In 1872 Henry James described this picture as "the perfect prose of portraiture" . . . in van der Helst's "unmitigated verity you detect no faintest throb of invention blossoming into style and straggling across the line which separates a fine likeness from a fine portrait." The American aesthete's backhanded praise passes over such considerations as the placement of the figure within the picture field and the sitter's expression, both of which contribute to an impression of quiet authority.
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Title:Portrait of a Man
Artist:Bartholomeus van der Helst (Dutch, Haarlem, born ca. 1612–15, died 1670 Amsterdam)
Medium:Oil on wood
Dimensions:Oval, 26 1/4 x 21 5/8 in. (66.7 x 54.9 cm)
Credit Line:Purchase, 1871
This portrait of a sixty-two-year-old man, like others by Van der Helst dating from the mid- to late 1640s, was influenced by Rembrandt's most straightforward examples of the 1630s and early 1640s, such as the Portrait of a Man (The Met, 64.126) and Herman Doomer (The Met, 29.100.1). The decade was something of a watershed for the artist, when his powers of description and expression came to surpass those of his first source of inspiration, Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, and he had not yet followed Joachim Sandrart and former Rembrandt pupils such as Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck in adopting more fashionable and flattering modes of portraiture.
The placement of the sitter to the left of center, and his slight turn toward the viewer's right, suggests that the portrait was originally provided with a pendant. It appears probable that the Portrait of a Lady Aged Fifty-Four (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) is its companion. The two portraits are entirely consistent in their careful execution, and both are signed, dated, and inscribed in the same way, in complementary locations (the lowest area of the visible background). The only difficulty is that The Met's portrait is slightly smaller. However, notwithstanding the fact that the male portrait was cradled in 1871, it is still possible to see that it has been cut down, probably to fit a frame.
The man bears a strong resemblance to the younger sitter in an oval portrait by Daniël Mijtens, dated 1635 (location unknown; fomerly Ruzicka Stiftung, Zürich). The Mijtens portrait is signed and dated 1635, and is inscribed "Aetatus [sic] Suae ao 50," which matches the age of the man in Van der Helst's portrait, and indicates a birth date of about 1585.
[2013; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed (lower right): Æta. 62 / B. vanderhelst / 1647
D. Vis Blokhuyzen, Rotterdam (until 1870; his estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, April 1–2, 1870, no. 25, as "Portrait d'un Bourgmestre," with the inscribed date incorrectly recorded as 1657, for Fr 4,105 to Gauchez); [Léon Gauchez, Brussels, 1870]; [Léon Gauchez, Paris, with Alexis Febvre, Paris, 1870; sold to Blodgett]; William T. Blodgett, Paris and New York (1870–71; sold half share to Johnston); William T. Blodgett, New York, and John Taylor Johnston, New York (1871; sold to The Met)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Hudson-Fulton Celebration," September–November 1909, no. 42 (as "Portrait of a Man").
Hempstead, N. Y. Hofstra College. "Metropolitan Museum Masterpieces," June 26–September 1, 1952, no. 19 (as "A Dutch Burgomaster").
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
Jules-Ferdinand Jacquemart. Etchings of Pictures in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. London, 1871, pl. .
[Henry James]. "Art: The Dutch and Flemish Pictures in New York." Atlantic Monthly 29 (June 1872), pp. 758–59 [reprinted in John L. Sweeney, ed., "The Painter's Eye," London, 1956, p. 56], as a "Burgomaster"; states that "the subject and the artist are rarely well matched, and the result is a work of the most harmonious completeness—the perfect prose of portraiture".
Louis Decamps. "Un musée transatlantique (3e article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 2nd ser., 6 (December 1872), p. 479, as "Portrait de bourgmestre hollandais"; calls it an example of Van der Helst's most robust manner.
T. G. A. "Fine Arts: A Collection of Old Masters in New York." Old and New 5 (May 1872), p. 629.
F[ritz von]. Harck. "Berichte und Mittheilungen aus Sammlungen und Museen, über staatliche Kunstpflege und Restaurationen, neue Funde: Aus amerikanischen Galerien." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 11 (1888), p. 75, refers to it as Van der Helst's very beautiful portrait of a burgomaster.
Alfred von Wurzbach. Niederländisches Künstler-Lexikon. Vol. 1, Vienna, 1906, p. 672.
Wilhelm R. Valentiner. The Hudson-Fulton Celebration: Catalogue of an Exhibition Held in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1909, vol. 1, p. 43, no. 42, ill. opp. p. 43, as "Portrait of a Man"; gives incorrect dimensions.
E[mil]. Waldmann. "Die Ausstellung Holländischer Gemälde des 17. Jahrhunderts in New York." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, n.s., 21, no. 4 (1910), p. 84.
J. J. de Gelder. Bartholmeus van der Helst. Rotterdam, 1921, pp. 62, 184, 197, nos. 225, 393, identifies the MMA painting as the one included in the Blokhuyzen sale of 1870; gives the purchase price at the Blokhuyzen sale as 400 francs.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 47.
Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, p. 183.
Walter Liedtke. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and Their Ideals." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1990, p. 33, quotes briefly from Ref. James 1872.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 322, ill.
Katharine Baetjer. "Buying Pictures for New York: The Founding Purchase of 1871." Metropolitan Museum Journal 39 (2004), pp. 171–73, 180, 197, 216, 245, appendix 1A no. 138, ill. p. 216 and figs. 13, 31 (floor plan), notes that this work was "among the most popular of all of the exhibits in 1872"; states that after buying the picture at the Blokhuyzen sale in April 1870, Gauchez offered to sell it to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique for 6,000 Belgian francs, but that the offer was refused.
Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 7, 28.
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 274, 324–27, no. 76, colorpl. 76, fig. 85.
Judith van Gent. Bartholomeus van der Helst (ca. 1613–1670): Een studie naar zijn leven en werk. [Zwolle, The Netherlands], 2011, pp. 64, 133 n. 186, pp. 192, 416, no. 37, ill.
Etched for the Museum by Jules-Ferdinand Jacquemart in 1871.
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