On June 21, 1672, Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary of the Dutch Republic, miraculously survived an attempt on his life when he was assaulted after leaving a government meeting. Although De Witt thought he’d escaped death, he had in fact merely avoided it. Just two months later, both he and his older brother Cornelis were lynched by a mob of citizens who were conditioned to believe the sibling statesmen had opened the country’s borders to a joint invasion by France, England, and Germany.
The aftermath of this exchange, immortalized by a painting that is now attributed to the Dutch artist Jan de Baen, was unsettling to say the least. Stripped of their robes, the brothers were hung upside down from a wooden post. They were castrated and disemboweled. Rioters cut off fingers, toes, tongues and noses to sell as souvenirs. One person is believed to have wrung the neck of a stray cat, the remains of which he stuffed inside the gaping hole where Cornelis’ penis had been. Every bruise, incision, and amputation was worked into the painting. Thanks to de Baen’s inspired brushwork (not to mention the absence of photography), “The Corpses of the De Witt Brothers” (c. 1672–1675) has become the dominant visual representation of the brothers’ lynching, but whether it deserves this honor is debatable.
The painter was, after all, not present at the lynching. Other draftsmen were, and their sketches appeared in newspapers that de Baen then cross referenced with eye-witness accounts to construct his own version of the events. Despite his remoteness from the incident, his interpretation continues to be treated as a kind of hand-painted photograph: an honest, accurate and reliable depiction of an historical event.
Because paintings from the so-called Dutch Golden Age depict scenes from public life — and render those scenes in a style that aims to be as realistic as possible — it’s tempting to confuse them for historical documentation. In fact, multiple art historians have written books about why they shouldbe considered as such. But the Dutch masters were neither impartial nor indifferent recorders of their reality, which in turn makes “Corpses”a timely reminder of why we should always be cautious about treating images as factual evidence.
“Dutch painting was not and could not be anything but the portrait of Holland,” French artist Eugène Fromentin once wrote, “its external image, faithful, exact, complete, life-like, without adornment.” In his celebrated study, Early Netherlandish Painting, art historian Erwin Panofsky went a step further. Analyzing cultural icons worked into Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” (1434), he was able to draw verifiable conclusions about its real-life subjects. Paintings like de Baen’s, their train of thought implies, are a dependable mirror into another time.
To some extent, they can be. When Leo Tolstoy witnessed an execution on a trip to Paris, he was disturbed by the speed with which death takes hold of its victims. One moment they’re crying, praying, or trying to escape. The next, they’re gone. As a static artform, painting seems unfit for, perhaps incapable of, capturing the weight of such a transition, yet “Corpses”does just that. Witnesses describe the bodies as having looked warm with residue of life, and the painter animates these descriptions as only a master of the realist school can.
Because de Baen had served as the brothers’ court painter when they were still in power, he could recreate their likeness even in death. Yet the faithfulness of his work exceeds anatomical concerns. According to historians, rioters let local butcher Christoffel de Haen disembowel the corpses, explaining the large cut seen on Johan’s stomach in the painting. Clean and methodical, this kind of laceration is different from those found on other mutilated bodies like Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s, which looks as if it was attacked by a wild animal.
Eye-witness accounts claim that Johan’s remains were hung up higher than his brother’s. The rioters did so because he held the most powerful office in the country, and this detail was not lost on de Baen as he planned out his painting. Since the De Witts were robbed of many of their distinguishing characteristics, it is difficult to discern which of the two figures in “Corpses” is supposed to represent which brother. Thankfully, an inscription on the back of the canvas dispels much of the ambiguity:
Dit sijn de lijcken van Jan ende Cornelis de Witt door een voornaem schilder naer het leeven afgeschildert soo als deselven des avonts ten elff ueren noch aenden wip hingen. Cornelis is die geene sonder pairuque. Jan de Witt met sijn eijgen hair.
