2. Anonymous artist, Northern Netherlands, West Friesland

Portrait of Grietge Maertensdochter, 1629

Although the family whose coat of arms is painted at the top left of the painting has not yet been identified, we know the name of the child who posed for the portrait thanks to the inscription in the upper right-hand corner. It is very unusual to find the name of the model written on the front of a seventeenth-century portrait. ‘Marguerite Daughter of Martin’ could be the translation of Grietge Maertens Dochter. We can therefore be sure that the portrait is of a small girl, although this information is not conveyed by her clothing which, at that time, could just as well have been worn by a boy (see also the portrait cat. 1).

The dark background, the checkered tiles on the floor and the standing pose are characteristic of many portraits of children painted in the Northern and Southern Netherlands in the first half of the seventeenth century. The same goes for the cherries that fill the basket carried by the little girl in the portrait. It seems a particular symbolism relating to progeny was attached to this specific fruit, but it is no longer known to us today.1 On the other hand, fruits in general, when represented in portraits, are the attributes par excellence of children and fertility in marriage.2

Unless these cherries are being used here for their genuine effect, and as a pictorial device at the same time. The fruit, with its sweet juiciness and small size, must have been one of the favourite delicacies of children at a time when, we should not forget, sugar was an expensive commodity and sweets were not common. We may not be dealing here, however, with anything other than the artist’s choice: the bright red of the small fruit lends highlights of colour to these portraits of children, and generally matches some of the other details of their dress. In this case, the necklace of coral beads echoes the vermilion of the cherries. This type of jewellery was often worn by very young children, in paintings as well as in real life. A number of medicinal virtues were attributed to red coral3 ; in the treatise by the Flemish botanist Dodonaeus (1517-1585), we find that coral beads worn round the neck prevent convulsions and irritability in young children.4

Another recurrent motif in portraits of children of the Golden Age are the jewelled rattles that they carry in their hands or wear, as here, around their waist on a chain. Grietge’s rattle, which has three small bells attached to it, is made of silver and is therefore less costly than other examples – which contained gold or silver-gilt and semi-precious stones (see cat. 1). The pendant worn on her coral necklace is a second rattle: the small silver horn to which are attached a star, a crescent moon and a third symbol (hidden behind the cherry, presumably a sun), could be a whistle as certain other known examples suggest.5

Little Grietge is holding a boffer in her right hand, and the sweetmeat seems to be of great interest to the small dog at her feet.6 This domestic animal also appears regularly in portraits or representations of children in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The dog being trained serves as a mirror for the child being educated7 and, at the time, this comparison was free of any pejorative meaning that might be attached to it today.

Rudi Ekkart, the leading specialist in Dutch portrait painting, has studied this painting and has been unable to attribute it to any particular artist, but has assigned it to the province of West Friesland. The small dog is similar to the dogs painted by the Enkhuizen artist Jan Claesz. (1565/1575-1618/1619) in several of his portraits, and the coat of arms is typical of this region of the Northern Netherlands.8

CT

1R. Ekkart in Kinderen op hun mooist. Het kinderportret in de Nederlanden 1500-1700, exh. cat., Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum, Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, 2000, no. 11, p. 112; in Christian iconography the cherry was considered to be one of the fruits of Paradise, see ibid., no. 7, p. 100.

2Ibid, no. 8, p. 102 and no. 66, p. 242.

3Even today, the belief that red coral encourages the growth of the teeth of young children persists. You only need to consult the Internet.

4Rembertus Dodonaeus (Dodoens), Cruydt-Boeck, Antwerp, 1554: ‘Dat bollekens van corael aen snoerkens geregen, aen den hals van jonge kinderen gehangen, hun stuypkens ende ongerustigheyt verhoeden’, quoted in Kinderen op hun mooist, op. cit., no. 8, p. 102. The treatise was translated into French by Charles de l’Écluse (the famous Clusius [1526-1609]) in 1557 and reprinted numerous times up to the seventeenth century. See also Frans Hals Portraits. A Family Reunion, exh. cat., Toledo (Ohio), The Toledo Museum of Art, Brussels, Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Paris, Fondation Custodia, 2018-2019, p. 53, note 41.

5See Rinkelbel en rammelaar, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Gemeente Musea Amsterdam, Museum Willet-Holthuysen, 1957. The silver rattle in no. 34 is very similar in shape and dates precisely from 1629, but could not be used as a whistle. On the other hand, the similar rattle in no. 68 is undoubtedly a whistle; it dates, however, from the eighteenth century.

6The boffer (or poffer) was made of flour, yeast, eggs, raisins, spice, sugar and milk; they were fried in a pan. See Judith Leyster. Schilderes in een mannenwereld, exh. cat., Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, 1993, p. 140.

7See also Jan Baptist Bedaux, The Reality of Symbols, The Hague, 1990, pp. 112-122.

8Ekkart 2010, p. 20.