Oud Holland

Review of: 'Portretten door Zeeuwse meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw' (2020)

June 2023


Review of: Frank van der Ploeg, Portretten door Zeeuwse Meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw, Zwolle [WBooks], 2020

Seventeenth-century Netherlandish art theory and the market for portraits provide scholars with a conundrum. Because portraits produced during the turn of that century, were understood as merely recording the external likeness of their subjects, in 1604 Karel van Mander (1548-1606) famously described the genre as a by-way of art, recommending instead that artists turn to history painting, which better engages their imagination.At the same time, Marten Jan Bok’s more recent studies of seventeenth-century inventories reveal a steady and substantial interest in portraits over earlier centuries, while Michael Montias observed that, the first painting many couples purchased at or shortly after marriage, was often their portraits.2 This also meant that were a reliable source of income: Jaap van de Veen has suggested that when Rembrandt (1606-1669), for example, needed cash, he quickly turned to portraiture.3

Inheriting Van Mander’s prejudice against the apparent lack of imagination of portraiture as a genre, portraiture was understudied by art historians – until the third quarter of the twentieth century. Of the 202 pages of Pierre Rosenberg’s and Seymour Slive’s standard survey of Dutch painting before 1675 for the English-speaking world, first published in 1966, 26 pages were devoted to the portraits of Rembrandt and Frans Hals (1582/3-1666), with only 13 additional pages reserved for portraits by other artists.4 

In the last 50 years, however, exhibitions, books, and articles devoted to the genre have dramatically increased in number – arguably due, in part, to this lacuna in our knowledge of this ‘by-way’ of Dutch art, but also to an increase in interest in understanding the identity and self-presentation of our own time. Witness the extraordinary popularity of the photographic ‘selfie’, for instance.5

Yet, for all of this recent attention, studies of portraits by the historically best-known artists such as Frans Hals in Haarlem, Rembrandt and his circle in Amsterdam, and portraits of well-known public figures by such artists as Michiel van Mierevelt (1566-1641) or Gerard Honthorst (1592-1656) working in The Hague, have continued to dominate the field. With the exception of Abraham Wassenbergh’s 1949 publication De Portretkunst in Friesland in de 17e eeuw, and the scholarly articles penned by Rudi Ekkart and a handful of others in scholarly journals, of individual portraits by little-known artists; up until recently we still lacked an understanding of portrait painters and their clients in other cities, and regions.6

Cover of: Portretten door Zeeuwse meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw

Left: Salomon Mesdach, Portrait van Peter Courten, 1617 oil on canvas, 192 x 106.4 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-913

Middle: Karel Slabbaert, Portrait of a girl, 1650, oil on panel, 56 x 40 cm., Zeeuws Museum, Middelburg

Right: Adriaen Souter and an unknown Chinese painter, Robert Junius preaches in Soulang, Formosa, 1643-1644, Collectie Röell, Maastricht

Happily, this has begun to change. In 2002, the survey exhibition catalogue Gelderse gezichten: drie eeuwen portretkunst in Gelderland, 1550-1850 was published, followed in 2014 by Pjutten en Beukers: Friese kinderportretten 1550-1800.The 2016 monograph Jan Albert Rotius. Meesterschilder van Hoorn, includes a fine chapter on local portraiture, while the 2018 exhibition ‘Zeeuwse meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw. Een selectie uit de Goedaert Collectie’, included a grouping of portraits by painters associated with Zeeland, in the south of the Netherlands.7 Following up on these more recent titles of geographically focussed publications on painters is Frank van der Ploeg’s 2020 title Portretten door Zeeuwse Meestersuit de Gouden Eeuw – published to accompany an exhibition at the Stadhuismuseum Zierikzee. The book includes a substantial number of portraits rarely seen, many by little-known artists, is thus a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on Dutch seventeenth-century portraiture. Many of these works have been hidden in private collections and behind the doors of museums’ storage. 

The book provides a brief and general overview of the policies of the Guilds of St. Luke which had been established in a handful of cities, varying workshop practices of portrait painters, the use of portraits, and a discussion of dress and costume including (primarily black) color, treatment of linen collars and jewelry. Van der Ploeg then clusters together what is known of Zeeuwse painters and patrons, to provide a useful series of profiles of individual portrait painters active in Zeeland, and some of their known sitters – including individual portraits, pair portraits, group portraits and miniatures. The text is followed by a useful list of 52 portrait painters who were known to have worked, for at least part of their careers, in Zeeland during the ‘long seventeenth century’ (their lives span the years 1574 and 1747), with brief biographies.

