The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis by Rembrandt
Interpretation of Dutch Baroque History Painting

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The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis
By Rembrandt.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661)


Interpretation of The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis
Analysis of Other paintings by Rembrandt


Artist: Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-69)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: History painting
Movement: Dutch Baroque
Location: Swedish National Museum, Stockholm.

For other important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Appreciation
To assess paintings by
Dutch Realist painters
like Rembrandt, see our
educational articles:
Art Evaluation
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How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of The Conspiracy of Claudius/Julius Civilis

One of the most powerful historical works of 17th century Dutch painting, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis was originally Rembrandt's largest ever canvas. A massive 25 square metres (5 x 5) in size, it was commissioned by the Amsterdam city council for the new Town Hall (now the Royal Palace). The council initially ordered twelve pictures from Govert Flinck (1615-60), according to themes decided upon by the poet Joost van den Vondel. But Flink died before completing any of the works. The Burgomasters Joan Huydecoper and Andries de Graeff then divided up the project between a number of artists. Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a scene from the rebellion of the former inhabitants of Holland (the Batavians) against the Romans, as described by Tacitus. The secular subject is quite in keeping with the aesthetics of Protestant Reformation Art (c.1520-1700). The huge painting was delivered and hung in late 1661, but early in 1662 it was returned to the artist for reworking, due to a stylistic clash with other paintings in the series. Notorious for his irritability in the face of such requests by customers, Rembrandt demanded to be paid for this extra work. When the council refused, Rembrandt kept the painting, which he altered and reduced in size to make it more sellable. Owned by the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, it hangs in the Swedish Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.



Historical Painting

The subject is from Tacitus, The Histories, Book IV, lines 13-16, which refers to the revolt of the Batavians, the ancient inhabitants of The Netherlands, against the occupying Romans. The leader of the revolt was the one-eyed Claudius Civilis (also called Julius Civilis), who had won his freedom from Roman custody by feigning friendship with Emperor Vespasian. Once at liberty, he returned to his tribal lands in the marshes of the Betuwe, where he summoned the tribal chiefs of the Batavians to a meeting in a sacred wood, under the pretence of holding a banquet. Once assembled, he made them swear an oath (by a clash of swords) to fight for their liberty. This revolt was commonly seen by Rembrandt's contemporaries as a prototype of William of Orange's 16th century war of independence against the Spanish. In the original large-scale work - as seen in the drawing (1661, Graphische Sammlung, Munich) - the table and conspirators, together with other figures to the left and right, were seen on a raised dais across a vast empty foreground and above them was a huge vault. In the cut-down version, all that remains is Claudius and his key conspirators at the table.


Even in its mutilated state, the painting (valued in 2008 at $123 million) is an incredible example of dramatic Baroque painting. Rembrandt's wild handling and primitive forms seem to have been specifically designed for the picture's archaic and barbarous subject. Most remarkable is the colour, here inseparable from the lighting. As was so often his practice, Rembrandt places a source of light in the centre of a group of figures, concealing it from direct view. Yet the amount of light emitted from this source is much greater than it would be if it were merely natural. At its most intense, the light is white; where it becomes pale yellow it suggests not only strong light but also great heat. All this was designed to show that, as well as touching swords to cement their oath, the figures are sort of beating out their weapons at a forge, and even being hardened in the fire themselves. To the right, red is the dominant colour and this too suggests fire. The colour-palette is not unlike the reds of other late-period works like The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (1662, Rijksmuseum), The Jewish Bride (c.1665-8, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and the Return of the Prodigal Son (1668, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg).

Rembrandt's interpretation of the scene was quite different from the norm. The sword-oath, for instance, was entirely his invention. In comparison, engravings (1612) by Antonio Tempesta, used to illustrate the history book Batavorum cum Romanis Bellum, showed only handshakes. In 1613, a set of twelve paintings by Van Veen showed Claudius Civilis in profile, with only his good eye visible.

For other novel approaches to history painting by Rembrandt, see Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654, Louvre Museum, Paris); for revolutionary portraiture, see: Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; and The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis).

Critical Reception

In the view of art scholar Kenneth Clark, the Dutch authorities were bound to reject The Conspiracy of Julius Civilis: not least because Rembrandt's evocation of a Shakespearian heroic-magical past embellished with primitive majesty and grotesque forms, was hardly consistent with an earnest, Protestant Republic. Other objections might well have centred upon the amount of dark, unused space in the composition, which would have clashed with the more conventional submissions.

One can only imagine how Rembrandt's barbaric conspiratorial group must have appeared out of its dark eerieness, high up under an arch in the gallery of the City Hall, or how its heroic primitivism must have dominated its more subdued rivals.


Rembrandt's tiff with the Amsterdam Burgomasters did not effect the general esteem in which he was held. Within weeks, he was commissioned by the important Clothmakers Guild to produce a group portrait of their Staalmeesters: a commission which duly became The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild (1662, Rijksmuseum). He followed this up with his historical masterpiece, The Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts), and several evocative self-portraits. These and other works justify his reputation as one of the best portrait artists in Europe, and arguably one of the best artists of all time.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Rembrandt

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) Metropolitan Museum, NY
Jan Six (1654) The Six Collection, Amsterdam
The Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666) The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

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