Roma Mother with Children

Cornelis Visscher Dutch

Not on view

In his short life, Cornelis Visscher produced nearly 200 engravings, along with numerous finished drawings (mostly portraits) in black chalk on vellum. This sheet, a preparatory drawing on paper for one of the artist’s most celebrated prints (2016.431), is his only certain surviving print design. In its presentation of a woman breastfeeding an infant in the presence of two other children, the image follows a well-established iconography for personifications of Charity (see, for example, 51.501.2273 and, especially, 53.601.16[84]). In its emphasis on the desperate circumstances of the figures—made explicit by the caption accompanying the print—it also bears a close relationship with an allegory of Poverty engraved by Zacharias Dolendo after a design by Jacques de Gheyn II in 1596-97 (49.95.1239). Visscher seems to have found a more direct model in another print designed by De Gheyn: the so-called Fortune Teller and the Lady) engraved by Andries Stock in about 1608. In both De Gheyn's engraving and Visscher's drawing, a women sits in profile, holding a swaddled infant; she wears a striped mantle and a headdress, with locks of hair falling across her shoulder and in front of her face. Visscher adds to this figure group--now center stage--another child and repositions the woman to reveal her breasts and the nursing baby. These figures can be identified as members of the Roma, a long persecuted people known to have been a presence in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.[1]

Although looser in execution than Visscher's finished portrait drawings, this sheet exhibits the accomplished modeling and the individualized and expressive faces for which he is known. Varying the pressure on the chalk and blending it in places, he renders the folds, creases, and tattered edges of the woman’s dress. A few rapid strokes suffice to detail the patch on her elbow. Horizontal and vertical marks where the drawing was once folded suggest that the sheet originally extended to the right and the top and probably originally included the entire composition of the print. Although the sheet is thoroughly incised for transfer, Visscher continued to revise his design when working on the printing plate, rendering the teeth of the two older children and modifying slightly the facial expression of the nursing infant and the angle at which the eldest boy holds his spoon—precisely the areas he completed last, as indicated by an impression of a proof state of the print (Musée du Louvre, Paris). There are two other drawn versions of the composition, both in the same orientation and with the same cropping as the present sheet and both executed in black chalk on vellum: an authentic sheet in the Musee du Louvre (Paris, 566 DR/ Recto) and a later copy in the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge (1965.218).

(Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, 7/5/18; updated 3/30/2023)

[1] See Seidenstein, "Cornelis Visscher's Roma Mother with Children: Transforming a Prototype by Jacques de Gheyn," in Master Drawings LX, no. 1 (2022): pp. 87-90.

Roma Mother with Children, Cornelis Visscher (Dutch, Haarlem (?) 1628/29–1658 Amsterdam), Black chalk with brush and dark gray wash

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