Did Rembrandt Paint Oopjen's Lace?
Lace is one of the most beautiful, complex, refined, and expensive items depicted in many early seventeenth-century Dutch portraits. And yet it is often a little overlooked by art historians. When elaborate lace collars were the height of fashion in the early seventeenth century, sitters were keen to be portrayed with their best and finest linen lace. Often, it would be the most expensive item in the painting, with elite sitters paying small fortunes for this elaborate fashion accessory.1 In many portraits lace takes up a considerable amount of canvas space. Artists spent much effort evoking the delicacy of lace and reproducing the patterns into great detail. Surviving lace shows us that their depictions were very accurate indeed, and not, as has been suggested, made up.2
Ernst van de Wetering provided an interesting lace painting analysis of Rembrandt’s (1606-1669) work, nearly forty years ago, in the second volume of the Rembrandt Corpus (1986) in which he analysed the lace painting techniques in order to distinguish different ‘hands’ (assistants in Rembrandt’s studio) in the paintings.3
This article expands on these studies and analyses the approach to painting lace by Rembrandt. A close-up visual analysis will reveal they're different, and, in places, comparable approaches. A study of the techniques used, and accuracy captured, will help us find the master’s hand at work, or, perhaps in some cases, an assistant. As fashion changed, lace painting techniques followed to best depict the lace of the day. A comparison with authentic lace from the period will enhance our understanding of how Rembrandt depicted lace. In this article I will focus solely on the way lace was painted, to discover fresh insights about well-known portraits and invite renewed attention to the lace in other portraits. But first we need to explore early lace a little bit more.
In the seventeenth century there were mainly two types of lace: needle lace and bobbin lace. They started to exist independently of each other in the sixteenth century, although later both types influenced the other in style and patterns. Early needle lace, with its typical square and circle patterns, can often be seen in portraits of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century where the sitters wore their expensive needle lace edged ruffs and cuffs. When ruffs came down and became flat collars, another type of lace became increasingly popular: bobbin lace.
Bobbin lace is much softer and more pliable than the stiffer needle lace. The flat collar of the 1630s and 40s, and the lace-edged kerchief (triangular shawl worn around the shoulders by women) so often seen in Dutch portraits, consisted of very fine and pliable white linen which fell softly over the shoulders (fig. 1). The edges were often decorated with elaborate white lace, sometimes taking over most of the collar. Flanders and Holland were fast developing and trading its - by now famous - bobbin lace in ever more refined and beautiful patterns.4 Flanders especially became an international centre for bobbin lace and exported it throughout Europe.
Bobbin lace is created by twisting and weaving threads around pins, following a paper pattern that would be put underneath the lace (fig. 2). The threads are kept separate and organised by bobbins which provided a way to wind the thread and provide some weight. Bobbins were often made from wood or bone. Complex patterns would require hundreds of bobbins. As only the thinnest flax linen thread was used for this lace, the resulting lace was extremely fine and delicate. The resulting bobbin lace is fabric-like and dense, but also very fine and soft. It would fold and drape beautifully over the shoulders in kerchiefs and collars. Lace cuffs would be stiffened with starch to keep it neatly in shape.
It is unclear when bobbin lace started to exist as it probably developed slowly from various techniques of passementerie and braiding. But during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century it became increasingly popular. Bobbin lace imitated the geometric designs of earlier needle lace at first, but it allowed for a much easier way to include figurative patterns, and scrolling leaves and flowers as well as more elaborate figurative patterns would soon appear.5 We can see this type of lace in many 17th century Dutch portraits, including the work of Rembrandt.
Portrait of Maria Trip
In Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Woman, Possibly Maria Trip (1639, Rijksmuseum) we can see a woman wearing a neatly folded kerchief around her shoulders, creating a double layered, bobbin lace edged covering (fig. 3). A third layer of lace covers part of her upper arms and chest. Large cuffs feature the same Flemish bobbin lace. The amount of deep lace suggests the huge cost involved in this lady’s dress and Rembrandt’s close attention to depicting it underlines its importance in the portrait. The white bobbin lace looks like a narrower lace example from the Metropolitan Museum, but exact matches are hard to find as bobbin lace is extremely fragile, was expensive, and therefore often re-used, and would not survive the centuries intact (fig. 4). The large variety of patterns available also means that it would be incredibly difficult to find exact matches after such a long time. Still, many designs come close to what we can see in various portraits of the time.
