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Cornelis de Bruijn

Cornelis de Bruijn, after a painting by Godfrey Kneller.
Cornelis de Bruijn
painting by Godfrey Kneller (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Cornelis de Bruijn (c.1652-1727) was a Dutch artist and traveler. He is best known for his drawings of the ruins of Persepolis, the first reliable pictures of this palace to be accessible for western scholars, but his visits also included the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Jerusalem, Russia and the East Indies. (The first part of this article can be found here.)

Home again

When Cornelis de Bruin returned home, he was about forty years old. Almost half of his life, he had spent abroad, and he had seen more of the world than his contemporaries and compatriots. We don't know how he experienced his return. What is certain, is that he was a well-respected man. In 1694, he became a member of the Accademie van de Teyken-Const (Academy of Painting, the current Dutch Royal Academy of Art), which had recently been founded by his former teacher Theodorus van der Schuer and several others, including a Robert Duval who had been among De Bruijn's fellow-Bentveughels. This new academy was founded as a secession of a similar organization, called Pictura, and offered the possibility to draw nudes. Many artists, including De Bruijn, were member of both institutes.
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The Aegean Sea
The Holy Land
Syria, Turkey, Italy
Home again
The East Indies
Last years



The Dutch Republic in 1672. Design Jona Lendering. The Dutch Republic in 1672
His main project in these years was the preparation and edition of his first book, Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor). "I want to offer accurate pictures," he wrote in the introduction, "of those cities, towns, and buildings that I have visited, and without recklessness I can claim to have done something that no one has done before."

This was indeed the case, and the result was splendid. The book had about 400 pages and included no less than 200 pictures of all kinds of monuments, ancient and modern. A publication of this size and scope would have been a big investment even for a rich man, which De Bruijn certainly was not. In fact, we do not fully understand how he was able to finance it. It was one of the first "subscribed editions" in Holland, which means that people received a discount if they paid in advance, and indeed, the book has a list of no less than 630 people who had subscribed to the book beforehand, but this does not explain everything.

De Bruijn also received a rare privilege: copyright. He was the only one who had the right to publish this book, and the Dutch government promised that it would fine those who violated this privilege. This was most unusual and suggests that De Bruijn had extremely influential friends. The list of people who subscribed to the book helps us identify these people: courtiers and friends of His Britannic Majesty William, king of England, prince of Orange, stadholder of Holland. How close De Bruijn's connection to one of the most powerful men in the world actually was, is shown by the fact that he had his portrait painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the British court painter.

How a comparatively unknown painter could have such excellent contacts, is still a mystery. Perhaps the answer is sleeping somewhere in a British archive. For the time we may perhaps think about De Bruijn's remarkable finances, his excellent connections in Smyrna, and the fact that the Dutch ambassador in Constantinople suspected him of a crime but refused to act. It is a tempting idea that William of Orange had sent De Bruijn on a secret mission. But probably, we must resist this temptation.

Portrait of Gisbert Cuper, Museum De Waag, Deventer (Holland).
Gisbert Cuper (Historisch Museum, Deventer; ©*)

Before the book was published, Cornelis de Bruijn met Gisbert Cuper (1644-1716), the mayor of a city called Deventer, a devoted adherent of William of Orange, and -above all- a famous classicist and antiquarian. How Cuper knew about De Bruijn is not known, but the Dutch consul in Smyrna, who had received the painter so kindly, exchanged letters with Cuper (a.o. about Sabbathai Zwi) and may well have informed the scholar about the painter. An alternative explanation is that Cuper often visited The Hague (he was a member of the Estates General) and may have heard about De Bruijn in his hometown.

However this may be, the two men met and De Bruijn was allowed to make a copy of a large painting from Cuper's collection: the ruins of Palmyra, painted by the G. Hofstede van Essen who had been able to visit the recently discovered desert city in 1691 (above). Consequently, De Bruijn could include Palmyra in his book.

Nicolaes Witsen
Nicolaes Witsen

Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor appeared in 1698 and was a spectacular success. A French translation of the Dutch original appeared in 1700, and an English one in 1702. The reviews in the Bibliotheca librorum novorum and the Journal des Sçavans, two of the world's first scholarly journals, were enthusiastic. And finally, the French edition contained a technical novelty: De Bruijn ordered two copies to be printed in color. Until then, illustrations had been colored by hand, but printing in color had never been done before. Again, one wonders how De Bruijn got the money.

His star was rapidly rising. In 1699, he was one of the regents of the painting academy in The Hague. In 1700, he visited London, where Godfrey Kneller painted his portrait, and where he may have met other important courtiers. And in Holland, he met Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717), mayor of Amsterdam and a well-known cartographer with an extensive network of important contacts in Asia. Witsen suggested De Bruijn to make another voyage, this time to Russia and Persia.

This trip was really meant as scholarly research. De Bruijn's main objective was to visit Isfahan and Persepolis, the capitals of modern Persia and the ancient Achaemenid Empire. He received letters of recommendation, learned to use several scientific instruments, and asked scholars and scientists what he had to pay attention to.

