Maths genius donates James Ensor painting
Leading mathematician Henry Crapo has donated the painting The Temptation of St Anthony by James Ensor to the KMSKA.
Being a parent is one of the hardest jobs there is. It’s true today, and it certainly was in the 17th century when a new genre of painting – the family portrait – emerged in the Northern Netherlands. There was nothing coincidental about that timing, as you’ll find out here when we pay our Dutch neighbours a visit to mark ‘Parent’s Day’. How did they raise their kids back then? Come and see!
Calvinism – the form of Protestantism that took hold in the Northern Netherlands after the Reformation – banished the Virgin Mary from art. The Bible clearly states, after all, that God alone ought to be worshipped. Dutch Artists replaced Mary, the ideal mother, with images of the perfect family. In doing so, they were not only obeying a religious imperative: from the 16th century onwards, the powers-that-be began to promote the nuclear family as the cornerstone of society. The family unit of husband, wife and children was viewed as a microcosm of society. If every family were perfectly balanced, nothing could go wrong for society as a whole. The social elite embraced domestic harmony as a new value.
The father in this painting certainly appears sure that all is well with his young family and the portrait affirms his sense of pride. There is a chain here of harmonious interaction: dad holds out a pear, the child reaches for it, and mum holds her child.
The youngster is a boy, by the way: children were not identified by their clothes at the time, but by the way they wore a chain of little bells. For a boy, it ran diagonally across the chest like a sash, while girls wore it around the neck.
This unidentified family had eight children at the moment Anthony Palmedesz immortalized it in paint. It is unusually large by the standards of the 17th-century Low Countries, where most families had two or three children. However, the value now placed on the nuclear family meant that the relative importance of children also changed. The families depicted in early portraits of this kind wanted first and foremost to show off how blessed they were with their large number of offspring. Child mortality was still high, making children a genuine treasure, more valuable than any jewel.
The artist has applied several practical guidelines here, such as arranging a large family around a table, as this helps structure and vary the composition. One of the sons is reading, for instance, while another has just returned from hunting.
As the new genre gained in popularity, smaller families too began to commission artists to capture them for posterity.
When should you be strict with your children, and when is it all right to pamper them? It’s something parents still have to think about today. In the 17th-century Netherlands, they were trying to narrow the generation gap. At first sight, Dr Cornelis van der Heijde and his wife, Ariaentgen Ariens de Buijser, are observing the etiquette of the time. Anna and Arien, their eldest daughters, are standing, while the youngest ones sit on a table or are being held. Children were only permitted to sit at the dining table once they had reached a certain age. Until then, they had to eat standing up.
For the average middle-class Dutch family in the 17th century, however, it was important for a painting to express a sense of harmony. So the parents here are sitting down, which brings their faces closer in line with those of their children. For his part, the artist helps by zooming in on the family, so that its members seem closer together.
In formal terms, these children are bound by the prevailing differences in hierarchy, but their parents also view them as valuable individuals who ought not to be belittled.
The ‘new man’ put in an appearance in the 17th-century Netherlands too: probably not by modern-day standards, but he did his best. It helped that women had much better legal protection in the Dutch Republic than in many other European countries. The way they ran the household was a source of pride and prestige and they were also entitled to own property in their own right. Foreign travellers commented on the shows of affection they witnessed between husbands and wives – something recommended in the literature of the time. The moralizing Dutch author Jacob Cats, for example, stated that marriage needed to have both spouses at the helm.
Husbands expressed their affection through the kind of small gestures that are also typical of the family portrait genre: they present their families, point at them and offer all sorts of nice things to their children. Or they simply gaze lovingly at their child, as this unidentified father does towards his little son.
Family portraits mostly served a functional purpose as a record of the family situation at the time. It never hurt, of course, to have the portrait done by an artist of the calibre of Cornelis de Vos. A top painter like him knew to think ahead, taking account, for instance, of future, as yet unborn members of the family. We do indeed find various examples where new additions to the family were inserted later, though not always with the same degree of care or by the original artist. This particular painting leaves plenty of scope for adding new family members without too much difficulty.
But that never happened. In fact the portrait suffered a much worse fate: in the course of the 18th century, the boys on the left were separated from the girls on the right for reasons that are not clear. Perhaps the painting was too big for the spot where its owner wished to hang it. Or maybe it was more lucrative to sell two paintings by De Vos than one. In 1905 the museum purchases both parts of the painting from the art dealer Kleinberger in Paris. Staff members recognized the hand of the artist in both panels and soon concluded they had to form a whole. It took until 1930 for the museum to finally reunite the two parts, thereby restoring the harmony of this family group.