Rembrandt painted the white lace of Maria Trip’s dress on top of a dark or black underpainting. He further refined the crisp outlines of the lace with the contrasting black paint used for the dress underneath. Finally, he used a fine brush with black paint to paint the patterns inside the lace, or the negative space, i.e., the holes in the lace, on top of the dried white paint (fig. 5). Frans Hals used a similar approach in his Portrait of a Man (1635, Rijksmuseum); he painted the white lace ‘fabric’ first and used a smaller brush to paint in the negative space, thereby suggesting the holes and gaps in the lace. Rembrandt overpainted the white lace here and there with white paint, redoing a lace scallop where needed. We can detect faint echoes of these earlier patterns underneath the white paint such as in the most left lower scallop in fig. 5. The black stripes, dots and curved lines are meticulously painted, forming a relatively neat pattern. Yet the brush marks are not fussy or stiff and a wonderful looseness of hand can be seen. The black paint was painted over the dried white paint with varying effects. Sometimes a dry and transparent mark would be scumbled on, at other times the black paint was thick and opaque. Where the lace was layered on top of a lighter garment, or another layer of lace, the gaps would no longer need to show the black underlayer but the lighter tone of the fabric underneath, and there Rembrandt used various browns and ochres to suggest the patterns. In some places he would add impasto white highlights to provide extra form and texture to the lace. We can see these impasto highlights in the cuff as well as in the outer edges of the kerchief in the portrait of Maria Trip. Here and there some highlights were also added to the middle areas of the lace scallops. In the cuffs we can see a stronger impasto technique although used with a more transparent white paint. The scallops in the cuff are therefore a little darker as they allow the black painted underlayer to shine through. The impasto highlights are even more pronounced there.
Portrait of Agatha Bas
A similar technique, but applied in a slightly neater manner, can be seen in Rembrandt’s Portrait of Agatha Bas (1641) in the Royal Collection (fig. 6). In the lace here we can see numerous tiny little white impasto dots and small stripes to accentuate the lace on the kerchief. The marks are placed carefully on the middle of the kerchief, where the suggested strong light would hit the upper chest of the sitter. In the cuffs we can see the corrected and overpainted lace design again through the slightly transparent top layer of white paint (fig. 7). In the cuff the outer edges of the lace scallops seem to have been painted with slightly transparent paint, making the white a little greyer and darker, suggesting a shadow for the ever so slightly curved scallops. Where the scallops bend more strongly, a darker tone was added, contrasting with the impasto white highlights on the furthest outer tips.
In the portraits of Agatha Bas and Maria Trip the lace patterns were copied relatively neatly. The patterns were not drawn overly precise, but there is enough information to allow us to recognise the regularity of the design. The same shapes come back in the (sometimes alternating) lace scallops, providing us with the necessary information to understand what we see. Rembrandt observed that we can see different parts of the pattern more clearly when the lace is presented at different angles and so where the cuff goes round the wrist, slightly different parts of the same pattern are marked out.
In the portrait of Maria Trip the lace design alternates in the scallops, and Rembrandt followed this again closely. We can just about make out the flowerpot motif in one scallop and the almost ‘castellated’ thistle motive in the other scallop. Again, the patterns are not overly precise and painted with a certain amount of freedom, but they are certainly not made up and provide sufficient symmetry and regularity to recognise it for what it is. We can see alternating scallop designs in various portraits in this period, such as in Rembrandt’s full-length Portrait of Marten Soolmans (1634) and his bust Portrait of Amalia van Solms (1632).
