The sitters in this impressive pair of portraits are life-size, both seated facing each other on a terrace in front of a balustrade. In the background beyond are extensive dune landscapes under cloud-filled blue skies. Van der Helst has taken great care in depicting the sumptuous fabrics of their costumes, demonstrating his extraordinary skill at rendering different textures and materials. Both are attired at the height of fashion for the period, richly garbed in black velvet with starched white linen collars and cuffs. The man wears a broad-brimmed hat, his only adornment consisting of two tassels hanging from his collar. He looks out assuredly at the viewer, gesturing with his upturned left hand towards his wife. Under her velvet gown she wears a wine-red silk underskirt with gold trim; small black bows are affixed to her plain, broad linen collar. She wears a fashionable cap bordered with pearls and coming to a point on her forehead (a tipmuts), a double-strand pearl necklace, and large drop pearl earrings. Rings are prominently displayed on her left pinky and right index fingers and she holds a fan in her left hand. Behind each sitter are walls with overgrown vines — a grape vine behind the man and ivy behind the woman — symbols of enduring love, marriage and friendship.3
The background landscapes are given prominence in both portraits and allude, perhaps, to the couple’s landed wealth in addition to their obvious material wealth. In the distance of the Portrait of a Man can be seen the silhouette of St. Bavo, Haarlem, while the background of the woman’s portrait looks out over dunes to a broad expanse of water in the distance with faintly defined vessels. Rendered in extraordinary detail, they were likely painted by a highly skilled collaborating artist who specialized in landscapes. Indeed, the earliest documentation of the portraits, when they were in the Tronchin collection in the 18th century (see Provenance), ascribes the landscapes to Jacob van Ruisdael, though no firm evidence shows that the two artists ever collaborated.4
Though the names of the sitters are not known with certainty, Pieter Biesboer (see Literature) put forward a compelling theory in 2015 as to their possible identification as Hendrick Zegersz van der Kamp and Hester du Pire. Based on the topography of the landscape, Biesboer identified the house depicted as Huis te Manpad (House at Manpad). In 1655, the date of execution of these portraits, that house was in the possession of Hester du Pire who had inherited it from her first husband. She remarried in 1650 to Amsterdam merchant and widower, Hendrick Zegersz van der Kamp. Their ages in 1655 would have been in their early 50s which fits well with the ages of these sitters. Also notable is that Hester du Pire was an aunt of Bartholomeus van der Helst’s wife, Anna du Pire, and godmother to their daughter. Furthermore, it is documented that the artist stayed at Huis te Manpad in the summer of 1654, close to the date of these portraits. Also present during that same summer was the artist Jan Miense. Molenaer who some years earlier had painted a portrait of Hendrick van der Kamp with his first wife and their children, a painting which is documented in van der Kamp’s will of 1654. Biesboer believes that portrait to be identifiable with Molenaer’s, Family Portrait with Slap Hands, which depicts a bourgeois family watching a slap hand game taking place in a country inn (fig. 1). He notes the strong resemblance of the standing man at far left and the sitter in van der Helst’s portrait, concluding that they both depict Hendrik van der Kamp.5
Another fascinating theory was presented by S.A.C. Dudok van Heel in 2012 (see Literature) who proposed that the sitters are Gabriel Marselis (1609-1673), an international merchant in iron and munitions, and his second wife Maria van Arckel (circa 1621-1656) who were married in 1655, the year these portraits are dated. He based his argument on the landscape in the man’s portrait, which presents a view in the direction of Haarlem (by his calculation from west to east). Dudok van Heel has identified the land and house seen at right as that which had belonged to the international Haarlem merchant Carel du Moulin and was subsequently purchased by Gabriel Marselis in 1654. The house, which is still extant, would eventually be incorporated into the estate of Elswout. These portraits, then, would appear to celebrate both Marselis’s recent acquisition and the couple’s new marriage.
Note on the provenance:
This portrait and its pendant were first documented in the collection of Jean-Robert Tronchin Boissier (1710-1793), a leading political figure in Geneva, who became Procureur-Général in 1760. His preference for Dutch pictures may have been influenced by his cousin François Tronchin (1704-1798) who amassed one of the largest collections in 18th century Geneva, favoring Dutch and Flemish works. François successfully negotiated the sale of 95 paintings from his collection to Catherine the Great in 1770 and then built up another collection, most of which was sold after his death in a Paris sale in 1801. The present portraits, together with some thirty paintings from François Tronchin, and others from his parents’ collection, remained in the family and later formed the Cabinet de Bessinge at the Tronchin estate outside Geneva. That collection was acquired en bloc with the estate of the same name in 1938 by Xavier Givaudan, and the van der Helst portraits descended in that family until their sale at auction in 2010.6
1. In the Stichting Hospice Wallon, Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam respectively.
2. See J. van Gent in Bartholomeus van der Helst (Haarlem 1613-1670 Amsterdam): the marriage portraits of Gabriel Marselis and Maria van Arckel, Otto Naumann, Ltd., New York 2013, pp. 3 and 5.
3. See P.J.J. van Thiel, “Marriage Symbolism in a Musical Party by Jan Miense Molenaar,” in Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, vol. 2, no. 2, 1967-1968, pp. 98-99.
4. In an auction in 1742, two portraits by van der Helst with background views ascribed to Ruisdael are listed (The Hague, Michiel van Hoeken and Theodore Hartsoeker, 1 May 1742, lots 54 and 55); according to J. van Gent ( op.cit. p. 7) the dimensions correspond roughly to those of the present pair and she finds it plausible that these could be the same works.
5. In a private communication dated 17 September 2014, Dennis Weller states that though, in the past, he had dated this Molenaer portrait to circa 1635-40, he thinks it could conceivably be later in date and that the costumes are consistent with a later date.
6. See R. Loche, under Literature, p. XIV.
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