Verspronck was born in Haarlem around 1601-03, although his exact birth year is not known. He learned his painting skills from his father, Cornelis Engelsz., who was trained by Karel Van Mander and Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem. Verspronck lived and worked in Haarlem his whole life and portrayed the regent class of the city, from which he earned enough money to live well enough to keep his family afloat in hard times.1 It is likely that he spent some time at the studio of his slightly older contemporary Frans Hals (1582/3 – 1666) but never did take on Hals’ vibrant mark making, instead opting for an incredibly refined and detailed approach to his portraiture. This lack of an ‘expressive style’ and the apparent absence of a clear artistic development has often meant that Verspronck was slightly left behind in the art history books. His style is called ‘static’ and ‘cautious’ by his main biographer and more recent publications are continuing to search for inventiveness and innovation. 2 Some of this was found in Verspronck’s wonderful underdrawings which were drawn in black chalk and show how he searched for exactness in the likeness. He probably made no preparatory sketches as none were ever found but worked everything out on the canvas in black chalk or thin black paint.3 This initial drawing from life would have been the first step on which the strong likeness of the final portrait was based.
Verspronck’s portraits might look a touch formulaic in composition, although this is not much different from many of the portraits by Frans Hals or Michiel Van Mierevelt (where 'formulas' of sorts were used for portraits as well). The likenesses in Verspronck’s portraits are well observed and accurately painted, but not in a dull or mechanical way; his faces are convincingly depicted in a lifelike manner. We can imagine these faces walking the streets of Haarlem, we can picture them ‘next door’, they are not idealised or uniform but individual and alive. This liveliness does not show through bravura in pose or mark making, but through a very subtle stillness that reminds us of contemporary still life painting. In mark making Verspronck’s work could not be more different from his contemporary Frans Hals or Rembrandt, but they differ strongly in style from others again. Atkins has argued that Hals might have partly appointed his style as a commercial choice and the same could maybe be suggested for Verspronck. Both would situate themselves in the portraiture market of Haarlem by choosing a clearly distinguishing style that would set them apart from others.4Various artists such as Rembrandt, De Bray or Van Mierevelt all offered a different style in their portraiture. Apparently, they could all be successful simultaneously, suggesting clients were happy to choose a ‘rouwe’ (rough) or ‘nette’ (neat) style according to their taste.5
Verspronck’s eye for detail also shows in the way he depicted the lace in his sitter’s dress. Ruffs, cuffs, and collars are painted into fine detail that does not look stiff nor fussy, but, perhaps surprisingly, the plethora of fine detail adds to the calm and still atmosphere of the overall portraits. One of his most famous paintings is The Girl in Blue (1641), where his skills in depicting children portraits are overly clear.6 The young girl looks her age (maybe around 10 years of age) and has an expression on her face that has captivated many. She is wearing a small version of an adult ladies’ dress, which includes a folded three-layered kerchief over her shoulders, like we have seen in Rembrandt’s portrait of Maria Trip, edged with delicate Flemish bobbin lace. A similar but slightly narrower lace we can find in the Rijksmuseum collection from the same period. The girl’s kerchief is pinned to the front of her blue dress. Her large cuffs are also decorated with the same lace. The dress is decorated with large amounts of gold and silver bobbin lace bands.
In the gold, silver, and white lace, we can see how Verspronck controlled value in this painting. The front of the dress catches the light, and here the gold and silver lace is painted with touches of bright yellow, ochre and some pink tones. The white lace is depicted with a bright white paint, contrasting against the grey of the plain linen of the kerchief. Further towards the right, the light fades, and the lace changes from white to grey, the pattern becomes less clear until it completely disappears in the furthest scallops towards the girl’s back. There, the dark lace stands out against the lighter brown background on the right, contributing to an interesting outline. On the girl’s upper arm, the gold and silver bobbin lace bands are painted with alternating dark grey and ochre paint and shows a diminishing use of white and yellow highlights as it turns away from the light. The tiny highlights make clear that the lace has a certain thickness and stands proud of the dress sleeve.