Portrait of Oopjen Coppit
Rembrandt’s Portrait of Oopjen Coppit (1634) shows a very large bobbin lace flat collar with a very deep lace edging and only little plain linen (fig. 8). Coppit’s lace collar has a scalloped edging and an inner band of lace with a matching pattern. A similar lace collar can be found in the Rijksmuseum collection (fig. 1). The Rijksmuseum collar has scrolling flowerpot designs in the large scallops and inner band, where it depicts the same pattern alternatingly upside down and straight on. The equally wide corner scallops are neatly fitted into the design and cut into a triangular shape at the top, to fit the square corner of the collar. The corner patterns in the inner band match the patterns of the rest of the inner band, but, with a little more space in the diagonal, some extra leaves have been added to fill the shape. We can see many rounded petals and flower patterns which are typical for bobbin lace of this period.6
In Rembrandt’s Portrait of Oopjen Coppit the lace collar area of the painting has suffered some damage.7 But we can see there are various impasto highlights, and the negative space has been depicted with brown or black paint, depending on what the underlayer is supposed to represent (either the black dress, or another layer of lace). Where the patterns have been painted with black paint it is most clear and symmetrical, showing clear flower petals with strong outlines and impasto white highlights for the bridging links. Higher up on the collar the patterns dissolve a little and it becomes difficult to distinguish shapes or patterns. The inner band especially shows a very regularly spaced array of meandering lines, in which we struggle to recognise any floral patterns. Yet the roundness of the marks and the density of the lace does suggest this to be a floral bobbin lace. Where the shoulder rises, we can see the lace pulling back a little, and the final scallop at the back of Oopjen’s shoulder falls forward and catches just a little bit of light through some white impasto highlights.
Portrait of Marten Soolmans
In the portrait of Oopjen’s husband Marten Soolmans, we find what must have been a spectacular and expensive lace collar (fig. 9). Just like Oopjen’s collar, this piece must have been an extravagant display piece which would have cost a small fortune. It is a little unclear from the painting itself whether this is bobbin or needle lace. The repeating circle designs and slightly separated parts in the pattern would suggest that this is a needle lace collar, but the density of the collar and lack of open work could also point to bobbin lace. Bobbin lace and needle lace would, for a while, look very similar and in many paintings, it is not always easy to distinguish the two. Yet Oopjen’s bobbin lace collar was clearly painted in a different style, with much more rounded and full-bodied patterns. If Marten’s collar was a bobbin lace collar one might expect a similar approach to painting it, and the collar in his portrait was painted in a very different style and matching the design of a needle lace collar more closely.
A striking needle lace collar in the V&A Museum could provide a further helpful reference as it shows comparable decoration in the scallop edges and circular flower motifs in the inner band (fig. 10). The scallops show an alternating design of daisies and star-shaped flowers, and an alternating design of daisies and tulips in the inner band. The inner band shows circular motifs with smaller daisies at regular intervals. Northern European needle lace would often show squared and circular designs, and a more open worked technique. The patterns in these needle lace collars from the 1730s often show floral and leave patterns, flowerpots, often contained in square overall patterns.
In Soolman’s portrait the lace pattern has been completely marked out through the negative space, painted with a small brush with black paint, showing fully drawn flower motifs in circles, dotted lines, and thistle petals at the edges. We see many encircled daisy-styled flowers in the inner band. In the scallops the pattern alternates; with a central circular daisy flower in one, and a flowerpot design in the other scallop. However, in the darker further left shoulder that alternating design goes a little wrong as we see two daisies side by side. Also, strangely, the corner scallop on the nearest right shoulder is much wider than the other scallops, with some awkward enclosing lines surrounding the main shapes, marked out with impasto paint. This larger scallop does not fit the overall design and no surviving lace collars, or edgings, shows enlargement as a corner solution for scalloped lace. The bands that enclose the scallop are not matched in the other scallops and therefore look out of place. Overall, the pattern is clear and detailed and continues towards the right in a slightly darker tone, with some softer lighter tones to suggest the slight folding of the collar over the left shoulder.
