When Joshua Reynolds visited Amsterdam he admired a famous group portrait of the city’s Civic Guards: “the first picture … in the world, comprehending more of those qualities which make a perfect portrait than any other I have ever seen.” He was referring to that “Phoenix of Dutch portrait painters,” Bartholomeus van der Helst, whose work for the Stadsdoelen clearly surpassed Rembrandt’s, according to contemporary critics. The present book sets out to restore Van der Helst to his former glory. The author, who has been working on the topic since the 1980s, fully updates the 1921 catalogue by Jan Jacob de Gelder which was in itself a thorough work of archival research and connoisseurship. She has surveyed more than 200 works in terms of authenticity, 95% of them portraits. The analysis follows the traditional monograph’s layout exploring the master’s biography, patrons, paintings, and followers subsequently and concluding with a catalogue. The research has not unearthed new archival material in addition to De Gelder but it has charted the artist’s network in greater detail, especially his patrons and family, including his son Lodewijk who imitated his paintings.
A rare document attests to Van der Helst’s fame: in 1665 a work was valued at 300 guilders for its painterly qualities, but because of the master’s extraordinary reputation an extra 100 guilders was added. Attracting the main elite families in Amsterdam and Rotterdam including the Bickers, Witsens, and Huydecopers, the master’s reputation overshadowed his principal rivals, Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol. “By the 1650s and ’60s, he had apparently reached the summit: anyone who mattered in Amsterdam had a Van der Helst portrait” (418). A true society artist, he received the stunning sum of 1,400 guilders for an effigy of Rijklof van Goens, admiral of the Dutch East India Company.
The author pinpoints an interesting moment in Amsterdam’s artistic development when most painters relinquished Rembrandt’s manner in favor of an overall brighter palette, less intensive contrasts, and civilized postures. This “Flemish” influence was first manifest in two of Joachim von Sandrart’s portraits from 1639. But the author portrays Van der Helst as the shaping force in the tendency towards a lighter tonality and fine brushwork, which is also attested to in written sources. Epigrams on portraits in particular preferred their clarity over the Rembrandtesque manner that was supposedly “hiding” in shadows, to quote Joost van den Vondel. Van der Helst, in fact, appears as the one who replaced Rembrandt as pivotal master in the Amsterdam circle of portraitists that included Jacob van Loo, Jan van Noordt, Jürgen Ovens, and Abraham van den Tempel.
Another notable moment in Van der Helst’s career was his seminal role in the foundation of the Amsterdam Brotherhood of Saint Luke on 21 October 1654, when Rembrandt, Flinck, Bol and many others attended. Rather than an independent professional organisation, this “brotherhood” seems to have been of a social nature. In any event, Van der Helst’s paintings do not reveal an interest in the changing status of the artist. In terms of iconography, his most adventurous works were a couple of portraits historiés featuring mythological nudes, based on images of Venetian courtesans.
The author writes lovingly of her subject, relishing painterly qualities: his “subtlety,” “perfect technique,” “pleasant” coloring, “eminent” mastery of surface textures, and his “clarity of expression that leaves nothing to the imagination”. Frustratingly, some of the most impressive works escape identification, such as the Portrait of a Lady in London’s National Gallery and the Hermitage’s large group portrait of two couples and a boy against a cloudy garden backdrop. The author suggests on the basis of physical likenesses that the latter represents the Visch family and their son-in-law, Adriaen Prins.
This thorough book offers what we need from a monograph, especially as it also includes the results of technical research. The author, furthermore, promises to publish a full catalogue of all works related to Van der Helst on the internet (see bartholomeusvanderhelst.wordpress.com ). Hopefully, her labor will give rise to additional study into how the master accomodated his sitters’ social and ideological ambitions and an analysis involving notions of civility (“heuschheid”) and self-fashioning. The present book steers clear of any reference to the “embarassment of riches” or other pieces of the cultural-historical pie. The author, for instance, describes the different sitters’ gestures in detail without interpreting them, ignoring Herman Roodenburg’s pertinent The Eloquence of the Body (Zwolle, 2004). Yet Van der Helst was able to represent his wealthy and fashionable patrons in the “sober and realistic manner in which they wanted to be seen, accomodating their desires for external presentation,” which apparently contrasted with the more frivolous taste of The Hague’s court (146). This observation raises questions that can only be addressed from an interdisciplinary perspective. Contemporary courtier’s manuals might, for instance, shed light on Van der Helst’s presentation of the young, cocky, and overweight son of an Amsterdam mayor, Gerard Bicker (Rijksmuseum): probably the most suggestive example of the “Renaissance elbow” that Dutch art has to offer.
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin