Oud Holland

Review of: 'Jan van Mieris (1660-1690): His life and work' (2020)

May 2022

Review of: Margreet van der Hut, Jan van Mieris (1660-1690): His life and work, Zaandijk [CASAE], 2021

In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue Leidse fijnschilders: Van Gerrit Dou tot Frans van Mieris de Jonge, 1630-1760, published in 1988, Eric Jan Sluijter refers to the scarcity of scholarly attention given to the Leiden masters, other than Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) and Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-1681), and expresses the expectation that the exhibition will stimulate further research on them.1 Since then, this expectation has gradually but steadily been fulfilled. Over the last two decades, in particular, more attention has been paid to Dutch art of the last quarter of the seventeenth century, which had long been dismissed as in a phase of decline after the unprecedented florescence of the earlier part of the seventeenth century.2 Important monographic research has been conducted on painters – not confined only to Leiden – who were active during this period. Solo exhibition catalogues and related publications have appeared on Nicolaas Verkolje (1673-1746) in 2011, Godefridus Schalcken (1643-1706) in 2015 and Gerard de Lairesse (1641-1711) in 2016; furthermore, monographs with a catalogue raisonné were published on Casper Netscher (1639-1684) in 2002, Eglon van der Neer (1635/6-1703) in 2010, Barent Graat (1628-1709) in 2015, and Jan Weenix (1641/9-1719) in 2018, and a doctoral dissertation on Jacob Toorenvliet (1640-1719) was written in 2002.3 All of these studies illuminate how seriously and successfully these painters coped with the changing artistic climate after 1670: they inherited the pictorial tradition of their illustrious predecessors and strove to apply the novel style of classicism, which had gradually assumed the upper hand in Dutch art around this time.

In this context, Margreet van der Hut’s monograph on Jan van Mieris (1660-1690) – one of the important Leiden painters active in the last quarter of the seventeenth century – is a highly anticipated publication and a seminal contribution to the reconsideration of Dutch art after 1670. In her monograph, which includes a catalogue raisonné of 41 of Jan van Mieris’ works accepted as authentic, as well as an analysis of his life and art, Van der Hut convincingly portrays Jan as an artist who deliberately adopted the pictorial tradition of his father, Frans van Mieris the Elder, and simultaneously pursued the ideal decorum of painting in a classicising style. Van der Hut’s findings and interpretations concerning the artist’s interest in the classics, theatre and, in particular, poetry, shed new light on the intellectual aspect of this versatile artist. Most thought-provoking is her conclusion that Jan van Mieris’ own poetry was related to his painting and his ideas about art. Five poems, composed by the artist, which are today held in the Leiden University Library, together with several rhymed types of a Dutch version of the pastoral play Aminta (1573), by Torquato Tasso, first came to light in Van der Hut’s article that was published in 2009, and they now provide clues for interpreting Van Mieris’ history pieces, as well as his genre paintings.4

For instance, Van der Hut relates Jan van Mieris’ exquisitely depicted allegory Minerva, patroness of the sciences (cat. 36, fig.1), dated 1685, to one of his poems, which he dedicated to Petrus van der Burcht, a student who obtained his doctoral degree in jurisprudence at Leiden University in that same year. The picture indeed bears a thematic analogy to Jan’s poem: in both, Minerva appears as a central figure, acting as the patroness or protector of the sciences. This analogy is intriguing, in itself, because it provides a clue to understanding the connotation of this unique allegory; yet even more significantly, it reveals Jan’s fascination with the two ‘sister’ arts of painting and poetry, through which he seems to have grappled with how to represent abstract concepts such as ideas about the arts and sciences. In fact, Van Mieris chose art and poetry as subjects for a pair of allegorical pictures, entitled Poetica (cat. 37) and Pictura (cat. 38), that he executed slightly after Minerva, patroness of the sciences. As a professional painter and amateur poet, Van Mieris pursued – as if practicing the concept of ‘Ut pictura poesis’ (As is painting, so is poetry) – his quest for enhancing pictorial eloquence in the narratives of his history paintings, allegories and even genre paintings, in accordance with the principles advocated by the contemporary classicist Gerard de Lairesse.

