certain path to arts Gérard de Lairesse (1640-1711) and his 'Grondlegginge der Teekenkons” Gewina 21 (1998): 81-93.

Beltman, J. Eindelijk! De Lairesse. Zwolle: Uitgeverij Waanders & De Kunst i.s.m. Rijksmuseum Twenthe, 2016.

Lammertse, F., J. van der Vries. Uylenburgh & Son: Art and Commerce from Rembrandt to De Lairesse 1625-1675. Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2006.

Sluijter, E.J. "On Gerard de Lairesse’s “Frenchness,”: His Liège roots, and His Artistic Integration in Amsterdam," Journal of Historians of Netherlandish, vol. 12:1 (Winter 2020).

Snoep, D.P. “Gerard de Lairesse als plafond-en kamerschilder”. Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum,18de Jaarg., Afl. 4 (1970), pp. 159-217.

Vries, L. de. How to create beauty: De Lairesse on the theory and practice of making art. Leiden: Primavera press, 2011.

Vries, L. de. Gerard de Lairesse: An artist between stage and studio. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998.


“Rijksmuseum”, Rijksmuseum, consulted on 10 March 2020, from\


Gerard de Lairesse, Diana hunting with her nymphs, 1656 - 1711, oil on canvas, 800 x 600 cm four parts 400 x 300 cm, the central part is 2.80 cm in diameter. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-4259. (Fig. 1).

Gerard de Lairesse, Allegory of the Dawn, 1673-1777, oil on canvas, h290 x h320 x b730, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-4259. (Fig. 2).

[1] Vries, “How to create beauty”, 13. [2] Sluijter, "On Gerard de Lairesse’s “Frenchness,”21. [3] Sluijter, E.J., "On Gerard de Lairesse’s “Frenchness,”1. [4] Idem, 5. [5] Vries,“How to create beauty”, XIII. [6] Idem. [7] Vries, “Gerard de Lairesse: An artist between stage and studio”, 112. [8] Snoep, “Gerard de Lairesse als plafond- en kamerschilder”, 210-211. [9] Vries, “Gerard de Lairesse: An artist between stage and studio”, 112.

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