The twofold meanings of Jan van der Heyden’s Painting and Bartholomeus Van Der Helst’s Portrait

 Bartholomeus Van Der Helst’s portrait (plate 1), Anna du Pire as Grandia, is an unusual portrait for Dutch art of this time period. While it can be read as a respectable portrait of a woman who is dressed in nice clothing and adorned with expensive jewelry, it can also be viewed as a tie to the Dutch play Granida (1615)(Grootenboer, 2010 and Westermann, 2007). Similarly, Jan van der Heyden’s paintings of Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Dam with minor adjustments in time of day and the change in view create a different perspective that the viewer of the painting would have (Brusati, 2012).  The twofold view of the woman in the portrait as both a respectable woman and a scandalous character from a play relate to how Jan van der Heyden’s paintings of the same building can be so different. This dual reading of the woman depicted in this portrait can be visualized through readings in Westermann’s book, A Worldly Art : the Dutch Republic, and Grootenboer’s article, How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits (Grootenboer, 2010 and Westermann, 2007).Likewise, Brusati’s article, Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time, highlights how Jan van der Heyden’s paintings of the Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Dam through slight differences create a new effect and perspective (Brusati, 2012). 

A particular reason of why Bartholomeus Van Der Helst’s portrait can be viewed as a respectable woman is because of who the woman depicted is. The woman clothed and embellished with lavish clothing and jewelry is the wife of the artist, Bartholomeus Van Der Helst. Bartholomeus was a known artist during his time and had acquired wealth from his commissions and success. This depiction of his wife dressed in nice clothing and jewelry is a way in which Bartholomeus can display his wife and his wealth that he has acquired (Grootenboer, 2010). Her jewelry contains jewels and elements that symbolize purity, fertility, and virtue. The gold trimming and the pearls that embellish the headdress reflect elegance and virtue. Pearls are a known jewel that embodies purity and integrity of its wearer. Her pearl necklace and earrings also add to this message of honor and innocence. The gold trimming on her dress and in her cape embody compassion, courage, and wisdom of which gold symbolizes. The gold also remarks on the respect that she deems herself to have through her wealth (Westermann, 2007). The shell that she holds in her right arm calls to what Grootenboer alludes to in his reading that a shell symbolizes creation and fertility. Grootenboer relates a different portrait where a shell is depicted to a poem by Philibert van Borsselen, Beaches, or Poem on Shells, in Praise of the Creator of All Things. Grootenboer explains how the poem illuminates that a shell is “God’s treasure” (330). This meaning of a shell signifies creation and fertilely which was a quality during this time period which was respected to be able to have off spring and have a family (Grootenboer, 2010). The blue dress that is of typical style for this time period also speaks to virtue and religion through its color. The color blue that is similar to the color blue of that the virgin Mary’s robe exhibits purity and virtue. This portrait can be viewed as a portrait of a respectable woman if it is known that the woman depicted is Bartholomeus’s wife and analyzes her clothing and jewelry which symbolizes elegance and purity (Westermann, 2007). 

This view of Bartholomeus Van Der Helst’s portrait as respectable woman makes it a typical portrait of a woman from this time period. Most portraits that woman had created for themselves from this time period were made to embody what they wanted society to think of them as (Westermann, 2007). Comparably, Jan van der Heyden’s painting, View of the Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Dam (plate 2), made in 1668 is a typical depiction of a building or a city landscape from this time. It displays the great structure of the building and depicts the building in the morning on a decently sunny day. This view of the building is realistic and an accurate depiction of what the building looked like (Brusati, 2012). Brusati highlights this in his article as he states, “The picture shows the Stadhuis as it would appear to someone approaching the Dam from the point where the narrow Kalverstraat gives onto the Dam’s expansive plaza” (925). The typical and respectable representation of the Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Dam and a portrait of woman is only one perspective the viewer can have on these paintings (Brusati, 2012).