(These are the corpses of Johan and Cornelis de Witt, made by a prominent painter from life as they hung from the post at eleven o’clock in the evening. Cornelis is the one without a wig. Johan de Witt still has his own hair.)
While the inscription states de Baen’s paintingwas drawn “from life,” not every art critic has blithely accepted such a claim. In his study, Questions of Meaning, Rijksmuseum curator Eddy de Jongh argues paintings produced during the Dutch Golden Age were equal parts descriptive and argumentative. “Objects in 17th-century paintings often serve a dual function,” he explains. “They operate as concrete, observable things while at the same time expressing an idea, a moral, an intention, a joke, or a situation.”
As the brothers’ court painter, de Baen must have been as familiar with the shape of their physique as he was with the content of their character. Considering that many of the political paintings he made give off an impression of genuine respect and adoration — so much so that one of them was destroyed during yet another riot — it is possible he painted this final picture of the siblings with the intention of not only commemorating their deaths but condemning the barbaric circumstances under which they took place.
One of the dual-purpose elements of “Corpses”supporting this hypothesis is the torchbearer in the foreground. The figure also features in other sketches made of the lynching, including Roeland Roghman’s where — torch held high and head facing away — he remains uninvolved in the action. De Baen’s version looks a lot less indifferent. Hand raised in an attempt to shield himself from the gruesome sight, his flame sheds light on a chapter of human history so dark most people want to forget it ever happened in the first place.
Traces of de Baen’s authorial intent also show through his anachronistic style. While Dutch artists were among the first to make paintings of secular subjects, many genres — from portraits to still lifes — continued to be rendered with an unmistakably religious energy. If pain and suffering appeared on canvas at all, they did so in a grandiose fashion. Despite these trends, “Corpses”has more in common with Rembrandt’s nauseating, private study of a slaughtered ox than Caravaggio’s breathtaking yet commissioned “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1598–1599).
De Baen never claimed authorship of what has since become his most famous work, presumably because doing so would have meant risking his own life. After the brothers’ murder, their lifelong rival William III turned Holland from a republic into a monarchy. During that time, “Corpses”was condemned as a propaganda piece and carefully hidden from view. Today, it adorns the pages of just about every high school history book published in the Netherlands, where generations of Dutch students have taken the harrowing artwork to be an honest depiction of an even more harrowing subject despite the existence of other, more reputable sources.
Among the artists present at the lynching was Joachim Oudaen. Not a painter but a poet, he was so revolted by the spectacle he decided to write a play about it. Unlike de Baen’s “Corpses of the De Witt Brothers” — which only shows the outcome — his Dolle Blydschap (Mad Joy) focuses on what came before: the emotional manipulation of misinformed citizens by the brothers’ political rivals. Although Oudaen’s writing arguably contains more valuable information, its inaccessible format and outdated language simply were no match for the painting’s immediate impact.
That impact, by the way, might just be the single greatest asset an image can have. For all the academic articles and lectures on the unethicality of American involvement in the Vietnam War, it was Nick Ut’s photograph of “napalm girl” Phan Thị Kim Phúc that changed public opinion and, by extension, the course of the conflict. Similarly, the snapshots of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi lying face down in the sand managed to evoke sympathy for liberal immigration policies where activists and politicians couldn’t.
But even when an image leaves an unequivocal impression, that doesn’t mean it should be taken at face value. The saying, “a single picture is worth a thousand words,” is, after all, only partially correct. Pictures don’t tell you anything; their contents have to be revealed by the proactive viewer, and even the smallest of discoveries — from the framing of a background character to the personal history of an artist — can drastically shift the meaning of an entire image.
By looking at the interplay between the vision of the artist, the rules of the genre, and the influences of culture, art historians can recover messages even when they have been carefully hidden by their creators, or carelessly lost through the passage of time. When the image in question happens to depict a bottleneck moment in history — whether that’s the assassination of two Dutch statesmen in the 17th century, or the attempted assault on the sitting US government in the 21st — that extra look can make all the difference.
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