'The Beheading of Claudius Paulus and the Capture of Julius Civilis' & 'The Conspiracy of Julius Civilis and the Batavians in a Sacred Grove'

Otto van Veen was a late 16th-century, early 17th century Dutch-Flemish painter who was the official court artist of the governors of the Southern Netherlands. He also enjoys fame as the mentor of Peter Paul Rubens and owned a large studio in Antwerp, where he mostly created paintings and emblem books. Van Veen made an important contribution to comic history with a series of sequential paintings about the Batavian Uprising, named: 'De Bataafse Opstand' (1600-1613). Together with Frans Hogenberg's picture stories about 'The Spanish Fury' (1576) and the 'Murder of Henry III' (1589), Antonio Tempesta's 'Life of St. Laurentius' (1599) and 'Batavorum cum Romanis Bellum' (1612), Jacques Callot's 'Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre' ('Miseries of War', 1633), Francis Barlow's 'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' (1682), various late 17th-century comic strip-like cartoons by Romeyn de Hooghe and early 18th-century sequential paintings by William Hogarth, they rank among the earliest sequential illustrated narratives which we can identify by signature. Together with Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the ElderJohannes van den Aveele and Romeyn de Hooghe he can be named the earliest Dutch/Flemish prototypical comic artist.

Early life
Otto van Veen was born in 1556 in Leiden, the Northern Netherlands (present-day Netherlands) as the son of the local mayor. He studied art under Isaac Claesz van Swanenburg. His brothers, Gijsbert and Pieter, would later become painters too. In October 1572 Van Veen's family moved to the Southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium). At the time the Northern and Southern Netherlands were drifting apart because of the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch troops of William of Orange. The northern part became increasingly Protestant and Calvinist while the South remained Catholic under Spanish rule. In this regard it made sense for Van Veen's family - who were Catholics - to move to the South. They settled in Antwerp, but throughout his long life Van Veen spent an equal amount of time in Brussels and Liège. He continued his artistic studies under Dominicus Lampsonius and Jean Ramey. Between 1574-1580 he visited Rome.

'Amoris Divina Emblemata' by "Otho Vaenius" (1615).

Van Veen moved up the social ladder as a court painter for Rudolf II of Austria and William V, Duke of Bavaria. Back in Brussels he became a court painter for Alexander Farnese, who was governor of the Southern Netherlands. Van Veen fulfilled the same occupation under Farnese's successors, Archduke Albrecht and Isabella. In 1593 the artist became a master in the Guild of St. Luke and dean in the Guild of Romanists. He set up his own studio in Antwerp, where he fulfilled commissions for paintings in churches and palaces. One of his most famous pupils was Peter Paul Rubens, the most celebrated and richest painter of the 17th century. Van Veen gained most fame as a producer of emblem books. These were books of a moralistic nature, where the preachy texts were accompanied by allegorical illustrations. His 'Amorum Emblemata' (1608), for instance, pictured several little cupids visualizing quotes about love by famous writers and philosophers. At the time the work was one the most widespread books in Europe.

'Brinno Raised upon the Shield' & 'The Batavians Defeating the Romans on the Rhine'.

De Bataafse Opstand
In 69-70 AD the Batavian people were led by Julius Civilis to rise against Roman troops. They achieved some significant victories before the rebellion was betrayed and brutally suppressed. In the 17th century this historic event was rediscovered and romanticized as an example of historic Dutch resistance against foreign oppressors. The Dutch government used it as a parallel with their own wars against Spain during the Eighty Years War (1568-1648). In 1600 Van Veen was commissioned by them to create a propaganda piece about this heroic uprising. Instead of one single painting he created a series of 12 little paintings. Each individual canvas depicts a successive event and follows a specific chronological order.

'The Batavians Surround the Romans at Vetera' & 'The Batavians Besiege the Roman Army Regiments at Vetera'

Van Veen's thematically connected series start off with the decapitation of Julius Paulus and the arrest of his compatriot Claudius Civilis. The next painting has Civilis discuss the plan for rebellion at a large dinner table in the Schaker forest. In the third tableau Brinio is chosen as military leader and carried on a shield by the crowd. The fourth piece depicts the Batavians defeating the Romans near the Rhine, while the fifth painting shows them closing the Roman troops near Vetera. In the next tableau we see Civilis and his troops gather around a camp fire to prepare for the battle at dawn. A jump in time brings us to the seventh painting. The battle of Vetera has been won and Civilis has his hair cut, while his son is shooting arrows at some prisoners tied to a tree. In the eighth piece Valentinus, commander of the Belgae, tries to convince other Gaulish warriors in Reims to join them in their fight against the Romans. They refuse because they want to respect the Pax Romana. As we find out in the following painting Valentinus is taken prisoner of war. The tenth piece is perhaps the strangest one. We see a group of couples eat and drink around a table. Historians have no clue what this scene is supposed to represent? In the 11th painting the Roman troops defeat Civilis because somebody betrayed the Bavarian strategy. The picture shows the traitor pointing the way to a Roman officer. In the final picture the Roman general Cerealis and Civilis discuss peace on top of a partially destroyed bridge across the Nabalia river.

'Julius Civilis Having his Hair Cut after the Fall of Vetera, while his Son Kills Some of the Captives' & 'The Conference of the Gauls at Reims'

The 'Batavian Uprising' paintings are, of course, not historically correct. Van Veen dressed the Batavians like people from his own era. Virtually everything else was just a romanticized depiction of Antiquity as most people imagined it at the time. Historical facts are mixed with folkloric tales and it goes without saying that the looks of all historical characters and locations were just made up from the top of Van Veen's head. But in the 17th century such matters weren't considered important. In 1613 the paintings were finished and displayed at the Binnenhof, the central government building in The Hague, the Netherlands. Around the same time Antonio Tempesta created a similar series of 35 engravings, 'Batavorum cum Romanis Bellum' (1612), which depicted the same events, albeit with different compositions and illustrations, all accompanied by text underneath the images, making it an early example of a text comic. Van Veen's paintings were relocated to the Treveskamer in 1713 and donated to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1808, where they are still part of the permanent collection.

Historically speaking, Otto van Veen's 'Batavian Uprising' paintings are comparable to a comic strip. The Dutch government wanted spectators to actually "read" these events and therefore grouped all paintings together in three rows of four pictures each. Even today, the Rijksmuseum puts them on display in this particular arrangement. When viewed from a distance, it's difficult not to look at it as a comics narrative. While Van Veen didn't invent this practice, he is still one of the few artists who signed his work, along with late 14th-century, early 15th-century painter Hans Holbein the Elder, 18th-century British artist William Hogarth and 19th-century Spanish painter Francisco De Goya. 

'Valentinus Taken Prisoner' & 'A Nocturnal Banquet'.

Otto van Veen passed away in 1629 in Brussels. His daughter, Gertruida, was also a painter. She made a dignified portrait of her father.

'The Romans nearly Overpower the Army of Julius Civilis through the Treachery of a Batavian' & 'The Peace Negotiations between Julius Civilis and the Roman General Cerialis'.

Otto van Veen at the Rijksmuseum

Series and books by Otto van Veen you can order today:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.