Cover of Jan van Mieris (1660-1690): His life and work
Middle left: fig. 1 Jan van Mieris, Minerva, patroness of the sciences, 1685, oil on canvas, 80.2 x 64.2 cm., Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden
Middle right: fig. 2 Jan van Mieris, The smoker and the shrimp seller, c. 1681, oil on panel, 34 x 28 cm., present whereabouts unknown.
Right: fig. 3 Willem van Mieris, Lecherous old man, 1683, panel, 31.3 x 25.2 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, ©KHM-Museumsverband

Besides the 41 works of art accepted as authentic, Van der Hut’s catalogue raisonné also contains eight works with problematic attribution, four works with rejected attribution, 50 unidentified works known only through literature, and three reproductive prints. Due to the small number – only 12 – of dated authentic works, it must have been challenging to reconstruct Jan van Mieris’ entire oeuvre in chronological order; therefore, the catalogue is especially admirable. Van Mieris was active as an independent painter for no longer than 15 years, and spent his final years in Italy, where he passed away at the age of 29 without fulfilling his ambition as an artist. Regardless of his short career, his painterly technique sometimes varied a great deal. The Merry drinker (cat. 6), for instance, was painted with rather broad and loose touches, especially perceptible in the protagonist’s countenance, which seems quite different from the manner employed in another picture from the same period, Self-portrait with a palette (cat. 5), in which the half-lit face is carefully constructed by a subtle buildup of varying shades. The issue of Jan van Mieris’ diverse painterly technique is in fact touched on by Van der Hut in the fourth chapter of her book, entitled, ‘Training and development of a personal style’. Yet, what affected Jan’s choice of execution or, more generally, what characterised his palette and brushwork and their transitions throughout his career, is not discussed in detail. Further clarification of this issue would be helpful, especially since there are at least 50 ‘unidentified works’ awaiting to be rediscovered and judged, by criteria based on present-day painting connoisseurship.

Over the last decade, studies focused on the interaction and rivalry between seventeenth-century Dutch painters have occasionally revealed that artists were directly and frequently inspired by each other, either in response to their clients’ tastes or the demands of the art market. With this approach in mind, one misses in Van der Hut’s monograph, more elaborate discussions of possible connections and interactions between Jan’s pictures and the work of other painters of his day. Concerning the category of genre painting, for instance, Van der Hut refers to the work of Frans van Mieris the Elder as Jan’s main source of inspiration. She clearly elucidates how Jan derived subjects, motifs, compositional devices, and particular types of female figures – with an oval face and ‘elegantly curved’ arms – from his father’s work, and ingeniously adapted them to his own pictorial designs. Yet Frans was not the only artist whose painting style possibly exerted an impact on Jan’s artistic choices; particularly during the 1670s and early-1680s, a group of painters, admiring Frans’ art, was active in Jan’s proximity, and their works and ideas could have inspired Jan, while he was still learning and working in his father’s workshop. For instance, Leiden-born artists, as Jacob Toorenvliet, who returned to Leiden from Vienna in 1679, and Carel de Moor (1655-1738), who apprenticed with Frans van Mieris the Elder, for a brief period during the 1670s, must have been in close contact with both father and son.5 Furthermore, Eglon van der Neer, who lived in Rotterdam, made regular visits to Frans’ studio during the 1670s; while Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722), during his pupilage with Van der Neer between 1671/1672-1675, often accompanied his master on his visits to Leiden.6 Artists from earlier generation, such as Caspar Netscher, Godefridus Schalcken, Jan Verkolje (1650-1693) and Jacob Ochtervelt (1634-1682), were still active during the 1670s and 1680s. Last, but not least; Jan’s younger brother, Willem van Mieris (1662-1747), can be considered as Jan’s closest rival, and even a legitimate successor to Jan’s art because of their comparable educational background and shared devotion to classicism.7

By looking at Jan’s artistic connections from a broader perspective, therefore, one could easily discover how vibrant and stimulating the artistic circumstances in which he found himself were, during his juvenile period. He not only took his father’s work as a model, but simultaneously kept himself updated with what his father’s admirers engaged in. It is, therefore, no surprise that Jan and other artists, concurrently, appropriated the same motifs and subjects from the work of Frans van Mieris the Elder, and made their own variations on them. A good example is the subject of the ‘merry drinker’ that Frans repeatedly depicted during the late-1660s and early-1670s – occasionally as a self-portrait in disguise.8 A decade later, around the late-1670s and early-1680s, Van der Neer, Van der Werff and Jan van Mieris chose to paint the same ‘merry drinker’. They even depicted him in a similar costume, with his characteristic feathered hat or beret. The subject was obviously appealing to Willem van Mieris as well, who repeatedly opted for it in his own work during the late-1680s.9

Left: fig. 4 Frans van Mieris, Escaped bird: Allegory of chastity, 1767, panel, 17.5 x 14 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,
Middle left; fig. 5 Jan van Mieris, Young woman holding a mirror, c. 1680, oil on panel, 22.5 x 16.5 cm., present whereabouts unknown
Middle right: fig. 6 Willem van Mieris, A young woman with an escaping bird, 1687, oil on panel, 20.5 x 16.9 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, AMF/ⓒbpk/Hamburger Kunsthalle
Right: fig. 7 Jan van Mieris, Self-portrait, c. 1683, oil on canvas, 80.4 x 64.3 cm, Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden

Furthermore, as one examines a group of genre pictures catalogued by Van der Hut, there is a particular feature that stands out as a sign of Jan van Mieris’ efforts to adapt the pictorial tradition of earlier generations. Of the 17 catalogued genre paintings, 11 have a composition which focuses on one or two main figures located in a semi-outdoor setting, behind or next to the balustrade of a porch, with a view of an Italianate landscape or garden that is well-equipped with antique statues and palatial architectural elements (cats. 3, 13, 20-22, 26, 27, 33, and 34). Or, the figures are located in an interior with a prominent opening to a similar garden (cats. 16 and 23). This setting, which does not obviously derive from everyday life in Leiden at the time, adds an unusual, fictitious atmosphere to Jan van Mieris’ genre scenes. In The smoker and the shrimp seller (c. 1681, cat. 22, fig. 2), for instance, the artist depicted a young man with a pipe, who seems to be conversing with an older man, who has stopped by to sell him shrimp. In the background is a garden with an ancient-looking statue and a palatial residence.10 Although this scene is not based on a known literary source, the type of outdoor setting, which seems more common in depictions of religious or mythological subjects, evokes a narrative quality.11 The viewer cannot help but search for a suitable anecdote from contemporary literature or theater when observing the suggestive glances and gestures exchanged between these two figures. The attempt to pin down a written source for this scene is futile, yet this very ambiguity, created by the blurred boundaries between history and genre, enriches the storytelling aspect of the painting.

This specific narrative complexity had already appeared in earlier examples of genre painting, such as Netscher’s The fortune teller (1666-1670) and Frans van Mieris the Elder’s A weeping woman (c. 1678). In both paintings, the main figures, who are standing in the open air, seem to play a role in a theatrical or biblical scene, but one which is rather difficult to identify.12 The application of this type of narrative scheme coincides with a shift in genre painting during the era of classicism, toward a refined representation of elites’ genteel activities, occasionally combined with a theatrical expression of the emotions of the protagonists.13 The gradual shift in Jan’s genre painting, from intimate interior scenes to fictitious, semi-outdoor scenes – which Van der Hut rightly identifies but does not further elaborate on in her book – could also be reconsidered in this context. Jan’s choice of such settings must have been intended to infuse his genre painting with some of the narrative or didactic content characteristic of history painting, thus ennobling the less prestigious realm of genre painting.14 Admittedly, it might not be appropriate to conclude anything so definitive from a limited number of Jan’s extent genre pictures. Yet, when we learn that his younger brother Willem painted a genre scene entitled Lecherous old man (fig. 3), as early as 1683 – the setting and motifs of which are quite similar to those in Jan’s The smoker and the shrimp seller – we could suppose that Willem had commenced along the same path that Jan had walked earlier.15 Jan’s role in linking the earlier and later traditions becomes clearer, when similar pictorial vocabularies are found, in Frans van Mieris the Elder’s painting A woman with a bird in a small coffer (1676, fig. 4), Jan van Mieris’ Young woman holding a mirror (ca. 1680, fig. 5, cat. 26) and Willem van Mieris’ A young woman with an escaping bird (1687, fig. 6).16 What Jan van Mieris could have further achieved as an artist if he would have lived longer, remains speculative. But by reconstructing his artistic interaction with the above-mentioned artists, who were active during his lifetime, one can better understand his oeuvre – and his unaccomplished ambitions – and more appropriately define his role, in the artistic milieu of his time.

Over 40 years after Otto Naumann first published his ever-inspiring monograph on Frans van Mieris the Elder, Jan van Mieris finally became the subject of his own monograph – which enables us to analyze his work, picture by picture, through many full-page color illustrations of good quality, most of which are published for the first time. It is now possible to perceive his endeavors and aspirations, more vividly. Jan van Mieris’ six self-portraits, which Van der Hut has chronologically ordered as having been created between 1675 and 1688 (cats. 1, 2, 4, 5, 28, 39, fig. 7), for instance, demonstrate the fascinating, gradual metamorphosis of this short-lived painter from a fledging artist, into a self-conscious professional. This monograph provides us with rich material about an artist who was active in the milieu of other inspiring artists toward the end of a celebrated century – and it will certainly stimulate further research into the art of this vigorous and changing phase, in Dutch art history.

Junko Aono
Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo

This research was supported by JPS KAKENHI Grant Numbers JP17K02317 and JP19H00519.

1 E. J. Sluijter (et al.), Leidse fijnschilders: Van Gerrit Dou tot Frans van Mieris de Jonge, 1630-1760, Leiden 1988, p. 9.

2 J. Aono, ‘Out of the shadow of the Golden Age: recent scholarly developments concerning Dutch painting of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries’, in W. Franits (ed.), The Ashgate research companion to Dutch art of the seventeenth century, London and New York 2016, pp. 286-301.