Not all cities had their own Guild of St. Luke.8 However, for those which existed, Guilds of St. Luke were a form of brotherhood, providing mutual aid for members and their families in need, and honoring members at their death. Equally important, they regulated the training of young painters with the purpose of assuring the quality of its members’ works.  Later on, Van der Ploeg takes time to point out that with increased mobility between cities, guild requirements of city citizenship and membership became more important, particularly in a Zeeland threatened by competition from painters in nearby Antwerp.9 Notably, a number of painters worked in more than one city and, contradicting the citizenship requirement, appear to have been registered in their Guilds of St. Luke – at the same time! Bernard Vaillant (1632-1698), for example, worked in Rotterdam between 1676 and 1689 while joining the Guild of St. Luke in Middelburg in 1675/1675. Regulating portrait painters was a particular challenge in that –with the exception of portraits of famous individuals created for the market – their work customarily followed from a private arrangement between painter and client. Thus, in order to ensure compliance with the requirement of guild membership, apparently some guilds stipulated – or at least implied – that painters could not paint in clients’ homes.10 Clients were thus obliged to seek out portrait painters in their own studios, which resulted in some commissioning their portraits, from painters in other cities. In some cases, clients sought out painters in cities where they had family or commercial interests, noting – without providing examples – that some individuals from Zeeland commissioned portraits from artists in The Hague. In others, clients sought out formerly local painters who had moved to another city, such as Willem Eversdijk (1616/20-1671), who was commissioned by the militiamen of the St. Sebastian Guild of Goes after he had moved from Goes to Middelburg, or Hendrick Berckman (1629-1679) who came to know Michiel de Ruyter (1607-1676) when working in Vlissingen – and continued to be commissioned for portraits of the admiral after he [the painter] moved to Middelburg.

The body text of the publication profiles individual painters and their patrons. While scholars have generally dismissed portraiture painted in Zeeland after the 1620s – van der Ploeg’s study gives an expansive picture of it, by including painters about whom next to nothing is known, and those who spent only part of their career in the province.11 These include a number of artists from whom there is only one or two surviving portraits, or whose portraits are known only from documents. As mentioned above, painters often moved, seeking opportunity. Thus, van der Ploeg includes not only painters primarily associated with Zeeland; instead, he also includes Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen (1595-1661), born in London of Flemish and German parents and recorded in Middelburg from 1643-1645 and again 1649-1652; or Jacob van Loo (1614-1670) who spent his early years in Sluis, before moving to Amsterdam, where he spent most of his career (c. 1635/40-1660) and then fleeing to Paris after a fatal stabbing. Arnold(us) Verbuys (1655/56 -1717/18) was particularly peripatetic, working in Antwerp, Dordrecht, Rotterdam, Den Haag, Leeuwarden and Middelburg.

Careful comparison of sitters’ lives with their portraits, helps Van der Ploeg parse their origins. He suggests, for example, portraits of Jan Anthonisz de Jongh (1546-1617) and what is presumably his second wife Mayken Jobsdr. Vierling (1559-1603) – which have come down to us as a pair attributed to Daniel van den Queecborne – may well have been painted at different times, by different artists (pp. 37-38). These well illustrate both the problem of identifying sitters, as well as the painter(s) of their portraits. Furthermore, his careful analysis of paint handling and style, together with archival documents, leads him to suggest a number of reattributions. Finally, re-examination of documents also rectifies some errors in the literature, including that it was Bernard Vaillant (1632-1698), and not (as Abraham Bredius [1855-1946] published) his half-brother Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677), who was registered in Middelburg in 1675-1676.12

The publication continues with a number of utterly charming children’s portraits, group portraits and miniatures, then closes with several wonderfully eccentric works. Maybe illustrate one child and one eccentric example These include the well-known signboard by Adriaen van de Venne ((1587/9-1662) of the shop of his brother Jan Pietersz van de Venne, a printer and art dealer (1623; Daily Mail and General Trust London), Karel Slabbert’s (d. 1654) Soldiers and other figures among the ruins of a castle, with a self-portrait in the foreground (1645-50, Mauritshuis, The Hague), and the remarkable painting of Robertus Junius (1606-1655), the Dutch Reformed minister in Formosa (Taiwan) preaching and baptizing his parishioners while the congregation looks on (Collection Roëll, Maastricht). The work was apparently painted in Formosa by a now unknown Chinese artist, into which the portrait was inserted (or repainted) by Adriaen Souter (1628-1670) of Middelburg, after Junius’ return. 

One of the notable aspects of some of these works is their size: Salomon Mesdach’s (c. 1600-1632) portrait of the young Sir Peter Courten (1581-1630), 1617 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) looms over the viewer, at 192 x 106.5 cm, while Daniel van den Qucborne’s (c. 1552-c. 1602) three-quarter length portrait of Maurits van Nassau (1567-1625) (City Hall Arnemuiden, Municipality) measures 110 x 84 cm.. At the same time, Mesdach’s family portrait for Pieter Gerritsz Schaep (1570-1620) (Backer Stichting, on loan to the Amsterdam Museum) is only 22.5 x 30.5 cm., while in a format that in a photograph looks like it would be much larger. It is, therefore, regrettable that the size of these portraits is not provided in the captions as, both large and small, they are imposing when experienced in person. 

