The hunt for Torrentius

Over the summer, I played the Rijksmuseum Escape Game with some friends. Some of us had played the game last year and we were curious to see how this year’s edition would compare, since it was designed by a different company and it’s only the second edition of the game, so the museum had likely ironed out some of the creases from the first time around.

Instead of focusing on the game, however, I’d like to talk about Jan Sijmons Zoon van der Beek, who is better known as Johannes Torrentius.

During this year’s escape game, one artwork, hung high up on the wall opposite Hendrick Avercamp’s popular Winterlandschaap met schaatsers (Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters), played an important role. Despite having been in this room countless times, I had never paid much attention to this painting, preferring, instead, the flower still life paintings and Avercamp’s work.

Although the escape game takes place in a museum, the artworks and other museum objects within the museum are have not been incorporated well into the game. This year, the Emblematisch stilleven met kan, glas, kruik en breidel (Emblematic Still Life with Flagon, Glass, Jug and Bridle) by Johannes Torrentius marked a turning point in the game. To continue along with the game, we were required to find one of the curators to ask her for more information about the painting.

She told us that this is the only known-to-be surviving painting left from Johannes Torrentius, who happened to be a well-renowned still life painter during the 17th century and that he led a scandalous life. What intrigue!

Emblematisch stilleven met kan, glas, kruik en breidel (Emblematic Still Life with Flagon, Glass, Jug and Bridle) by Johannes Torrentius, 1614.

I was amazed that a piece that seems to be relegated to the sidelines within the museum could have such an intriguing backstory. I was curious to find out more about this artist and this artwork, and to see how much information the Rijksmuseum had made available about this artwork and how much information I could find about it elsewhere. It seemed to me that I learned more about this object during the game than I could have via the texts available in the museum or on the museum’s website.

This description accompanies Torrentius’ painting on the Rijksmuseum website: "A pewter flagon, a wine glass, an earthenware jug, a bridle or rein, and a piece of paper with two staves and inscribed ‘what is out of measure, perishes in immeasurable evil.’ These are exhortations to moderation. You must cut wine with water, curb your appetites. This strict message contrasts sharply with the reputation of the painter, who was repeatedly accused of whoremongery and heresy."

There’s so much left to want in this description! What a tease to end it with such juicy gossip about the painter’s life! Don’t we all go to museums to hear about the art history gossip?

After some more research, the image of Torrentius, his life, and this artwork seems to become even more clouded.

The materials that he used to paint this artwork are not discernible — it seems to be neither oil nor acrylic nor watercolour. It may be that the painting has a thick layer of pectine from the sitting atop a barrel of raisins, which could make it difficult to detect the chemical composition of the painting underneath. There also isn’t any historical record of which materials Torrentius used — he kept his methods a secret. One eyewitness account states that there was a buzzing sound like bees while Torrentius was painting, which suggests that Torrentius may have used some sort of chemical reaction to achieve the effects of his paintings, but that also doesn’t make much sense (the buzzing sound would come from an acid eating up another chemical, but that would probably destroy the entire painting as a whole) and only adds to the mystery.

And then there’s the subject of the painting. Most important is the music and lyrics (described in the Rijksmuseum text above). The music and the lyrics are out of measure; in other words, if you sing the lyrics and play the music, they don’t match up with one another. This reinforces the message communicated in the lyrics, that everything should be within measure. The music even includes a chord that would’ve been associated with the devil at the time, suggesting that this out-of-measure music is evil in itself.

Torrentius seems like he was quite the character. Many descriptions of his artworks detail pornographic scenes, which would’ve been scandalous in Calvinist Holland, and were even less acceptable when he moved to the smaller city of Haarlem. Supposedly, Torrentius was a “dandy” and was too progressive and vulgar for seventeenth-century Dutch society.

Huygens also wrote in a letter that he had shown Torrentius a camera obscura, but was confused by Torrentius’ feigned amusement (Huygens was convinced that Torrentius already owned and used a camera obscura). The fact that King Charles I of England offered to Frederik Hendrik to save Torrentius almost seems as if it were a favour to Frederik Hendrik, implying that Torrentius might have known something unsavoury about the House of Oranje. Other historians suggest that King Charles I of England adored Torrentius’ artworks so much that he saved Torrentius from prison and appointed him as his court painter.

Even more mysterious, it seems that, during his tenure in England (after having been rescued by the King Charles I), Torrentius is believed not to have made another painting and there is barely any record or indication of his stay there.

Torrentius was mostly forgotten — and his paintings all lost — until the beginning of the 20th century, when this painting popped up in a rummage market (of all places) in Enschede. It had been used as a lid for a barrel of raisins.

The director of the Mauritshuis at the beginning of the 20th century published the first book about Torrentius in 1909, which relied solely on descriptions of his work (since none of his paintings were known to exist). Just a few years later, this painting popped up at a rummage market in Enschede. The CR symbol on the painting stands for Carolus Rex (King Charles I of England), proving that this must be Torrentius’ painting, which had been in the collection of King Charles I before being sold to Timothy Crusoe and then disappearing.

Although there’s still so much left to the imagination in this tale of Torrentius, his story and his painting can still serve as a good reminder to turn away from the more celebrated museum objects every once in awhile to look at those that are hidden up above in the shadow of the ceiling and ignored in the face of more popular and celebrated artworks.

For more information:

Volkskrant (Dutch)

NRC (Dutch)

De Groene Amsterdammer (Dutch)

Koninklijke Bibliotheek (Dutch)

Rembrandt's Room (English)

Michiel Morel (Dutch)

Wikipedia (English, but also available in Dutch)