Houbraken Translated


Volume 1, page 200-209

Page 200

graves Cucim, and the stone closing off the mouth of the grave Golel, rolling stone.

The Jews were also accustomed to have this or the like written above their grave memorials: May the soul go to the Garden of Eden, amen. Or in The booklet of the living. Sela.

This custom is old and was already in use by the Trojans, as appears from the saying of Homer, which is thus translated: May your brothers and fellow travellers consign you to the grave and honour you with a grave inscription, since this is the reward of the dying.

This was passed on to Christians of all lands and kingdoms and still remains in use, especially for men who have deserved it by their brave deeds. Of all the abundance of grave inscriptions of the lettered world (says Alkemade) one excels above all others for brevity and most powerful expressions, being that standing on the tomb of the Rotterdam maritime hero Egbert Bartholomeus Kortenaer, who died on the bed of honour fighting for the fatherland. Written by the great history writer and poet Geeraert Brandt, it sounds thus:

The hero of the Meuse, mutilated in eye and right hand,
But still the eye of the rudder, the fist of the fatherland,
The great Kortenaar, terror of the enemy’s fleets,
The man who unlocked the Sont, lies buried in this grave.

This happens exceptionally (as I have said) to those whose brave actions deserved it, and for people of whom something rare can be said, as for example that a man saw three


Page 201

centuries, as happened to John Bailes, on whose grave in Northampton in England I found this written:

Here under lyeth JOHN BAILES, Born In this towne;
He was above 126 years Old, and had
his hearing, and sight, and memory to the
last. He lived in III Centurys, and
was Buried the XIV of April 1706

That is:

Here below lies Johan Bailes born in this village; he was more than 126 years old, lived in three centuries, and kept his sight, hearing and memory to the last of his life. He was buried on the 14th of April 1706.

The Greeks were so excessively splendid in the building of their memorials and tombs that the judges of Athens issued a law against it. The Romans built a tomb, each according to his status, of which Georgius Fabricius describes the plentiful decorations. The Greeks were also wont to decorate the distinguishing marks of the art and practice of the deceased one, as is clear from the grave of the renowned Archimedes, which was decorated with a sphere and cylinder according to the testimony of Cicero. In Homer, Elpenor beseeches Ulysses to honour his grave with a ship’s oar. And Virgil sings of the funeral splendour of the trumpeter Misenus:

At pius Aeneas ingenti mole sepulcrum Imponit, etc.


Page 202

Which is thus translated by Vondel.

But this god-fearing ruler Eneas kept on building
A splendid grave for the man, hangs the man’s trumpet and arms
And girdle on the mountain.

Thus the curious can search out many old customs which add great ornament to historical depictions. But if such objects may seem too slight for the alert painter to pay attention to them, well then, he can depict the famous queen Artemisia in the middle of her splendid court procession, in widow’s dress, with a golden chalice or dish in her hand, ready to imbibe the mixed ash from the corpse of Mausolus (a rare example of the love of a woman), to grant herself a tomb to her husband’s memory, and showing in the background the overly splendid grave monument estimated as one of the world’s wonders, called Mausoleum, and look up that building’s appearance in the ancient writers. Or show the burial of an Egyptian queen and the splendid procession to her grave, accompanied by great funereal pomp, flute and rattle playing and a multitude of torches, while upon arrival the priests offer perfume and prayers to the sun on the summit* of his sky-high pyramid, built in stone, in the valleys of Memphis.

* Seeing that travellers have discovered a stepped staircase on the exterior of some pyramids and cenotaphs, with a broad surface on the summit,


Page 203

A painter ought to make fewer mistakes concerning the depiction of Biblical histories than with respect to heathen ones because they usually have one writer for them. For the heathen histories and events sometimes have various writers, when the most plausible should be followed to stray the least. But a painter will most often lose the path of truth when he follows the poets with respect to them, seeing that they usually take the liberty of arranging matters according to their purpose and as it strikes them as best and graceful to flatter the ear of their readers, without worrying if they are following the truth or their own fancies. For instance Herodotus relates that Cyrus perished in a battle against Tomyris Queen of Scythia,

the learned Philipp Jacob Spener has since been convinced that these large colossi served as hallowed heights and the surface for an altar, on which the priest once sacrificed, to be closer to the sun, which they honoured as their god, and as graves for the kings. Isouf (writes the Turksche Spion) was inside one of the great colossi and found a large square chamber in the centre, with walls made of Theban marble and in the same a chest of the same stone. Without doubt (says he) the body of the founder had lain in it. Diodorus Siculus book 1, chapter 5 gives this reason for the emptiness of these graves: The least of the corpses of the Egyptian kings in those pyramids or cenotaphs remained there, for the people were so severely taxed and embittered that they threw out the dead bodies of the kings; which is why some Egyptian kings had themselves secretly buried in unknown places.