Even though Bartholomeus Van Der Helst’s portrait can be viewed as portraying a respectable women, it can also be portraying a women who is possibly trying to escape her wealth and respectable life that is expected of her. This view of the portrait is perhaps the more glaring view. As soon as the viewer looks past the feather headdress, the jewelry, and the grand clothing, the viewer will see her nipple that is exposed though the scoop neckline of her dress. The 17th Century Dutch play, Grandia, tells a story of a princess named Grandia who lost her way while out hunting attracts a shepherd boy who forgets his former lover and is awed by Grandia’s beauty. The bow and arrows recall are subtly placed around her left shoulder call princess Grandia’s story. The princess escaping her destiny to wed a man of similar title and her father most likely looking to accommodate more land and power calls to the air of seduction and underlying injudicious this woman has in the portrait (Westermann, 2007). The headdress exhibits lust. The red feather on the headdress personifies lust through its richness in color of red and the meaning of a feather itself. Feathers through their connection with birds symbolizes flight and freedom. This meaning of the feather and the color of it suggests lust and reveals Bartholomeus’s reference to the play, Grandia. The red robe she also wears evokes desire and passion. While the shell can symbolize fertility and a reference to God, it can also alludes to the play. In the play, the shepherd gives the princess a shell filled with water while she is in distress for getting lost. This is perhaps the beginning of the princess’s rebellion and lust that comes over the Shepard in the play, Grandia. The portrait of this woman can call her seditious in nature through her exposed nipple, the red in her clothing, the bow and arrow, and the shell call to the Dutch play, Grandia, and the betrayal of the princess’s destiny in the play (Westermann, 2007).

Just like Bartholomeus Van Der Helst’s portrait, Jan van der Heyden’s paintings of the Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Damwith only minor differences can have a great difference in meaning. Jan van der Heyden’s painting, View of the Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Dam (plate 3) made in 1667 is view of the building while the sun is setting and a close up view of the building. Whereas, his painting that he made just a year later with the same title and of the same building is a view of the building from just a tad further away and in the morning. This change in time of day and distance of the building creates a different perspective of the building for the viewer from making the building appear as argued earlier as more subdued and typical to now being argued as dramatic and unique. The richness in color of the sunset in the background though the use of orange and taints of blue leaves a pronounced view of the building. The use of time of day and the sun setting to reflect how the light of the sky would appear on the building makes this painting of the build most striking and unique (Brusati, 2012). 

Bartholomeus Van Der Helst’s portrait, Anna du Pire as Grandia, can be viewed as Bartholomeus’s wife, a respectable woman, and as a princess in the 17th Century Dutch play, Grandia (Westermann, 2007). This dual meaning that can be seen through use of readings from Westermann’s book and Grootenboer’s article makes this a striking portrait. Similarly, as Brusati explains in her article Jan van der Heyden’s paintings of the Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Dam which only have minor differences are twofold in the view that they leave on the reader of the painting. The dramatic and unique view of the building through use of lighting and shading is in stark contrast to the subdued and typical view of the building that is manifested a year later (Brusati, 2012). Likewise, the underlying seduction in Bartholomeus Van Der Helst’s portrait through the exposure of her nipple with the contrast to the other meaning of respect which is revealed through the woman being Bartholomeus’s wife makes this portrait unusual for its time period. Through analyzation of these works of art and close readings of Grootenboer’s, Brusati’s, and Westermann’s articles and book the twofold perspectives of these paintings as dramatic and respectable can be revealed.

Works Cited

Brusati, Celeste. “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time.” Art History, vol. 35, no. 5, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Nov. 2012, pp. 908–33, doi:10.1111/j. 1467-8365.2012.00930.x.

Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth- Century Dutch Portraits.” Art History, vol. 33, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Apr. 2010. 

Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art : the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718 . 2nd reprinted ed., Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 131-156.

1Anna du Pire as Grandia, Bartholomeus Van Der Helst,1660, “27 1/2 x 23”
2View of the Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Dam, Jan van der Heyden, 1668, oil on canvas, 73 × 86.5 cm
3View of the Town Hall of Amsterdam with the Dam, Jan van der Heyden, 1667, oil on canvas, 85 × 92 cm

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