Paintings and Sculpture
Paintings and other images related to the Peace of Westphalia
This is undoubtedly the most famous painting associated with the Peace of Westphalia. It does not concern the Peace of Westphalia as such (the treaties between Sweden, France, and the Empire signed on October 24, 1648), but rather the peace signed between Spain and the United Provinces (the Netherlands) earlier in the same year. It is also atypical in that it is painted in a realistic mode: although not an authentic representation of the treaty’s ratification, it is far different from the allegorical works that most others painted.
This is the image that appears on the cover of my book, so I know what you’re thinking: why don’t I use this one on the main page of this web site? The fact is that it appears on my book because the folks at the Rijksmuseum are much more reasonable about licensing than those at the National Gallery in London. While the Rijksmuseum asked for 51.80 Euros for the use of Ter Borch’s painting, the National Gallery wanted 850 pounds, plus VAT, for the use of Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Blessings of Peace,” which was my first choice.
So why would I prefer a 1630 allegory over an historical painting that is specifically about Westphalia? It’s not because I don’t like Ter Borch — his painting is one of my favourites. But I find his presentation less in the spirit of the times than Rubens’s. Notice how the people are all basically in one horizontal line, with the action (the people swearing oaths) squarely in the middle. Befitting a relatively solemn occasion, everyone is standing still and looking somber. About the only hint of a Baroque feature is the addition of the artist himself, on the far left side, looking out directly at the viewer.
Compare this to Rubens’s painting, in which the subject is slightly to the left of center, and the composition follows diagonal lines, tilting from left to right as your eyes move across the canvas. There is a lot going on: a woman playing a tambourine, a satyr grabbing fruit, a woman offering her breast to an infant, and a woman (which I take to be Athena) restraining an armed man (whom I take to be Mars). People are twisting and moving in all directions, in various states of undress, with gloriously fleshy bodies that we would now describe as Rubenesque. There is even a girl looking out at the viewer, just as Ter Borch is doing in his painting.
I am not an art historian, which I’m sure any art historian would be happy to confirm, but I actually got interested in the 17th century through an art history class that I took as an undergraduate. I was fascinated with the way one could analyze a painting, and I was particularly struck by the dynamic, moving, interactive nature of Baroque paintings. As I studied the period as an historian, I was intrigued by the connections between the Baroque mindset and the idea of crisis in the 17th century. I had no idea of connecting this with the Peace of Westphalia until quite late in my writing, since I was expecting something more rational, more along the lines of analytic logic like that associated with Descartes. There is some of that, but it is rare. I was more struck by the jumble of ideas piled on top of one another, contradictory justifications superimposed as though one could win an argument by sheer weight of words rather than clean logic. People were happy to criticize others for a lack of logic, but no statesmen in my experience had anything like a perfectly coherent approach themselves. This is reflected in the ambiguous and even contradictory terms of the Peace of Westphalia itself, such as the awkward rights by which France obtained Alsace — rights that were in dispute for the rest of the century, until France resolved it by occupying the whole territory militarily. Rubens, it seemed to me, captured the chaotic nature of diplomacy at Westphalia better than the classicizing painting by Ter Borch. Ter Borch’s painting also gives viewers a false impression of the negotiations, which were never carried out in a public conference room except for this one occasion of ratification. Rubens was also a diplomat himself as well as an artist, adding to the appropriateness of his painting.
This allegory of the Peace of Westphalia by Jacob Jordaens would also have been a suitable cover. Obviously, it is allegorical rather than historical, and it is composed along two diagonal lines meeting in heaven in what I assume is God (this is where my lack of art historical knowledge becomes evident, because I can’t read these paintings the way a professional would). There is Neptune at the bottom left and a priest of some sort praying at an altar. The figures are twisted (God is in a particularly awkward pose), naked, and fleshy, and the scene moves in and out of the light and shadows in a characteristically Baroque fashion.
Here is another allegory specifically on the Peace of Westhalia. It has some Baroque features — diagonal composition, chubby naked babies — but I find it too restrained for what I wanted for the cover of my book.
This painting and the next one, both by Theodoor van Thulden, are allegories of peace, possibly related to the treaties of 1648. I like them better than Sandrart’s, but they are similarly spare in contrast to Rubens’s overflowing painting.
This fountain, the “Fountain of the Four Rivers,” is not usually considered in relation to the Peace of Westphalia, but a recent article convincingly argues that it was originally commissioned to commemorate Innocent X’s role in the negotiations. The obelisk represents the sun, which threatens to dry up the four rivers of the world, a metaphor for war destroying culture. Statuary is a typically Baroque medium, as it physically reaches three dimensions which paintings can only do conceptually through perspective and trompe l’oeil. It is also a very public form of art, designed to be seen openly rather than be kept in a private residence. This piece was done by Bernini, the master of Baroque sculpture, and contains all the twisting forms and dynamic composition of a Rubens painting in three dimensions.
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