In her 1979 monograph on Ochtervelt, Susan Kuretsky, who was unaware of the existence of the present work, identified nine entrance hall paintings by the artist.1 All are set in the entrance hall (or voorhuis in Dutch) of an elegant contemporary house and portray an encounter between the residents of the house and members of the outside world. Of the nine pictures, three depict street musicians at the doorway, three show fish sellers and there are three individual pictures of poultry, cherry and grape sellers.2 In the present work, which is the earliest dated painting of the group, the visitors are beggars.
Ochtervelt was not the first employ to the voorhuis as a central element of a composition, but he most fully realized its potential. Setting the interaction between the members of two classes of society in a physical space that was neither entirely indoors nor outdoors, he was able to subtly encapsulate an essential aspect of Dutch life and its underlying moral structure with a minimum of fuss or extraneous detail. In A Child and Nurse in the Foyer of an Elegant Townhouse a young boy and his mother, who holds a nursing baby, have come to the doorway of a grand canal-house. They are clean and well-kempt, despite their ragged clothes, and timidly approach the entrance. The young boy sets his foot tentatively on the hallway floor, holding his hat out before him, while his mother remains partly hidden behind the door frame. Playing on the stairs at their feet are two children who, to judge from their clothing, are members of the household. In the entrance hall itself are a nurse and child, the latter in white linen, with satin leading strings. Still holding on to the nurse with one hand and looking at the viewer rather than the figure in the doorway, the child drops a coin into the boy’s hat in a surprisingly casual gesture. Despite the curls, long skirt and ribbons, this child is most probably a boy. Although young boys and girls were dressed very much alike during this period in the Netherlands, there a number of subtle differences. The child here wears a plain, squared-off collar, a style almost exclusively worn by boys, and a chain that is looped across the chest, a more masculine fashion suggestive of swords and military sashes, rather than simply worn around the neck as was more common for girls. In the far room are the parents, observing the scene before them.
The brightly lit interior of the house is uncluttered but expensively furnished. The marble floor of the entryway was a feature rarely found in private houses, and the paintings, the elaborate carvings on the fireplace and the putto on the mantel all speak to the wealth of the household. The beggars at the door wear dark clothes and are partly in shadow, while inside, at the very center of the composition, stand the nurse and the child – the nurse in a brillaint red jacket and both in sparkling white linen. The contrast between the two groups could not be stronger: inside and outside, light and dark, rich and poor. But the ultimate meaning of the A Child and Nurse in the Foyer of an Elegant Townhouse, which would have been more apparent to the 17th century observer than to us today, is not about division but is rather an illustration of the strong moral code that was seen as necessary for holding society together. The key to this is the presence the parents in the room beyond, who appear to be minor figures in this story but in fact are essential. It is they who taught their child that charity (or generosity) was a necessary virtue, who provided the coin – the physical expression of charity – and who are watching their child carrying out a virtuous action. All this was integral to the education process of the upper middle classes who made up Ochtervelt’s audience.
The instructional element inherent in this composition becomes clearer when we compare the present work to the Portrait of a Family, in the Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Mass. A father, apparently having just read to his family from an imposing volume, sits with his wife and watches their child teaching the dog to sit up: the father’s own pedagogical intent is paralleled by and more vividly expressed in the child’s attempt to educate the dog. Ochtervelt painted the Fogg picture in the same year as A Child and Nurse in the Foyer of an Elegant Townhouse and the compositions, as well as the subject matter, are closely related. In each the focus is on the foreground, but an open doorway at the back provides a view into the room beyond, in which we see a large, ornate fireplace. Over the mantel is a contemporary landscape, echoing a similar picture in the front room. While some of Ochtervelt’s genre pictures are similarly constructed, none of his other entrance hall paintings have a second room. In fact, his later compositions are further simplified, the figures larger and placed closer to the viewer.
Ochtervelt’s technique in the present work is characteristic of his paintings in the early 1660s. He glories in the different colors and textures of materials, and the influence of Frans van Mieris and the Leiden fijnschilders are evident in careful brush strokes he uses to create them. We immediately notice the dull gleam of the child’s dress reflected in the marble floor and shiny yellow satin of the underside of the lead strings, while the delicate weave and pattern of the linen are visible only on close examination of the picture itself. He frames the dazzling blue sky with the gray doorway and sets the nurse and child against neutral backgrounds to enhance the brightness of their clothes. The different patterns and colors enliven the composition, but Ochtervelt never allows them to obscure its focus. In the end our eyes remain fixed on the child’s hand dropping the coin into the hat.
1. S.D. Kuretsky,The Paintings of Jacob Ochtervelt (1634-1682), p. 34. The present work was unknown to her.
2. Ibid., cat. nos. 16, 24 and 62; cat. nos. 41, 55 and 103; cat. no. 50; cat. no. 51 and cat. no. 54.