Gerard or Gérard de Lairesse (11 September 1640 or 1641 – June 1711) was a Dutch Golden Age painter and art theorist. Lairesse was born in Liège and was the second son of painter Renier de Lairesse (1597-1667). His broad range of talent included music, poetry, and the theatre. He was perhaps the most celebrated Dutch painter in the period following the death of Rembrandt. His treatises on painting and drawing, Grondlegginge der teekenkonst (1701) and Groot Schilderboek (1707), were highly influential on 18th-Century painters like Jacob de Wit. Students of De Lairesse included the painter Jan van Mieris. He died in Amsterdam.
Well-known paintings by de Lairesse include his Allegory of the Five Senses (1668), Diana and Endymion (ca. 1680) and Cleopatra Landing at Tarsus. Some of his paintings show influence by the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa. A versatile artist, De Lairesse also made many prints for book illustrations and painted sets for theatre productions.
Among other things, De Lairesse produced:
- A set of illustrations for Govert Bidloo’s anatomical atlas Anatomia Humani Corporis (1685).
- A set of illustrations for Gerard Reynst’s collection Signorum Veterum Icones (1670), a series of prints based on the Italian statuary in Reynst’s Amsterdam collection.
- Painted doors of the organ in the Westerkerk church in Amsterdam.
- Set designs for the Amsterdam theatre.
- A portrait of the Dutch stadholder and king of England, William III of England.
- 105 illustrations in: Godefridi Bidloo, Medicinae Doctoris & Chirurgi, Anatomia Hvmani Corporis: Centum & quinque Tabvlis Per artificiosiss. G. De Lairesse ad vivum delineatis, Demonstrata, Veterum Recentiorumque Inventis explicata plurimisque, hactenus non detectis, Illvstrata Amsterdam 1685
Gerard de Lairesse studied art under Bertholet Flemalle and his father Renier Lairesse. In 1664 De Lairesse was forced to flee Liège after a love affair gone wrong. He moved north to Utrecht in the Dutch Republic. When his talent was discovered by art dealer Gerrit van Uylenburgh, he in 1667 relocated to Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam during the second half of the 17th Century, the pious austerity and embarrassment of riches of the Protestant Dutch in Rembrandt’s age had given way to unbridled opulence, even decadence, and de Lairesse’s classical French, or Baroque, style fitted this age perfectly. It made him one of, if not the most popular painter in Amsterdam. De Lairesse was therefore frequently hired to adorn the interiors of government buildings and homes of wealthy Amsterdam businessmen with lavish trompe l’oeil ceiling and wall paintings. Many of these paintings still exist in the original buildings where they were painted, but many owners took the paintings with them when they moved.
For instance, he produced three ceiling paintings in 1671 for the Amsterdam regent Andries de Graeff. The paintings glorified the De Graeff family’s role as the protector of the Dutch republic and the works of art can be viewed as a visual statement opposing the return of the House of Orange as Stadtholders of the republic. They were created for Andries de Graeffs ‘Sael’ at his mayor’s residence in Amsterdam. The ceiling paintings now adorn the Ferdinand Bol room at the Peace Palace in The Hague.
De Lairesse as art theorist
De Lairesse suffered from congenital syphilis, which caused him to go blind in 1690. The misformed nose which the disease gave him is clearly visible on the portrait which Rembrandt painted of him around 1665. After losing his sight, de Lairesse was forced to give up painting and focused instead on lecturing and writing on art. His books were:
- Grondlegginge der teekenkonst (“Foundations of Drawing”) (published in 1701)
- Het groot schilderboeck (“Great Book of Painting”) (published in 1710)
In Het groot schilderboeck, De Lairesse wrote his disapproval of Dutch Golden Age painters like Rembrandt and Frans Hals because they often portrayed everyday scenes and ordinary people such as soldiers, farmers, maids, and even beggars. In de Lairesse’s view, painting ought to show lofty biblical, mythological and historical scenes, in the spirit of Karel van Mander, who felt that the historical allegory was the highest of genres.
He was a disciplined intellectual, inspired by the notion that only correct theory could produce good art. For him theory meant the strict adherence to rules. The ultimate purpose of the visual arts was the improvement of mankind, and therefore art must, above all, be lofty and edifying. He set forth hierarchies of social status, of subject matter, of beauty itself. The artist, he said, must learn grace by mingling with the social and intellectual élite, must allow his subject matter to teach the highest moral principles, and must strive for ideal beauty. He must follow closely upon nature but overlook its imperfections.
In the main reception room there should be tapestries or paintings on the wall with life size figures … and in the kitchen, images of kitchen equipment and the spoils of the hunt, the picture of some maid, servant, dog or cat. De Lairesse, for whom pictorial illusionism was of utmost importance, also wrote about the place of pictures on walls. For example, he urged that landscapes (and indeed all paintings) should be hung at a height where their horizons were even with eye level. De Lairesse urged that portraits that be hung high and have a low viewpoint. Gerard de Lairesse was cognisant of the problems posed by viewing paintings from a distance and drew connection between the hanging position and the scale and style of individual paintings. He noted … that a piece ten feet large, with life-size figures, should be viewed at ten feet distance, and that a smaller one five feet high, with life-size, half-length figures, must have five feet distance.
His treatises on painting and drawing, Grondlegginge der teekenkonst (1701) and Het groot schilderboeck (1707), were highly influential on later painters like Jacob de Wit. He also worked with many established artists of his day on larger commissions for house decorations, and publications.
He attracted many pupils, including Jan van Mieris, Simon van der Does, and the brothers Teodor and Krzysztof Lubieniecki. According to Houbraken, Jan Hoogsaat was one of his best pupils. According to the RKD his pupils were Jacob van der Does (the Younger), Louis Fabritius Dubourg, Jan Goeree, Gilliam van der Gouwen, Johannes de Lairesse, Theodor Lubienitzki, Bonaventura van Overbeek, Jan Wandelaar, and Zacharias Webber (the Younger).
Celebrated during his lifetime and well into the 18th century, he was berated during the 19th century. With or without justification, he was considered superficial and effete, and was held in large part responsible for the decline in Dutch painting. Two hundred years after his death in 1711 the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th Edition (1911) gave no listing at all for De Lairesse, while devoting four pages of solid text to Rembrandt.
Works by De Lairesse are now on display at many museums around the world, including the Rijksmuseum and Amsterdams Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Gallery in London, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
In the Binnenhof (now the seat of the Dutch parliament) in The Hague, a hall which he decorated in 1688 is named after him. A street in Amsterdam, the De Lairessestraat, is also named after him.
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