The mad frenzy of Ernst Stuven


For the past two years, the RKD has been making the archival notes of Abraham Bredius (1855-1946) available with the help of volunteers. At the beginning of this year, the description of the excerpts relating to seventeenth-century artists working in Amsterdam was completed. In the meantime, we have started working on the excerpts Bredius made based on records he found in other city archives, such as in The Hague, Delft, Leiden, Haarlem, Middelburg and Dordrecht. To conclude on Amsterdam, we return once more to the painter Ernst Stuven (c. 1657-1712), who was originally from Hamburg, and who has featured in a news item before.

A moody painter of flowers

Anyone who beholds the flower or other still lifes done by Ernst Stuven will assume almost without question that the painter must have had a cheerful disposition. After all, colourful lushness is hard to reconcile with grumpiness. Ernst Stuven, as Bredius’ archival notes reveal, appeared to have combined both of these qualities. Already in 1688, his neighbours on the Amsterdam Nieuwe Prinsengracht complained that his behaviour was maddening; a decade later he managed to terrify his apprentice Willem Grasdorp (1678-1723) beyond all limits.

It started with Stuven trying to make Willem’s life as miserable as possible. Apparently, Stuven had no desire at all to abide by the three-year contract that Willem’s mother and stepfather had made with him and was doing his utmost to find a reason to be able to dissolve the contract again. In fact, it was not uncommon for apprentice contracts to include provisions stipulating that a redemption fee would be required in the event that the apprenticeship was terminated prematurely, for example, because the apprentice showed too little effort, appeared to lack talent, stole or ran away. That a premature termination could be lucrative is proven by an excerpt Bredius made of a contract Stuven negotiated with Rynhold Muller in 1689. In this contract, Stuven stipulated that Muller had to pay him no less than one thousand guilders if Muller prematurely ended the agreed upon apprenticeship of three years.

1. Jan Stolker after J. Hoogzaat, Portrait of the painter Ernst Stuven, whereabouts unknown
2. Ernst Stuven, Flower still life, National Gallery, Prague
3. Ernst Stuven, Still life with fruit, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Driven to despair

At some point Willem was so desperate that he secretly wrote a letter to his mother in Zwolle, who then decided to travel to the Bloemgracht in Amsterdam with her husband and his companion to take her son away from Stuven. Stuven, however, refused any cooperation. Instead, he attacked Willem’s stepfather Albertus Bolte and his companion Claes Vetkamp with stones he had picked up from the broken up street. Stuven left them little choice but to go to the bailiff (the schout). The bailiff's deputy, Bredius noted on the basis of a statement Grasdorp, Bolte and Vetkamp had drawn up with notary Joannes van Geuns on July 8, 1698 ‘was likewise welcomed with holes in his head and other injuries’. ‘Stuven’, it further reads in Bredius’ excerpt, ‘behaved as if he was insane and said, among other things: I am appointed as the executioner of God ... I must avenge the innocent blood that has been shed to thee’, whereupon he stabbed Willem through the cheek with a paintbrush and furthermore threatened to pierce him with a sword. Claes Vetkamp was threatened by Stuven that he would ‘take his heart out of his body and wrap his intestines around his arms and then proceed to throw this in his wife’s face’.

Outrageous intoxication

If we turn to Arnold Houbraken, who recounts the incident in detail in his Groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen and, by his own account, recorded some of the events directly from Grasdorp’s mouth, Stuven showed an excessively angry drunkenness. This allegation is nothing too excessive, for the story is, according to Houbraken, even more absurd: with his face and hands painted frighteningly red, Stuven had appeared at the window in the evening, where a curious crowd had gathered. The innocent blood that Stuven wanted to avenge on his apprentice referred to the bloody manner in which the Amsterdam city council had put down the so-called Aansprekersoproer (The Undertakers’ Revolt) in 1696. After a frightful night, during which Grasdorp had not succeeded in escaping the house, he was grabbed by his hair by Stuven, ‘who came flying at him like a frantic dragon’, who then dragged him along the ground and stabbed him through his lip with a paintbrush ‘causing the blood to gush from his chin as he started to scream. However, this too was almost prevented by the madman, who held his throat so tightly that he was almost strangled’. Eventually the neighbours managed to distract Stuven in such a way that Grasdorp could escape through a window.

The city magistrates, we read further in Houbraken’s account, had meanwhile ordered that Stuven, who had apparently also misbehaved during the Aansprekersoproer and the subsequent looting of the house of burgomaster Jacob Boreel, should be arrested either dead or alive. Because Stuven did not give in without a fight, his arrest involved a great deal of violence. At last he was wounded and gagged and transported to the prison on a ‘sledge (because he didn’t want to go)’. His indomitable rage earned him a hefty prison sentence and an exile from Amsterdam.

1 & 2. Excerpt by Abraham Bredius on Ernst Stuven, based on a statement made by Claes Vetkamp, Albertus Bolte and Willem Grasdorp on 8 July 1698, from the archives of the Amsterdam notary Joannes van Geuns, collection RKD, Abraham Bredius Archive
3. Laurens Scherm, Looting of the house of Jacob Boreel during the Aansprekersoproer, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Well-dressed for battle

While browsing through the excerpts Bredius made of documents concerning Stuven, we find an appealing description of Stuven's attire during the Aansprekersoproer from the protocol of notary Joan Hoekeback: ‘a black cloth skirt and black trousers, over it a musk coloured surtout [overcoat of a rough woven fabric] with a large pinned up wig and a large brimmed hat [...] with a pair of stiff leather gloves and a brown walking stick with a black knob.’ However, according to another deed drawn up by notary Hoekeback, Stuven managed to gather quite a number of supporters who stated for him that he had only witnessed burgomaster Boreel’s house being stormed by rioters. ‘He had’, Bredius noted in his excerpt, ‘on the contrary, often moaned and complained about the ruining of the furniture and paintings’.

Join in?

Of course, such colourful figures as the painter Ernst Stuven were not only reserved for Amsterdam. Other cities will also have been populated by such characters. Curious? Join the crowdsourcing project Brediusaantekeningen (knowledge of the Dutch language is required). For more information and registration click here.

1. Attributed to Pieter van den Berge, Looter from the Aansprekersoproer, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
2 & 3. Excerpts by Abraham Bredius on Ernst Stuven, based on deeds from the archives of the Amsterdam notary Joan Hoekeback, collection RKD, Abraham Bredius Archive