Semiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon

John Hawley

In 1660 the States General—a body of delegates representing the provinces of the Dutch Republic—presented 28 paintings (most by Italian masters), 12 classical sculptures, a yacht, and furniture to Charles II, the recently restored English monarch. The Dutch Gift, as it is known today, was intended to strengthen ties between England and the Republic, whose relationship had frayed in preceding years over political and trade disagreements, ultimately erupting into armed conflict.

Among the highlights of the Dutch Gift was Guercino’s masterful Semiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon. The painting depicts an episode from the life of the legendary Assyrian queen and fearless military leader who, having heard of a revolt, refused to finish combing her hair until she led her army out to crush the rebellion. One can imagine that, through this painting, the States General intended to flatter Charles, whose rule, unlike that of Semiramis, was marked more by sexual dalliances with women at court and other frivolities than strong military leadership. For his part, Charles likely saw in Semiramis the type of bold, unifying leader to which he aspired.

Though the States General’s diplomatic overture did not immediately bear fruit—England and the Republic fought two additional wars in the following 15 years—it would not be long until a Dutchman, William III, was invited to assume the English throne, peacefully integrating the two countries both economically and militarily. In our own increasingly global world in which political and economic differences create some of the most significant fault lines, we also might be wise to consider not only the art of diplomacy but, in the words of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the “diplomacy of art.”

John Hawley is curatorial research fellow in Paintings before 1800, Art of Europe.