However, in this collar there are almost no impasto highlights such as we noted in the lace painting in the portraits of Maria Trip and Agatha Bas. We can detect a few in the bridging threads in the centre, and some more in the enlarged corner scallop on the shoulder, but we can see nothing like the many carefully placed highlights in the portraits of Maria Trip or Agatha Bas. The black painted pattern does not vary in value or contrast, something Rembrandt did extensively in the portraits of Trip and Bas. The enlarged corner scallop, the lack of impasto highlights, the irregular pattern, and the black mark making for the pattern being a little messy, leads me to suggest that the collar of Soolmans could show the hand of one of Rembrandt’s assistants.
When we pay close attention to the lace painting in Rembrandt’s portraiture, we sometimes can make out inconsistencies in the depiction of the patterns that could suggest the hand of an assistant, as was already shown by Van de Wetering.8 I have shown that Marten Soolman’s collar was probably painted by such an assistant.
An anecdote, shared by Ernst van de Wetering, about the seventeenth-century Leiden painter Isack Jouderville who kept the lace collar of his sitter in his studio to paint it without the sitter needing to be there, tells us a little about his approach to painting complex dress details. Interestingly, the painter’s wife, Maria Lefevre, ran a lace business and a later inventory listed over a thousand meters of different types of lace.9 It would be highly likely that Jouderville had an extensive knowledge of lace, yet wanted to paint his sitter’s collar from life. Again, accuracy was key. The rich variety in patterns we find in many Dutch seventeenth century portraits, and the comparison with authentic early lace, illustrates that the artists painted lace from life and did not make up the designs. This illustrates that artists, sitters and patrons found an accurate depiction of lace important and meaningful.
All text and images ©Sophie Ploeg unless stated otherwise.
- Santina Levey, Lace: A History, London, 1983, pp. 16, 24.
- Marieke de Winkel, ‘The “Portrayal” of Clothing in the Golden Age’, in Dutch Portraits. The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals, by Rudi Ekkart and Quentin Buvelot, Zwolle, 2007, p. 72.
- 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, pp. 63-75.
- ‘Dutch lace’ usually refers to Flemish lace but is often called Dutch because it features so often in Dutch portraits, such as the ones analysed in this essay. For more on the growing trade in lace in Flanders see: Josette Martin-Favelier, ‘How It All Began in Brabant’, OIDFA Bulletin, 1 (2003), pp. 28-30; Levey 1983 (note 1), pp. 15-17, Frieda Sorber et al., P.LACE.S. Looking through Antwerp Lace, Antwerp, 2021, p. 97.
- Especially Italian needle lace would also develop more figurative and floral patterns in the early seventeenth century. Bobbin and needle lace existed side by side for a long time but especially in Northern Europe bobbin lace became increasingly popular. See also: Levey 1983 (note 1), pp. 15-17.
- Levey 1983 (note 1), p. 24.
- Petria Nobel et al., ‘An Exceptional Commission: Conservation History, Treatment and Painting Technique of Rembrandt’s Marten and Oopjen, 1634’, The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, 66.4 (2018), p. 315.
- Wetering1986 (note 3), p 63-75.
- E. van de Wetering, ‘Verpostzegelde Kant’, in: Kant. Verslag van de textieldag van 25 April 1985 in het Museum Boymans-van Beuningen te Rotterdam, in Samenwerking met de Vereniging ‘Het Katsalet’, Rotterdam, 1987, 75-76.
I watched a whole documentary about Rembrandt just to look at the laces. I should probably mention I'm a lacemaker.
It was the historic laces that lured me in. There are some paintings that are so good that experienced lacemakers have recreated the patterns. Gil Dye's work on this has been fabulous.
I'm also finding new leads on historic laces by looking for a given painter in a given region, and I found some good examples.There is a wealth of detail beyond the painter's skill too!
Lovely piece–thank you so much.
So interesting Sophie to look at your observations of the lace paintings – I have some framed beautiful antique lace bought in Bruges where we watched lace makers at work . Its appeal is shown by the many expert hobby lacemakers we come across today. Lovely to look at and feel but too detailed for me to paint I’m afraid – nice to see your lace painting though
Absolutely fascinating. Thankyou.