Willem van Vyve

Frans Pourbus the Younger
1569 – 1622

Willem van Vyve
and
Marie de Huelstre

Painted 1591

Oil on Panel: 40 x 28 5/8 inches, 101.5 x 72.8 cm

Provenance

  • Private collection, Belgium

These two newly discovered and unrecorded paintings are the only pair of pendant portraits by Frans Pourbus the Younger from his Antwerp period to remain together.1 The husband and wife have been identified through their respective coats-of-arms as Willem van Vyve and his wife Marie De Huelstre, and their commisioning almost certainly celebrates their marriage which took place in Bruges in 1591.2

The year 1591 has particular significance in the life of Pourbus, since this was the year the twenty-two year old was accepted into the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp, and the point at which he started his working life as a professional painter. His career began with an extraordinary flourish and with the six other works that we know from 1591, the addition of this pair makes eight paintings from one year. Never again would he be so prolific.

Stylistically it is instructive to compare this pair of portraits with the two others from 1591 in this catalogue, those of the Unknown Man aged 56 (cat. no. 2) and Caterine van Damme (cat. no. 3). The latter two are bravura masterpieces of verisimilitude and have an individuality that is on another level to the marriage portraits. Could this reflect that they were painted later in the year, after Van Vyve and his wife, when Pourbus had gained greater confidence?

The large quantity of jewellery worn by Marie De Huelstre is magnificent, as befits a marriage portrait: the gold chains, pomander, bracelets and rings all imply great wealth, as does the fine lace of her headdress and the sumptuous quality of her dress. All these elements are captured with great virtuosity. She is shown in marked contrast to the more sombre attire of her husband, Willem van Vyve, whose hand rests on a book, indicating his status as a man of letters and learning. Her portrait, with a comparative lack of characterisation in her face, remains still, firmly fixed in the tradition of the previous generation of artists, such as Adriaen Thomasz. Key (c. 1545 – c. 1589), see for example Key’s Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman, both at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Compositionally Willem van Vyve and his wife Marie de Huelstre also show the influence of Frans’s grandfather, Pieter Pourbus. As in Pieter’s portraits of Pierre Dominicle and his wife Livine van der Beke, from 1558 (European private collection), the husband holds gloves in his left hand and the wife a jeweled pomander suspended from a gold chain. Likewise, we see echoes of the tromp l’oeil of red ribbon above the wife’s coat-of-arms.3 It was a compositional device that Frans Pourbus the Younger replicated with portraits and subsequently with those of Nicolas de Hellincx (Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp) and his wife (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), the following year in 1592.4 It is worth noting too that whilst the portraiture of Pieter Pourbus was predominantly on a much smaller scale, to be viewed at close quarters in intimate family spaces, in contrast, Pourbus the Younger’s are imposingly large. Their size reflects the burgeoning wealth of the growing middle classes, and their intended display in public areas of the house.

1 The pendant to our 56 year-old Man (cat. no. 2) is in the Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco, the pendant to Caterine van Damme (cat. no. 3) is missing, and the artist’s portrait of Nicolas de Hellincx from 1592 is in the Museum of Fine arts, Anvers, while his wife is in the National Gallery of Ireland.

2 With thanks to Jan D’hondt from the Bruges Archives for his help in identifying the sitters. Baptism registers in the parish of Saint-Saviour church, Bruges, also record the birth of a son to this couple on August 28th 1601.

3 P. Huvenne, Pierre Pourbus; Peintre Brugois, 1524-1584, Bruges 1984 Exh. Cat. no. 19, pp. 222-223.

4 B. Ducos, ibid, pp. 191-193, P.A.8 and P.A.9.