In the lace cuff we can see no such highlights as the light brushes past it towards the right. There is a hint of shadow underneath the lace scallops but as it is thin and transparent, the shadow is faint, the edges soft, not attracting attention or disturbing the balance of values. The lace patterns are painted on a very light grey background so there is little contrast. A lot more is happening higher up, where many meters of expensive lace finish the edges of the kerchief. Here Verspronck painted the patterns of the white lace with a small brush with white or light grey paint, on top of a darker grey, thereby creating a stronger contrast. The scallops are painted with some wonderfully subtle upturned edges, giving it some variety, liveliness, and an increased realism. The upturned edges are painted with a darker grey, as the visible underside of the scallops do not catch the light, and further towards the girl’s back, some highlights on the edges gives it just enough form. We saw a similar and effectful approach of highlighting edges in the work of Rembrandt.
Here and there, and most obviously in the central scallop in the second row of lace on the girl’s shoulder, we can see a technique Verspronck uses in many of his portraits called sgraffito. As Hendriks has shown, here he has drawn with a stick, or the back of a brush, into the wet white paint, thereby revealing the dried darker underpainting. The result is a very sharp-edged and textured pattern. The sharp and exact pattern draws the eyes and brings the shoulder forward a little. A similar technique, but now used to push an area back and away from our attention, has been used in the furthest right bottom scallop, where some paint has been scraped away from the dark grey paint to suggest the pattern and transparency of the lace.7
This technique can be found in other portraits by Verspronck such as his Portrait of a Man (1641) in the Frans Hals Museum, where he used a stick to lift and draw into the wet white paint and outline the lace patterns. In the portrait of Willemina van Braeckel (1637), also in the Frans Hals Museum, we see the technique used in the lace cuffs, and in the Rijksmuseum Portrait of a Man (1646) it comes back in the same way as in The Girl in Blue, in the darkest simplified scallops, suggestion just a hint of a pattern.8
In the 1646 Portrait of a Man at the Rijksmuseum, as was pointed out in a detailed study from 2014, we see Verspronck’s ability to choose his techniques according to the desired effect.9 In the man’s collar we can see the scratching into wet paint in the furthest, darkest lace lobes. Next to that Verspronck applies a technique to enhance realism and form, when he adds a thin impasto bright white line to the edge of a slightly folded scallop. Moving closer to us, the next scallops catch the brightest light, and the lace pattern is painted in an exact and detailed manner, on top of a dried darker underpainting, showing the pattern of the tiny thistle flowers in the lace. The next scallops and the ones going across the man’s shoulder are purposefully kept smudged and faded, which enhances the form of the shoulders and keeps the focus on the central part of the collar, leading up to the sitter’s face. The scallops are curling up at the edges, made clear, again, by some thin lines of brighter white paint. The lace pattern in these faded scallops has been suggested with some very faint grey paint on top of the white paint, suggesting the negative space. Where the lace collar disappears over and behind the shoulder the curled-up edge grows darker and dissolves into just a few well-placed dabs of paint.
The painterliness of these final dabs of paint can also be found in The Girl in Blue, where her right shoulder and upper arm, covered in lace, has been suggested by some painterly marks. There is still a hint of the lace pattern, as well as some well-placed marks that form some curled-up edges, creating a convincing and charming area of crisp and fine lace.
Most of the lace that covers The Girl in Blue’s left arm has been painted in an accurate manner. Verspronck made sure that the pattern was consistent throughout, repeating it in every scallop. The patterns and bridging threads were all painted with a small brush. This is the technique he seemed to use the most, as can also be clearly seen in the Portrait of Maria van Strijp (1652, Rijksmuseum). There are not many artists in the 1650s that use this technique of painting the white patterns and threads on top of a darker underlayer, when the then fashionable bobbin lace was generally dense and fabric-like. Painting almost every thread is labour-intensive for such dense lace and the details would not be clearly visible with the naked eye unless the painter worked from very close up to the lace. The bridging threads in Verspronck’s lace are not completely realistic, as they are simple straight lines, but the overall effect is impressive and comes close to real lace from the period. A similar piece of bobbin lace from the Rijksmuseum collection can give us some idea of what this lace would have looked like. The lace in Verspronck’s work is detailed and refined in places, and painterly and suggestive elsewhere. His thoughtful and observant approach to portraiture and his careful application of various techniques in lace painting shows his skill as an artist. His sitters are depicted as real and convincing people, with a quiet grandeur that few other contemporary artists match.
