notes, finds & fragments of research
Sotheby’s, Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale,
London 8 December 2011,
Lot 228 (estimation: 30,000-40,000 GBP)
Jan Verkolje, de Oude (the Elder) (Amsterdam 1650 – Delft 1693)
‘A portrait of two sisters and their brother playing with a dog’
Signed and indistinctly dated centre right: I. Verkulie. 16..
Oil on canvas
72.3 x 92.3 cm
Himmelhoch jauchzend, zum Tode betrübt – that is a bit how I feel about this auction at Sotheby’s this December 8th.
I am excited to see such great pieces at Sotheby’s auction of December, but instantaneously it saddens me that these great pieces go without the names of the persons depicted. They belong to the, to remain quoting German, Namen die keiner mehr nennt.
The Van der Witte family and their house… soit, I can live with the fact that they are perhaps not the family that belongs to that nice house in the country. The Young Man, okay that bothers me to some extent as he would probably fit somewhere in my research. But even more, these children! The chances they are Dutch are so high, most likely they are even children of the Delft elite (Verkolje was a known painter for the upper class of Delft). It is such agony having to concede to the fact that they might remain anonymous forever. The provenance given by Sotheby’s isn’t helping either, more than an anonymous sale in Paris 5 years ago and again a French private collection this time does not give me much to work with.
About the portrait itself we can be brief. If you have children that look like this, you are well allowed and should even be pressed to have them portrayed like this. The same thing goes for the dog of course, but I will acknowledge and understand that the children steal the show.
I made a note to myself to ask a friend (who is an art historian) what the fallen bouquet of flowers in her lap and at her feet means. Is she dead (then it would be an In Memoriam), is she ill,…? Something tells me there is a sad story in her youthful life.
I couldn’t resist to take a closer look at the dog as well, what a beautiful animal it is. If I’m correct it is a field-bred English Cocker Spaniel. Which makes the dog a symbol of both loyalty and the hunt. He could indicate that the boy (and his sisters) are children of the landed gentry.
I did browse through my database to find possible candidates for this portrait and for a moment I even thought I could name and date them! I found the children Van Vredenburch. Jan Verkolje had painted the children of Delft’s mayor Jacob van Vredenburch (1643-1714) and Catharina van der Goes (1654-1700), in 1683. It is a group portrait of their five children Sara, Franc, Antonia, Jacoba and Adriaen ranging from the ages of 12 to 3 years, in a garden. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a picture of the portrait but I do know that the painting still exists in a private (family) collection.
For at least two hours, while doing checks on the family, I hoped Verkolje was invited again by the Van Vredenburch family shortly before his death and painted the, then 3 year old, infant Adriaen again, but now as a young boy of about 13 years along with his two younger sisters Maria (born 1682) and Josina (born 1686). Sadly (at least for my theory) Josina was not the youngest child, her younger brother was Wilhem (born 1689). For a moment I hoped he would have died in the first three years of his young life, but he did not. He only reached the age of twenty-eight, but still; if a portrait had been painted of his siblings, he would have been on it. I know, I know… it’s morbid to hope he would die in infancy, but that’s what I call professional deformation. Had he infact died, then all the pieces of the puzzle would have fallen into their place. The three children and their age, supported by the fact that Verkolje had painted their older siblings ten years before, the theory of their parents wanting to have their youngest children portrayed as well and even the flowers could then have had a function as a sign of mourning over the death of young Wilhem. And now… all is irrelevant.
Why for heaven’s sake write this all and even publish it on the blog? Normally, for an article, I would delete it and never think about it again. But, as I was leaning towards that action, I thought: Why not publish the train of thought over such a portrait for once? It at least shows the interested reader how researchers come to identifications and how a theory can crumble down instantly on finding a new fact.
And that’s it, I am afraid. These children are –not– the Van Vredenburch children I hoped they would or could be. Who they remains a mystery, but one thing is certain: Their parents must have been incredibly proud – and justly so.
 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Egmont, Act III, quote from ‘Clärchens Lied’, (published 1788). Which can be translated as: Heavenly joy and mournful sorrow.
 Marion Dönhoff (1909-2002), title of her mémoires in 1989. Translation: The names that aren’t spoken any longer.
 With a little help of the research databases of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (www.rkd.nl) which gave me more details about the 1683 children’s group portrait by Verkolje.
PS: Amongst art historians there’s a group of rug fetishists. This is the first time I might almost understand why they enjoy scrutinizing every little part of patterned rugs on paintings. This is most definitely a nice one.