Popular Delft Portraitist and his Patron identified in The Hague
For years late seventeenth-century portraits remained at the less popular end of the market. Today, however, interest is rapidly increasing as people discover the excellent quality-price ratio and as art-historical appreciation of the genre grows. Impressed by the high artistic quality, Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder recently acquired a beautifully painted portrait by an anonymous painter of the late seventeenth century. Now, following detailed research, the identities of both painter and sitter have begun to emerge.
The identity of the master who painted this unsigned picture remained a mystery for many years, not to mention that of the man in the purple coat. In the absence of a name, the painting was attributed to Nicolaes Verkolje, and more recently to a follower of Michiel van Musscher. Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder had their doubts, but purchased the painting for its original composition, its beautiful and precise rendering of texture and the picture’s excellent state of preservation. After all, a painting should be appreciated for its quality, not for the name or fame of its maker.
Fascinated by this superb portrait Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder decided to find out who the artist and the subject were. They contacted the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague. There the painting was compared with works by other portraitists and a thorough stylistic analysis finally showed that the portrait displays all the characteristics of a painting by Thomas van der Wilt.
It is not a name most people recognize. But in fact, the portrait and genre painter Thomas van der Wilt (1659-1733) was a pupil of the Delft artist Jan Verkolje (1650-1693). And in his day Van der Wilt was Delft’s most popular portraitist with his elegant and refined manner of painting. Many prominent citizens sat for him, including Leiden burgomaster Adriaan van der Goes van Naters, as well as Haarlem burgomaster Cornelis Colterman, not to mention the well-known Amsterdam art collector Valerius Rover. But the commission that crowned his career was the group portrait The Anatomy Lesson by Abraham Cornelis van Bleysmyck of 1727. Several of his portraits, such as those of the preacher Petrus Gribius, the town organ player Dirk Scholl and the doctor Hendrik van Deventer were also reproduced in prints. Between 1690 and 1714 Van der Wilt held several important functions within the Delft guild of painters. One of his pupils was Jacob Campo Weyerman, later famous for his book on painters’ lives.
The painting depicted here is an excellent example of Van der Wilt’s artistic talent. He paid special attention to the depiction of the different materials, such as the gleaming velvet of the dressing gown and the golden fringes of the red tablecloth. Also depicted with great accuracy is the pattern of stitching along the seams of the coat. This detailed manner of painting is closely related to the work of the Leiden fijnschilders (fine or precise painters). They came into fashion in the last quarter of the seventeenth century in reaction to the broad style of Rembrandt and his school. The sitter in the portrait is fashionable too. The clothing is quite different from the characteristic black of the first quarter of the seventeenth century. By the end of the century fashion was inspired by French tastes and had became far more colourful. The man is wearing a bright purple velvet gown, with a scarf round his neck and a typically French wig with long curls. The robe itself however is more Dutch than French. Dutch merchants imported expensive silk kimonos from Japan. Later, traders imported bales of silk and the Japanese cloth was tailored to western cuts. It became a highly popular form of dress, a status symbol, particularly among the wealthy.
The middle-aged man in the portrait leans on a table covered with a red velvet cloth. His right hand is placed on his breast. This is a familiar gesture in portraiture and was often used by Van der Wilt. Another traditionally popular motif is the curtain – here to the left of the sitter – which lends the picture a certain dignity. To the right is an entrance hall with large windows, a door opening, pilasters and a tiled floor. The setting is somewhat unusual. But Van der Wilt placed his model here for a reason: in the late seventeenth century it had become conventional to reserve this position, dress and setting for portraits of scientists, poets and men of letters. This provided an important clue to the researchers in determining the identity of the subject. Having consulted portraits of ‘learned men’ a striking resemblance was discovered at the RKD with the features of Hendrik van Deventer (1651-1724). This doctor was known from a print after a design by Van der Wilt. Another portrait by Van der Wilt in 1703 appears to show the same person, but slightly older. The present portrait shows a man whose age lies somewhere in between the two portraits.
In the seventeenth century husbands and wives often had their portraits painted at the same time. Van der Wilt painted many pendant portraits, but most became separated in the course of time. It is quite possible that the man shown here was originally accompanied by a spouse.
The portrait of a man, apparently Hendrik van Deventer, is a striking illustration of John and Willem Jan Hoogsteder’s motto: excellent art is still out there to be acquired for relatively small amounts of money. This portrait by the popular Delft portraitist Van der Wilt only costs f 29,500. It is exquisitely painted and in an excellent state of preservation. Moreover, it depicts the elegant and joyous period at the turn of the seventeenth century in a lively and colourful manner. It has also become an historically intriguing work now that the identities of both maker and subject have been established.
Portrait of Hendrik van Deventer (1651-1724), Surgeon and Obstitrician
Engraving by D. BOUTTATS after THOMAS VAN DER WILT
photo Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), The Hague.
Thomas van der Wilt
Portrait of a Man, probably Hendrik van Deventer
canvas, 53 x 43 cm,
photo Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), The Hague.