Page 204

and that she had him searched out among the dead, chopped off the head and filled it with Scythian blood, saying: Bloodhound, you have vanquished and murdered my son and people with deceit,* now swallow as much blood as you can. Which the great Rubens depicted this way (except in showing a copper basin or cooling vat with blood) [1]. But he who follows the French playwright Mnsr. Philippe Quinault in his tragedy of Cyrus will imagine him having been captured in the battle by Tomyris, thrice stabbing himself in his noble breast, overpowering the guards with a sword, killing them, and escaping the scaffold already erected before the army tent of Tomyris, which we also depicted in this way (not by mistake but to grace his tragedy as translated by Willem den Elger [= De Doot van Cyrus]).

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (and with this we draw an end to our digression), alluding in his Samenspraak der dooden to the freedom that poets grant themselves, notes that Virgil pairs Aeneas with Dido, who only came into the world 300 years after him, but he does so ironically, by having the speaking ghost of Stratonica thus defend Dido: He was a widower, you a widow, both were necessitated to leave your fatherland.

* Ruse. Cyrus had a lot of barrels filled with wine, and veered off as if he were afraid of the hosts of Tomiris, leaving the wine in his encampment. The pursuing Scythians, not used to this drink, slobbered it up so richly that they fell down drunk here and there, and fell asleep, whereupon Cyrus’ army turned around in all haste and killed the Scythians.


Paulus Pontius (I) after Peter Paul Rubens
Tomyris and Cyrus, 1630
paper, engraving (process) 407 x 594 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv./cat.nr. RP-P-1896-A-19003

Page 205

You both sought your happiness in strange lands. These are matters that greatly resemble each other. It is true that you came to the world three hundred years after him, but Virgil had so many reasons to join you two that he judged that the 300 years which separated you from one another were not a matter of importance.


The arts are bound by neither century nor time:
Intellects go and come in their time:

says the prince of Dutch poets. We apply this in preparation for the famous Johann Liss, otherwise Pan, artful painter of figures and histories, life- and half life sized.

Oldenburg, his place of birth, did not produce his equal in art before or after him. After he had mastered the basics needed to progress in art (with whom in that region I do not know) he headed down to the Netherlands and joined Hendrick Goltzius, whose way of painting he chose over others to his advantage, and through diligence and effort he came so far that various pieces that he made both in Haarlem and in Amsterdam so resembled the handling of his master that they might have been taken for his. He then left for Paris, Venice and Rome, where he began another way of painting, in which he succeeded.

He professed to have great respect for the antique manner, but he understood at once that if he were to want to specialize in it exclusively, he would


Page 206

have to start from scratch. That is why he did not remain long in Rome but again left for Venice, which then possessed the flower of the art of Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian and especially Domenico Fetti, to practice after it with diligence and attentiveness. Meanwhile he painted in the church of Tolentini in Venice a life-size Jerome witting in the desert with pen in hand, and next to him an angel blowing a trumpet to whom the old man turns his head [2], as well as an Adam and Eve lamenting the death of Abel, in whose features he had painted surprised amazement (since they were seeing death for the first time) [3]. These and other pieces spread his fame everywhere, so that he decided to pursue that fame and went to the Netherlands and there made various pieces, both histories as merry companies in which they practice song and playing, the figures being dressed in the Venetian manner.

Amongst his works the fall of Phaethon* is particularly praised because of the inventive caprioles and

* According to the writings of Ovid, Phaeton was the son of the sun god Apollo and the nymph Clymene. But Pausanias and Hesiod call him the son of Cephalus and Aurora. In his Zedelessen uit de oude verdichtzelen getrokken the commendable poet Lukas Rotgans sings about his foolish desire and its sad outcome:

Climenes’ son, disturbed by Epaphus’ reproach,
Visits his father in the palace of the sunrays,


Johann Liss (II)
Vision of St Jerome, c. 1628-1629
canvas, oil paint 225 x 175 cm
Venice, San Niccolò da Tolentino

Johann Liss (II)
Adam and Eve mourning for Abel, 1620-1630
canvas, oil paint 67 x 84 cm
Venice, Galleria dell'Accademia Venezia

Page 207

the artfully painted water nymphs, who look on with amazement [4]. In this piece the figures are about three palms tall, just as with the one picture that I saw with Mister Gerard van Hoogeveen in Leiden, depicting the story of the prodigal son, which was excellently painted but dressed more in the modern manner than was his custom [5], as he otherwise knew how to mix the antique and modern manners in a charming way. The art-loving Mister Siewert van der Schelling made a much more fortunate choice (good judgement, the saying goes, is an art that is not understood by all the world) and has in his art room a piece by Johann Liss that is so divinely drawn, powerful and delicately painted as if Rubens and Van Dyck together had their hand in it [6].

