Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Bartholomeus van der Helst

Celebration of the Teatry of Münster, 1648, Bartholomeus van der Helst.

Bartholomeus van der Helst,
Self-portrait with Miniature of Princess
Mary Henrietta of Orange, c. 1667
Although photographers today sometimes get involved in shooting groups of people  numbering well over a hundred, no painter would think of tackling such a project. However, back during the so-called "Golden Age" of Dutch painting during the 17th-century, portrait artists such as Rembrandt, in his famous Night Watch, routinely depicted groups of a dozen or more. As I was researching the work of a contemporary of Rembrandt, Bartholomeus van der Helst, I came upon a group portrait, Celebration of the Teatry of Münster (above), from 1648, with about a fifteen faces. That seemed like a lot. A moment later I found Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard (below) from the same year with a grand total of twenty-five faces (this guy was a busy man). I considered highlighting the fact that van der Helst painted the largest group portrait in history (Rembrandt's Night Watch had only eighteen).
Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard, 1648, Bartholomeus van der Helst
Not even close. In 1819, the American artist, John Trumbull, painted The Signing of the Declaration of Independence. It contained an astounding 56 separately posed portraits. It hangs in the U.S. Capitol and is some thirty feet wide. Okay, that's got to be the record, right? Wrong! Some nine years earlier, the French painting icon, Jacques-Louis David produced the historic Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine. I'm not certain, but it appears to be more heavily populated than Trumbull's masterpiece, though my eyes are not sufficiently sharp or my patience sufficiently attuned to actually counting them. If someone with eyesight better than mine wants to do a crowd count, be my guest. Let me know what you come up with. It won't be easy. In the case of the coronation, it's hard to tell when to start counting faces as portraits and when to relegate them simply to being facial "blobs" receding into the darkened niches of Notre Dame Cathedral, the setting for the massive history (or propaganda) piece. Photos do not do justice to the enormous scale of these painted groups. It's only when viewed in a museum setting (below) that they begin to impress the viewer as the artist intended.
Van der Helst's banquet as seen in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Mary Princess of Orange,1652,
Bartholomeus van der Helst
Though not the holder of any world's record insofar as group portraits are concerned, van der Helst was the artist behind several rather unusual portraits for his time. First of all, he was a consummate painter of women's elaborate satin dresses--a fact that may have won him more commissions than his ability to paint faces (right). Van der Helst's family portraits are as fascinating as an informal "snapshot" today, including the family pets (dogs) and children being children. His self-portrait (top left) holding a miniature portrait (painted by himself, no doubt) is somewhat amusing in its blatant attempt to advertise his talents in painting beautiful faces (his own was something of a homely countenance, to say the least).
Speaking of less than attractive subjects, van der Helst may, in fact, hold a record (Holbein's Henry VIII not withstanding) for having painted the "fattest" portrait in history, that of Gerard Andriesz Bicker (below) dating from 1639.
Gerard Andriesz Bicker, 1639, Bartholomeus van der Helst. (The subject
 was seventeen at the time.) I wonder if the artist took off a few pounds.
Van der Helst seems also to have been good with children. His Homo Bulla A Boy Blowing Bubbles (below) from 1665, while fashionably "suited up" in his red velvets, seems nonetheless as playful as any young boy today. The "Homo Bulla" from the title refers to Erasmus, who, during the Renaissance, quoted a Latin proverb in a book of his sayings: "A man is like bubbles. Life is short, fleeting and fickle, just like soap." The Dutch were quite fond of vanitas, even in their genre and portrait paintings.

Homo Bulla, A Boy Blowing Bubbles, 1665, Bartholomeus van der Helst.
Born in 1613, Bartholomeus van der Helst seems to have been a highly competitive artist, taking on huge group assignments in the hope of landing individual commission from the various members of the group, sometimes even their entire families. One of his more interesting (not to mention intimate) portrait renderings is that of his wife, Anna de Pire, dating from 1660 (below). In it, the artist depicts her as a romantic figure from the Dutch pastoral play Granida, written in 1605. Presumably it hung in their boudoir.

Portrait of Anna de Pire as Granida, 1660, the artist´s wife.



  1. Was at Rijksmuseum and the van der Helst paintings look amazing in real life, photos indeed do not do them justice ... the subjects look almost alive

  2. David--

    Yes, I did an item just a few weeks ago on that very topic, that the Internet is great for putting great art at our fingertips in ever improving resolution, but you're right, it'll never replace seeing such works in real life. Thanks for reading and writing.