Verspronck painted the patterns and stitches of lace into minute detail, and for this used the most suitable technique. He used a small brush with white paint to ‘draw’ the patterns on top of a darker underlayer; white-on-black. This technique of painting the white lace on top of a dried darker underlayer had been particularly suitable for depicting the earlier reticella needle lace collars from the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. We can see this technique applied in the detailed early works of Van Mierevelt and Ravensteyn. The earlier reticella needle lace was much less dense and contained much more open work. It would make sense for a painter to choose the most effective and efficient way of painting, and an open lace like early needle lace would be ‘drawn’ with a small brush and fluid white paint on the dried (often darker) underlayer. This underlayer typically was at the block-in stage for the clothing.10
For most painters it must have been obvious that this white-on-black painting approach was not always efficient for bobbin lace. The overall quality of bobbin lace is much denser than needle lace and it gives the impression of being a cloth. Techniques for painting drapery would be more suitable for painting this type of lace. It makes sense to paint the white ‘fabric’ first and then, if and where necessary, suggest the apertures of the lace with a darker coloured paint, making the layers underneath visible. We see artist like Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Van der Helst apply this technique of black-on-white. Artists generally would continue to choose the technique that would make the most sense, with white-on-black for more open-worked lace designs, and a black-on-white technique for the denser bobbin laces. It seems only Verspronck used both techniques side by side in the same painting.
Verspronck sometimes used a sgraffito technique where he lifted the white paint with a stick, or more likely the back of a brush. The resulting sharp marks enhanced texture and crispness in the lace. Rembrandt and Verspronck both used black chalk and fluid black paint to draw the initial shapes of the portrait, while Hals would dive straight in with paint. All used a layered painting approach where underlayers were left to dry before subsequent layers were added.11 Whichever technique was used to depict lace, lace was found important enough to paint either realistically, using techniques to enhance form and shape, or accurately, with great attention paid to copy patterns exactly, or sometimes both.
In the lace painting of Verspronck we can see that accuracy remained important throughout the period. Many museum collections include remnants of early lace, and a comparison illustrates how accurate the lace was depicted in paint. Although often no exact matches can be found, the many different designs and styles, as well as the pattern books that survive, show us what early lace really looked and felt like. The artists took great care to evoke the complexity, variety, and refinement of the lace that the sitter chose to wear for his or her portrait, thereby expressing its beauty and value.
- Rudolf E. O. Ekkart, Johannes Cornelisz. Verspronck: Leven en Werken van een Haarlem Portretschilder uit de 17deEeuw, Haarlem, 1979, pp. 15-20; Rudolf E. O. Ekkart, Johannes Verspronck and the Girl in Blue, Amsterdam, 2009, p. 9.
- Ekkart 1979, p. 57; Ella Hendriks, ‘Johannes Cornelisz. Verspronck. The Technique of a Seventeenth Century Haarlem Portraitist’, in Erma Hermens et al. (ed.), Looking through Paintings: The Study of Painting Techniques and Materials in Support of Art Historical Research, Baarn, 1998, p. 37.
- Hendriks 1998, pp. 16-17; Anna Krekeler, Erika Smeenk-Metz, Zeph Benders, and Michel Van de Laar, ‘Consistent Choices: A Technical Study of Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck’s Portraits in the Rijksmuseum’, The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, 62.1 (2014), p. 15.
- Christopher D. M. Atkins, The Signature Style of Frans Hals: Painting, Subjectivity, and the Market in Early Modernity, Amsterdam, 2012, p. 156.
- Van Mander refers to these two styles of painting, as described and quoted in: Atkins 2003 (note 5), p. 285.
- For The Girl in Blue, see also Ekkart 2009, pp. 35-45.
- Krekeler 2014, p. 18; Hendriks 1998, p. 21.
- Hendriks 1998, p. 32.
- Krekeler 2014, p. 19.
- Ernst van de Wetering, ‘Problems of Apprenticeship and Studio Collaboration’, in: J. Bruyn et al., A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, II, 1631-1634, Dordrecht, 1986, 63.
- For Frans Hals’ technique, see Atkins 2012, pp. 50-52.