This painting records a key moment in European political history: the confirmation of the treaty which formally granted independence to the Dutch nation from Spanish control in 1648. The key figures are the six Dutch and two Spanish delegates, shown in the centre swearing the treaty oath, and ter Borch’s own self portrait – he’s on the left, with a reddish moustache and long fair hair, looking out at us.
It’s also the first known oil painting to depict such a political event in a ‘factual’ way. Before this date, artists tended to glorify such moments, for example casting the protagonists as classical heroes in a fantasy setting. But although ter Borch has arranged the figures artificially so that the most important are clearly visible, they are depicted with lifelike portraits, and we know, from written accounts by eyewitnesses, that many of the details of the hall and its furnishings are accurately represented.
This painting records a key moment in European political history: the confirmation of the treaty which granted independence to the Dutch nation. It’s also the first known oil painting to depict such a political event in a ‘factual’ way.
Until this painting was made, artists tended to glorify such moments, for example casting the protagonists as classical heroes in a fantasy setting. But although the figures are clearly arranged artificially, in order to allow us to see all the most important more clearly, they are depicted with lifelike portraits. And we know, from written accounts by eyewitnesses, that many of the details of the hall and its furnishings are accurately represented.
The treaty confirmed Dutch independence from Spanish rule and so marked the formal founding of a new nation. The Catholic Philip II, King of Spain, had gained control of much of the Low Countries in 1558. Ten years later the northern – mainly Protestant Calvinist – parts of the territory had begun to revolt with the aim of winning religious and national freedom. It grew into a bitter war of independence which raged for the next 40 years until a ceasefire was signed in 1609. However, around 1619 hostilities broke out again and it was not until the swearing of the Peace of Münster in 1648 that Spain formally renounced its claim on sovereignty.
The treaty was signed in Münster in Westphalia on 30 January 1648. It was ratified by Philip IV of Spain on 1 March and by the Dutch on 18 April. The final act was the swearing of the oath of confirmation in the town hall on 15 May 1648. This painting records that moment. Some 77 people are represented, and more than 20 have so far been identified, partly with the help of individual portraits painted by ter Borch at the time. Ter Borch, who was in Münster at the time and was presumably an eyewitness, also included his own self portrait on the extreme left of the front row. He is the one looking out at us with a reddish moustache and long fair hair.
The key figures are shown standing at the centre table simultaneously swearing the oath. The six Netherlandish delegates – five dressed in black and white, one in grey edged with silver braid – do so with their hands raised. One, Barthold van Gent, holds a paper on which the Dutch oath has been inscribed. The two Spanish delegates – the Count of Peñaranda holds up the Spanish version of the oath – both swear with their right hands on the Bible. In reality, the Spaniards were the first to swear, followed by the Dutch, but ter Borch has condensed the action for greater dramatic effect.
Apart from the stylised arrangement of the figures, he was careful to render the other details of scene accurately. The interior and furnishings of the hall are faithfully recreated, as are the green table cloth and the objects on the table. Some of these still survive, including the red and gold casket containing a copy of the treaty.
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