An Unknown Child of a Noble Family

Circle of: Bartholomeus Van Der Helst
1613 – 1670

An Unknown Child of a Noble Family

Painted circa 1638

Oil on panel: 41 1/8 x 33 1/4 inches, 102.8 x 83.2 cm

Provenance

  • European private collection

Portraits of babies from the 16th and 17th centuries are quite rare, and obviously desirable for their charm and appeal. This delightful portrait of a round-cheeked, brown-eyed infant is posed using the conventions established for formal European court portraiture, and as found in other early portraits of royal or aristocratic infants. [1] The child is depicted full-length, sitting on a large velvet cushion, with a highly formalised velvet curtain drape in the background. As with other royal and noble portraits, the baby is shown propped up on a velvet cushion as if on a chair of state, and seemingly possessing the self-control and formal bearing normally found in portraiture of adults at court. The absence of a family armorial, combined with a lack of knowledge as to the portrait’s original provenance, make the identification the child problematic. However the scale and richness of composition, with the baby dressed in the finest and most expensive white satin dress and holding a silver rattle with coral tip, suggests that, at the very least, this is a child from an aristocratic family.

From ancient times, it was believed that coral had magical properties, able to ward off the evil eye from those who wished ill on the child and from the menacing spirits that preyed upon the vulnerability of infants. It was no surprise therefore, that coral became an essential component of raising a healthy child. In fact, the coral’s rich colour was thought to reflect the appearance of physical well-being and if the coral began to change colour it was a harbinger of illness. From a practical stand-point, coral was hard, clean, and cool, making it a perfect substance on which to “cut” new teeth. Combined with the craftsmanship of silversmiths, the coral was incorporated into decorated rattles that combined little bells and even often a whistle. [2] These durable play-things were therefore more than mere amusements, indeed became family heirlooms amongst the wealthier classes, and were common christening gifts showing the elite status of the child’s parents and friends, appearing with regularity in Dutch and English child portraiture of the 16th, 17th and even 18th centuries.

Our child portrait has been attributed an artist working in the circle of Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613 – 1670). [3] The son of a Haarlem inn-keeper, little is known about his early years although it seems most likely that he was a pupil of Nicolaes Eliasz. Pickenoy (1588-1650/56). His earliest known work is a portrait of The Regents of the Walloon Orphanage, Amsterdam (Amsterdam, Maison Descartes) painted in 1637. Following this, it appears that Van der Helst’s rise to fame in Amsterdam was rapid, for as early as 1639 he received an even more prestigious commission for a large painting for the Kloveniersdoelen (Arquebusiers’ or Musketeers’ Hall), The Civic Guard Company of Capt. Roelof Bicker and Lt Jan Michielsz. Blaeuw (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), which formed part of the same series as Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). He was immensely successful as a group portraitist and from the 1640’s onwards, Van der Helst was considered to be the most famous portrait painter in Amsterdam, replacing even Rembrant and Frans Hals. [4] His mature work is brightly coloured, highly finished, and evenly lit, with each figure distinctly and solidly modelled. This style is most brilliantly displayed in the vast Celebration of the Peace of Munster painted in 1648 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) or in the life-sized marriage portrait of Abraham del Court and his Wife, painted in 1654 (Rotterdam, Boymans-van Beuningen Museum) which shows the artist at the height of his powers as a portraitist of private patronage.

 

[1] Examples include “Charles II, as Prince of Wales” aged 8 months and painted 1630 (National Portrait Gallery, London) and “Portrait of a child, said to be Lady Waugh” painted circa 1615 by William Larkin (English Portraits 1530-1650, cat. no.7, The Weiss Gallery, London, 1985.

[2] Apart from the mystical powers attributed to coral, bells too were thought too – even by the Church - to frighten away evil spirits.

[3] Our thanks to Dr. Sabrine Craft-Giepmans, RKD, The Hague, for suggesting this attribution

[4] Ekkart, R. (2007-2009) Grove Art Online: accessed 6th January 2010