To many viewers, his paintings might look alike. Portraits of men and women, often with dark brown backgrounds, wearing black clothing and a fabulous snow-white ruff or flat collar. There are a few exceptions of course, but the majority of Johannes Verspronck’s pieces are indeed like this. Yet they are so much more.
The delicacy of his brush strokes is truly beautiful and contrasts so starkly with his better known contemporary, colleague, competitor and fellow townsman Frans Hals. But we should not dismiss Verspronck for his lack of expressionistic brushwork. He offered the Haarlem burghers a different product; a more quiet, still and refined portrait.
Johannes Verspronck lived, worked and died in Haarlem, The Netherlands from around 1601/03 to 1662. He never married and lived a quiet life. He was well off, both from his earnings as a painter as from legacies but never entered public life as a civic guard or on the board of a painters’ guild. From his hand around 100 paintings survive, all painted in a period of 25 years. All paintings surviving are portraits, save for just 3.
He might have studied with Frans Hals and has certainly been influenced by him. Hals was slightly older (1582-1666) but working in the same town and therefore competing directly with Verspronck. In Verspronck’s early career we see that he used Hals’ poses in his portraits, but later on, Verspronck developed his own style, which is significantly different from Hals.Johannes Verspronck’s work is characterised by a quiet grandeur, a stillness and friendly dignity in the sitters that is very attractive. He provided a true alternative to Hals for the clients in Haarlem in offering a completely different style.
He painted two huge group portraits (but no family portraits as far as is known) both of groups of women. The regentesses of the Holy Spirit Orphanage and the regentesses of the St. Elizabeth Hospital are both positioned around a table ( a common design in this time used by many painters). The women are grouped skilfully to create a lively ensemble and the orphanage painting even included two very well painted children to enliven the scene.
Most of Verspronck’s other works are single portraits, sometimes painted in pairs (husband and wife) or more (couple and children). His painting style shows an enormous attention to the precise depiction of clothing, lace and jewellery which we can trust to be faithful representations of the sitter’s outfit. His precision is not stiff but beautiful and quiet.In the ‘Girl in Blue’ (1641, Rijksmuseum) and in the beautiful portrait of Maria van Strijp (1652) the sitters are both wearing a flat shawl-like collar (kerchiefs) finished off with Flemish bobbin lace. The Girl in Blue is wearing extensive lengths of scalloped bobbin lace, while Maria van Strijp wears a straight Flemish lace. Both laces are beautifully and skillfully painted by Verspronck with the smallest of brushes, painting almost every thread and carefully depicting the repeating design of the lace.
Nothing is known about the cheerful looking little girl with her rosy cheeks in her blue dress. She looks like she just ran in from playing outside and had to put her Sunday best on. All credit to Verspronck for depicting her so alive and real. Although we don’t know who she was, she has an open face, looking at us without shyness, even with a hint of cheekiness. Her dress is beautiful; a blue silk gown with masses of golden thread braids, pearls and endless amounts of delicate white lace.
The paint is applied confidently and almost ‘loose’ when you look at it in close up. Golden highlights are simple dots here and there. The lace is painted with near-white paint and follows the pattern carefully. The lace has been shaped by glazes here and there to create shadow and depth. The pattern in the blue silk has been painted loosely and faintly, only to just suggest the woven-in effect. The turquoise dress is at its most chromatic in the shadows, brightening up to light blue in the lighter areas. The golden braids are a dark greenish brown in the shadows, turning into an ochre with pink and light-yellow touches in the light. The pink comes back all over the girl in blue; it is either a little of the underpainting shining through, or purposefully added touches to create a harmony of colour and warmth.
The painting of her face follows common practice at the time: the typical lash-less eyes with heavy lids, goggle out at us with child-like innocence. The lower eyelids enhance the bulging-eye effect we see in so many paintings of the time. Yet, despite common motifs Verspronck managed to give the girl liveliness and an unique nature.The face is painted with smooth brush marks, using a greyish tint for shading and a peach-pink for the rosy cheeks. Her eyes are simple doll-like black and grey circles, and the rather large size of them perhaps enhances the appeal.
A bright (window) light shines upon her, creating a wonderful light shape behind her and a dark background just behind her lit-up face. A classic set up that, when done right, works a treat.