Van der Ploeg modestly concludes that this publication is a ‘building block’, and it certainly provides an important foundation, upon which future scholarship will build. One of the notable results of bringing together portrait painters working in Zeeland is to provide an overview of what might be understood as a Zeeuwse ‘provincial style’. Since some of these painters, and a substantial number of their patrons, had roots in Flanders, it is not surprising that many of these portraits have more in common with Flemish portraits, particularly of the previous generation than those in Amsterdam, Haarlem, or The Hague. Portraits by Adriaen Thomasz Key (c. 1544-after 1589), Cornelis de Vos (1584-1651), and the Pourbus family – Pieter (c. 1523-1581), Frans the Elder (1545-1581) and Younger (1569-1622) all come to mind. This style – if we can generalise – is of portraits that are more ‘decorative’ than ‘naturalistic’ – with figures presented in bust, half, three-quarter, or full length, in rather stiff poses, often with little depth and relatively immobile facial expressions. While not directly discussed in this volume, the included paintings help readers understand how very different these painters’ styles and patrons’ tastes were from the so-called naturalism and attention to facial and body expression more characteristic of many contemporaneous portraits created in Amsterdam and Haarlem, and even The Hague. Indeed, the more accessible styles which were in vogue later in the seventeenth century – more appealing to the taste of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – are in part the reason for the lack of previous interest in Zeeuwse portraits. Future archival research and additional mapping of artistic patronage demographics and networks will build upon this important research, and help shed additional light upon the unique taste and associations of the styles represented by these Zeeuwse ‘masters’.

Ann Jensen Adams
Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara


1 K. van Mander, t’Leven der vermaerde doorluchtighe schilders des ouden, en nieuwen tyds (Haarlem 1604)/The lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters, H. Miedema (ed. and transl.), 2 vols., Doornspijk 1994, pp. 280v-281r. 

2 M. Jan Bok, ‘Fluctuations in the production of portraits made by painters in the Northern Netherlands, 1550-1800’, in: S. Cavaciocchi (ed.), Economia e Arte Secc. XIII-XVIII (Atti delle “Settimana di Studi” e altri Convegni) 33, Prato 2002, pp. 649-661; See also: M. Jan Bok and G. Schwartz, ‘Schilderen in opdracht in Holland in de 17e eeuw’, Holland, vol. 23 no. 4/5 (Sept. 1991), pp. 183-195, esp. 191-193. M. Montias, Artists and artisans in Delft. A socio-economic study of the seventeenth century, Princeton 1982, p. 193.

3 J. van der Veen, ‘Faces from life: Tronies and portraits in Rembrandt’s painted oeuvre,’ in Rembrandt. A genius and his impact, A. Blankert (et al.), Sydney/Zwolle 1997, pp. 70-80, esp. p. 76.

4 J. Rosenberg, S. Slive and E. H. ter Kuile, Dutch art and architecture, 1600 to 1800, Baltimore 1966; the chapter on portraiture of the revised edition, S. Slive, Dutch Painting 1600-1800, New Haven/ London 1995, runs to 16 pages with more illustrations, while the text was only moderately updated.

5 For a survey of twentieth-century scholarship on the seventeenth-century Dutch portrait see: A. J. Adams, ‘The seventeenth-century Dutch portrait comes of age’, in The Ashgate research companion to Dutch art of the seventeenth century, W. Franits (ed.), London/New York 2016, pp. 13-42. A. van Suchtelen, Dutch self-portraits of the golden age, Zwolle 2015.

6 A. Wassenbergh, De portretkunst in Friesland in de 17de eeuw, The Hague 1949.  Rud Ekkart’s publications on portraiture and beyond, up until 2012, are listed in: ‘Als er meer in zit ga je door,’ Rudolf Erik Otto Ekkart, Anita Hopmans (et al.), The Hague 2012, pp. 81-112. Q. Buvelot and R. Ekkart, Dutch portraits: The age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Zwolle 2007.

7 J. C. B. de Haan, Gelderse gezichten: drie eeuwen portretkunst in Gelderland, 1550-1850, Zwolle 2002; M. Brouwer et al., Pjutten en Beukers: Friese kinderportretten 1550-1800, Bornmeer 2014; E. Blanken (et al.), Jan Albert Rotius. Meesterschilder van Hoorn, Hoorn 2016; K. Heyning, Zeeuwse meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw. Een selectie uit de Goedaert Collectie, Zwolle 2018.

8 Van der Ploeg lists Guilds of St. Luke in: Middelburg, Veere, Vlissingen and Zierikzee; he finds no records of painter’s guilds in Goes and Tholen.

9 The one exception to the requirement of guild membership was for the sale of paintings at art fairs.

10 G. J. Hoogewerff, De geschiedenis van de St. Lucasgilden in Nederland, Amsterdam 1947, pp. 191-193.

11 A more extensive version of this list, with bibliography, can be found at: https://kzgw.nl/kzgw/wetenschappelijk-onderzoek/

12 Van der Ploeg p. 109 n. 126, correcting A. Bredius in Fr. D. O. Obreen, Archief voor Nederlandsche Kunstgeschiedenis, 7 vols, Rotterdam 1877-1890, vol.  VI, p. 213, who read the entry as that of Wallerant Vaillant whom, Van der Ploeg points out, was already a member of the Middelburg guild.

Ann Jensen Adams, ‘Review of: Portretten door Zeeuwse Meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw’, Oud Holland Reviews, June 2023.