3 P. Knolle and E. K. Altes (eds.), Nicolaas Verkolje 1673-1746: de fluwelen hand, Enschede 2011; A. K. Sevcík (ed.), Schalcken: Gemalte Verführung, Cologne 2015; J. Beltman, P. Knolle, and Q. van der Meer Mohr (eds.), Eindelijk! De Lairesse: klassieke schoonheid in de Gouden Eeuw, Zwolle 2016; M. E. Wieseman, Casper Netscher and late seventeenth-century Dutch painting, Doornspijk 2002; E. Schavemaker, Eglon van der Neer (1635/36-1703): his life and his work, Doornspijk 2010; M. van der Hut, Barent Graat (1628-1709), Leiden 2015; A. A. van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven, Jan Weenix. The paintings: master of the Dutch hunting still life, Zwolle 2018; S.H. Karau, Leben und Werk des Leidener Malers Jacob Toorenvliet, PhD dissertation, Berlin 2002.

4 A photograph of the page which contains this poem was included in this monograph: p. 12, fig. 5, Appendix III (transcription), pp. 176-177. M. van der Hut, ‘Een manuscript van Jan van Mieris, met daarin gedichten over zijn vader Frans van Mieris I’, Oud Holland 122 (2009), pp. 234-241.

5 P. Bakker, ‘Jacob Toorenvliet’ (2017), in A. K. Wheelock Jr. and L. Yeager-Crasselt (eds.), The Leiden collection catalogue, 3rd ed., New York 2020, https://theleidencollection.com/artists/jacob-van-toorenvliet/; Sluijter 1988 (note 1), p. 182. The first monograph with a catalogue raisonné on De Moor will be published by Pam Fowler and Piet Bakker. It is scheduled to appear around the end of 2022.

6 Schavemaker 2010 (note 3), p. 51; P. Bakker ‘Eglon van der Neer’ (2017), in Wheelock and Yeager-Crasselt 2020 (note 5). https://theleidencollection.com/artists/eglon-van-der-neer; B. Gaehtgens, Adriaen van der Werff 1659-1722, Munich 1987, p. 43.

7 J. Aono, ‘Ennobling daily life: a question of refinement in early eighteenth-century Dutch genre painting’, Simiolus 33, no. 4 (2007/2008), pp. 237-257; J. Aono, Confronting the Golden Age: imitation and innovation in Dutch genre painting 1680-1750, Amsterdam 2015, pp. 97-125.

8 O. Naumann, Frans van Mieris the elder (1635-1681), 2 vols., Doornspijk 1981, cat. nos. 72 and 77; Q. Buvelot (ed.), Frans van Mieris 1635-1681, The Hague 2005, p. 168, fig. 34a, p. 238, cat. no. 130.

9 Schavemaker 2010 (note 3), pp. 54-59; Aono 2015 (note 7), pp. 74-77.

10 According to the catalogue entry (cat. no. 22), it was in the possession of the art dealer Daxer & Marschall, Munich, in April 2018. For the interpretation of motifs depicted in this scene, see the website of this dealer: https://daxermarschall.com/en/portfolio-view/jan-van-mieris-3/

11 The background in Jan’s genre picture in cat. no. 13 is very similar to that of the genre painting by Frans van Mieris the Elder, A Man and a Woman: Naumann 1981 (note 8), cat. no. 113. A similar setting is also found in Jan’s portrait (cat. no. 17) as well as Frans van Meiris the Elder’s portraits; see, for instance, Naumann 1981 (note 8), cat. nos. 90, 91, and 105.

12 Netscher’s picture was related to Cervantes’s novel La Gitanilla or its Dutch translation, Het Spaens heydinnetje, while Van Meiris’s picture was associated with the biblical scene of Bathsheba. Wieseman 2002 (note 3), cat. no. 63, pp. 70-71 and 79; M.E. Wieseman, ‘Fortune teller’ (2020), in Wheelock Jr. and Yeager-Crasselt 2020 (note 5), https://theleidencollection.com/artwork/fortune-teller/ (accessed October 18, 2021); Naumann 1981 (note 8), cat. no. 115, see also cat. no. 108.

13 E. de Jongh, ‘Frans van Mieris: questions of understanding’, in Buvelot 2005 (note 8), pp. 44-61, esp. 52-59.

14 See, note 7.

15 C. Hofstede de Groot, Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten Holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts, 10 vols., Esslingen et al. 1907-1928, X, cat. no. 320. Willem van Mieris depicted The fortune teller (1706, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), which also has a similar outdoor setting: Hofstede de Groot 1907-1928, cat. no. 217.

16 Also compare these pictures with Jan’s Lady at her dressing table (cat.no. 14). Naumann 1981 (note 8), cat. no. 108; Hofstede de Groot 1907-1928 (note 15), cat. no.131.

Junko Aono, ‘Review of: Jan van Mieris (1660-1690): His life and work', Oud Holland Reviews, May 2022.