Bitesize Blog: Van der Helst

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Bartholomeus van der Helst, Portrait of Abraham del Court and His Wife Maria de Kaersgieter, oil on canvas, 172cm x 146,5cm, 1654. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Bartholomeus van der Helst

Portrait of Abraham del Court and His Wife Maria de Kaersgieter

Oil on canvas, 172cm x 146,5cm, 1654

This portrait of Abraham del Court and his wife Maria de Kaersgieter hangs at the Rotterdam museum Boijmans van Beuningen in The Netherlands. It was painted in 1654 by the Amsterdam painter Bartholomeus van der Helst. Van der Helst was one of the most influential painters in The Netherlands at the time and had found fame and wealth in Amsterdam via important civic and royal portrait commissions.

The sitter, Abraham del Court, was a wealthy textile merchant and it seems he is not only showing off his young wife in this portrait, but also the stunning silk dress she is wearing. In fact she is the only bright and light subject in the otherwise dark composition, and so we only have eyes for the brilliant silk gown. 

And brilliant it is. Van der Helst is a true master in painting drapery. His textiles are so real you feel like you can touch it. The fabric often seems more beautiful than it could ever be in real life. Surely this a true master at work. 

The beautiful Dutch or Flemish bobbin lace piece at the top of her gown is typical of the middle of the 17th century. It is very dense with tight scrolling floral patterns. The use of an open mesh would develop in the second half of the 17th century. I love how Van der Helst painted the small folds and creases in the lace on her left shoulder. It suggests the lace was starched into a stiff and crisp fabric, sitting perfectly around her shoulders.

The brush marks in the silk skirt are very loose and painterly when looked at in close up. It shows some wonderful  confidence in his mark making. It also shows how effective a few simple marks are in suggesting the particular shine of the silk fabric in strong light. Each mark shows how the fabric sits and folds itself every so slightly onto the horizontal weave. 

The strong contrast of this very shiny fabric is suggested with some very bright highlights and dark grey or near black shadows. 

The whole skirt gains realism and 3-dimensionality by a variety of soft and sharp outline edges. The outline is particularly sharp on the left, where it contrasts with the dark clothes of the male sitter, but becomes soft and fuzzy where it touches the hands and particularly soft where it touches the rose bush on the right. 

The lady's pose, although not a pose someone would take today when her portrait was being taken, adds even more volume and interesting folds to the skirt, showing it off even more dramatically and brilliantly. 

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

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Sophie Ploeg Oil Studio thumbnail

Watch Sophie create an oil study of a silk skirt,
after a 17th century master

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