Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Van Heemskerck, portrait painter of Haarlem

If you are visiting Amsterdam or Madrid, look out for these portraits of two Dutch ladies of the 1500s by the leading portrait painter of Haarlem, Maarten van Heemskerck.

Portrait of an unknown lady, (previously thought to be Anna Codde),  1529
© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I have owned a postcard of this lady quietly spinning,  ever since I first saw it in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Amsterdam.  For many years her tranquil contemplation has cheered me each time I look at it, and her plain dress and spinning wheel do not distract the viewer from her face.

What a contrast this rather similar portrait  in Madrid presents:  it could at a glance be almost be the same sitter some years later, but so very different, with none of the naturalness of my favourite.  The dress is richer, with striking white sleeves, and the spinning wheel is a real showstopper designed to impress visitors, but this lady has none that sense of innocence, which is so appealing.

Portait of a lady, with spindle and distaff  c.1529-31
©Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Van Heemskerck worked in Rome from 1532-1536, and you can see an Italianate landscape in the background to his portrait of this mother and daughter.  Here too, he captures that sense of the mother's inner contemplation,  and her little daughter 's attention distracted from the rosary she is holding.

Machteld van Meerdervort with her daughter c. 1545
© Musee de Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg

His time in Rome produced a series of drawings of the classical ruins, and he shows this in his confident self portrait with the Colosseum behind.   His name and date appear on the small label, and to the right is the artist seated, drawing the ruins.

Self portrait with the Colosseum, Rome 1553
© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

He was known for his engraved designs of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, as they might have looked new,  and he added his very contemporary view of the ruined Colosseum as the eighth. 

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