In the seventeenth century Netherlands there was a new focus on large scale and dynamic portraits of children. In the more formal of these, children were posed like their adult counterparts: looking directly at the viewer, with elaborate and meticulously rendered costumes, and against imaginary architectural or landscape backdrops. In other more playful and intimate portraits, children were not posed at all – they were depicted as children in domestic settings – fiddling with their food, falling asleep at inopportune moments, or mischievously teasing animals.
Cornelis Bisschop, who painted the present picture, excelled in this type of portraiture. In Boy Asleep in his Highchair, the little boy (whose sex is identified by his rectangular collar, never worn by women or girls)1 has fallen asleep, slumped into the corner of his highchair, spoon in hand, while his neglected porridge dribbles down to the cat waiting below. The little boy’s clothes and features are rendered with broad brushstrokes. The artist’s handling of paint, the physiognomy of the little boy, and the mischievous subject is repeated by Bisschop in another picture, Boy Feeding his Cat, signed and dated 166(?), now in the Bredius Museum, The Hague (see fig. 1), and in a fragment or partial copy of the present picture, also on panel, sold London, Phillip’s, July 2, 1991, lot 320, as Circle of Cornelis Bisschop (see fig. 2).
The whimsical subject of a child in its highchair was treated in other instances by Cornelis de Vos (Hulst 1584/85 – Antwerp 1651), in Susanna de Vos, the Artist’s Daughter, (1627, in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, see fig. 3), and again by the Haarlem artist Johannes Verspronck (Haarlem circa 1603 – Haarlem 1662) in another Boy Asleep in his Highchair, signed and dated 1654 (see figure 4). The compositional elements of Verspronck’s picture, many of which are repeated in the present example, have led Rudi Ekkart and Mariet Westermann, in two separate exhibition catalogues, to reattribute the present painting to Verspronck (see literature below).
Adding to the whimsy of Bisschop’s Boy Asleep in his Highchair, is the fact that this panel is a dummy board, a type of trompe l’oeil painting whose contour follows the outline of the subject depicted. By their shape, dummy boards were meant to deceive the viewer into thinking that the flat panel was a real person, and this one was most likely placed in a kitchen or in another place where children ate.2 Bisschop’s biographer, Arnold Houbraken commonly credited Bisschop with being ‘the first, if not the best, to paint all manner of images on wood in life-like color colours and then to cut them out so that they could be placed in a corner or doorway.’ According to Houbraken, Bisscop’s were ‘the most natural, witty and inventive examples,’ and he claims to have ‘seen some that, when in position, deceive the eye and cause people to greet them as though they were real.’ (There is also no doubt that Verspronck was one of the earliest artists to paint dummy boards: his Boy Asleep in his Highchair, also a dummy board, is dated (as mentioned above) 1654, about ten years before Sumowski estimates the present picture to have been painted.)
1 See R. Ekkart and J.B. Bedaux, op.cit., p.229
2 See M. Westermann. op.cit, p. 180.
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