And complains that others gloat over his birth.
Prove to me God, says he, that thou art my father:
Grant me one wish which I may put before you.
Apollo grants his prayer. Daring Phaeton requests
At a bad hour, to tame the horses of the sun for one day,
And mounts on
Phoebus’ wagon;
Though the menacing danger has the god regret his word;
Here he follow the path of the sun proud and bold,
smothers in the foaming brine, thrust from the seat
By lightning bolts from Jupiter the thunderer

But a more perfect depiction of Phaeton is to be found in the tragedy by that name by the great Agrippian, where he commemorates Antonides in his elegy:

Audacious Phaeton, risen up on the sun’s
Wagon and carried up to the top of the heavens,
Now scorches the earth with his glowing reins,
Melts even the stars, which with burned throats
Gasp for breath, sets the rainbow on fire,
And singes the gods, till Jupiter with fierce hand
Strikes him with lightning
And thrust from the sun chariot

Plunges down, to drown in the Eridanus.


Johann Liss (II)
The fall of Phaethon, c. 1624
canvas, oil paint 126,5 x 110,3 cm
London, National Gallery (London), inv./cat.nr. NG6641

Johann Liss (II)
The return of the prodigal son, about 1621
canvas, oil paint 85,6 x 69 cm
Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, inv./cat.nr. 855

Johann Liss (II)
The Temptation of Saint Mary Magdalene, c. 1620
canvas, oil paint 98,8 x 125,8 cm
Sotheby's (London (England)) 2019-07-03 - 2019-07-04, nr. 8

Page 208

That is why I dare count him among the greatest masters of art on the basis of this evidence.

He had made it his habit (says Sandrart) to reflect amply, but once he had begun a work he proceeded rapidly. He liked to be in company and (as the proverb goes) would allow himself to be retained by a straw, which is why it often happened that he would be away for two or three days and nights on end, without people knowing where he was, until his purse was empty. When he finally came home in the night, he made his paint and all preparations for his work before he undertook to rest, or to go to bed, after which he then commenced his work with such zeal that he did not cease (sometimes painting three days and nights without stopping, so that he hardly allowed himself time to eat) until it was completed, or at least his intentions had been realized and he was satisfied. And though he was often told that this way of life was harmful and bad for his health, this was of no avail. Thus Sandrart attempted to take him away from his bad company, in which he had already convinced him so far that Liss had given his word and promised to follow him to Rome. This was in 1629. But he dragged this out so long (who can escape his fate) that the plague, which then increased in Venice, frustrated this intention and had him travel to eternity instead of to Rome in the flower of his life. He left neither children nor widow for he had behaved according to the Italian saying which boils down to this:


Page 209

As long as the milk is supplied for money, there is no need to stable a cow.

And seeing that we do not know the right time of his birth, we have placed him here to add lustre to the year 1600 with him and Jan Davidsz. de Heem, one of the most famous flower and fruit painters.

We have observed with respect to some painters that just as the human life span is divided into spring, summer and fall, art also climbs up as if from childish years, has her heights, and again declines, so that those who were men of art became children in it. But our De Heem demonstrated the reverse. His sun of art, once having risen above the horizon, never declined, for it is known that he lived and practised art into his seventieth year and yet his last brushwork was the best and most skilful. Amongst everything excelled a great scene painted with a wreath of all sorts of fruit and flowers which he painted for the art-loving Johannes van der Meer, who will arrive on stage in his turn as painter, who paid the sum of 2,000 guilders for it.

This Van der Meer, who had a white-lead works and fine home outside Utrecht, was hit by the misfortune that soldiers razed it all down to the ground, so that he fell on hard times. This picture, barely saved from the terror, seemed to him his only hope of recovery. He therefore decided, with the approval of Frederik van Nassau, Lord of Zuylestein,


Cookies disclaimer

Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to deliver better content and for statistical purposes. You can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings you grant us permission to store that information on your device.
I agree