Peter the Great at Poltava. Painting by Louis Karavack, Hermitage Museum, Petersburg (Russia).
Peter the Great
Painting by Louis Karavack, Hermitage

Another objective was to visit Russia, the country of czar Peter the Great (ruled 1682-1725), an acquaintance of Nicolaes Witsen. The czar wanted to modernize his empire and build a merchant fleet, and the Amsterdam mayor, who had already met Peter's father in 1664, had arranged an incognito apprenticeship for the young czar at the Amsterdam wharves and in the Zaandam windmills in 1697. After this remarkable visit, Peter did indeed launch a modernization campaign, and Witsen guessed that the monarch needed an artist to show the people in the West what the modernized Russia looked like. In this way, the backwards image of Russia might be corrected, and foreign investors might be interested in the large empire. De Bruijn was to be this artist. Having made his will, he left The Hague on 28 July 1701.


He returned in 1708 and published an account of his adventures in Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie ["Travels into Moscovy, Persia, and the East Indies"]. This book is our main source for De Bruijn's second travel.

Since the planning of this trip had begun, the political situation had changed. In the past century, the power of Sweden had grown and in 1700, Denmark and Saxony-Poland had attacked the Swedish possessions to the south and east of the Baltic Sea, hoping to win back what they had once lost. This was the beginning of the Great Northern War. Tsar Peter joined the aggressors, because he needed a warm-water port to give his country a "window on Europe".

War in the Baltic: under normal circumstances, the Dutch would have sent ships into the Baltic to maintain the balance of power and keep the grain prices low, but this was impossible. In 1701, the War of Spanish Succession had started when Louis XIV of France made his brother king of Spain. This would seriously endanger the balance of power. William III created an alliance of England, the Dutch Republic, the emperor Leopold I of Austria, Portugal, Hannover, and Prussia, which -in the end- successfully contained France. However, the two wars marked the end of the cheap cereals that were essential for Dutch prosperity. When De Bruijn returned, only a few people had the money to buy his new book.

But this was still in the future. In 1701, the outbreak of war only meant that De Bruijn could not take the land route to Berlin, Warsaw, and Moscow, but had to sail to the North Cape and enter Russia in Archangelsk. As a precaution against a Swedish naval attack, the Russians had removed al buoys, so that the ships of De Bruijn's convoy could not advance to the port. A longboat with the commanders of the ships (and Cornelis de Bruijn), tried to reach Archangelsk, but was unable to find it, "even though we had four captains aboard", as De Bruijn commented with his typical sense of understatement.

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of a Samoyed. From Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie (1711).
A Samoyede

Finally, however, they reached Archangelsk, where De Bruijn could stay in the house of a Dutch merchant who was a friend of Nicolaes Witsen. De Bruijn spent a lot of time with anthropological research: his description of the culture of the Samoyedes, a nation that resembled the Laps but lived east of Archangelsk, was to become a classic and contains beautiful drawings. After some time, De Bruijn continued his trip and joined a convoy to the south. After visits to Vologda and Yaroslavl, he reached Moscow in January 1702. Again, the recommendations by Nicolaes Witsen were useful: the traveling painter could stay in the house of the Dutch resident, Nicolaas van der Hulst, who lived near the Russian capital in a district for foreigners called Nemetskaja Sloboda.

Van der Hulst introduced De Bruijn to the czar, who was immediately interested and gave the artist permission to see whatever he liked. Witsen's idea that Peter needed an artist to show that his country was modernizing, was right, and never before had De Bruijn found travel so easy. He entered the tsar's palace, celebrated Easter, met Peter's friend Alexander Menshikov (1673-1729), slept in imperial datcha's, and was allowed to visit the military wharves of Voronezh on the Don.

The latter was clever propaganda: western politicians now knew that the Russian emperor could be a serious ally in a war against the Turks. In fact, Peter used De Bruijn to invite the western powers to make an alliance that might give Russia access to the Black Sea. The painter was useful in another way: he made paintings of the tsar's three nieces, which were sent to the European dynasts. Royal suitors were welcome in Moscow, was the message, and politicians would understand that a military alliance could also be obtained.

In Travels into Moscovy, Persia, and the East Indies, De Bruijn was to praise his host, but he focuses on only a couple of reforms, like technology and medicine. He did not lose his critical instinct and did not want to commit himself to a foreign ruler whose secret police was notorious.

In April 1703, De Bruijn left Moscow. Together with Jacob Davidov, an Armenian merchant who had lived in Amsterdam and wanted to visit his compatriots in Persia, the artist sailed down the river Oka to the east. On 1 May, he arrived in Kasimov. If communications had been faster, he might have learned that on that day, czar Peter had reached his war aim: he captured the Swedish fort at the mouth of the river Neva and gained access to the Baltic Sea. A few days later, when De Bruijn had already reached the river Volga, the czar renamed the conquered town St.Petersburg.

De Bruijn heard all this in the early summer, when he had reached the delta of the Volga in Astrakhan. Here, he painted a portrait of the son of the governor, and after several weeks, he boarded a ship that coasted along the western shore of the Caspian Sea until it reached Derbent (21 July), the port of Dagestan and in those days the gateway to Persia.

to part four

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