Backed by Backer


For years we sought to discover the identity of the artist who had painted the Two Young Girls with a Bird’s Nest. In the end Salomon de Bray appeared the most likely candidate. But the Portrait of Geertruida Hasselaer has shed new light on the subject, which has not been available to art historians until now.

For Jacob Backer
Before Salomon de Bray was put forward as a possible artist, the picture Two Young Girls with a Bird’s Nest had previously been attributed to Pieter de Grebber and even Jan Steen. After a long in-depth search and countless comparisons with other artists in terms of style, composition, use of colour and choice of subject matter, all evidence seemed to point to Salomon de Bray. Several expert art historians shared our opinion and the Two Young Girls was published as such in the second edition of our Hoogsteder Journal No. 2.
No one could have imagined that a great niece of the notorious Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer would open up a whole new world for us. The monogrammed picture Portrait of Geertruida Hasselaer is a unique example of the portraiture of Jacob Backer. Using a sparkling colourism and broad vigorous brushstrokes, the artist has beautifully captured the lustre and texture of the glowing material. The idiosyncratic way of applying highlights is a particular hallmark of Backer’s manner of painting around 1645, a period which saw the artist developing his own individual style, adapting Rembrandt’s influence in a highly personal way.

Women side by side
Place the Two Young Girls beside Geertruida and what we art historians have been long searching for suddenly becomes obvious: the two pictures are indisputably by one and the same person. The manner of applying thick impasto highlights to the draperies is particularly similar. These bold touches contrast tellingly with the refined brushwork with which the faces and hair have been laid-in in both pictures. The use of colour also shows striking parallels. The ruby-red background on the right, the characteristic use of yellow in the clothing and the blue-grey tones on the left of the image are virtually the same in both paintings. On stylistic grounds it is crystal clear that the pictures are by the same hand.
Since Jacob Backer added his monogram JAB to Geertruida, there can be no doubt that it was he who painted the portrait. The typical manner of painting of this picture now seems more than just incidental. When juxtaposed with the Two Young Girls, a style emerges that is not normally associated with Backer. Both pieces reveal an extremely daring brushstroke and a similar schematic use of primary colours.
Backer is a many faceted artist. Searching his oeuvre for other work that accords with our two pieces, we could only find a couple of pictures that qualified. Alongside Geertruida’s sister-in-law Agatha (Zeist Town Hall, Netherlands), these were the Amarillis and Mirtillo of 1646 (location unknown) and the Allegory of the Republic (Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin) that is dated c. 1645. Around 1645 a new world opened up for Backer, a world where the painter in his maturity allowed himself more freedom in his use of colour, rendering of textures and brushwork.

Fancy dress
The observant viewer might perhaps wonder at Geertruida’s costume. Consisting of an undergarment, a bodice embroidered with silver thread over which is draped a flowing gold-coloured robe, it is evident that the artist has allowed his fantasy free rein. In so doing he has elevated the sitter out of the quotidian, conferring instead a timeless value on his portrait. At that time there were many variations on the all’antica portrait, the artistic potential of which was exploited in Amsterdam, particularly by Rembrandt and his pupils. And during his time at the Rembrandt Academy Backer must certainly have become acquainted with Rembrandt’s ideas on portraiture.
The children in the Two Young Girls with a Bird’s Nest are also attired in a similar fashion to Geertruida, with their silk-like robes falling loosely over their shifts. We have already noted the analogous handling of the paint, to this can now be added the similarity of apparel. The fancy dress harmonises perfectly with the idyllic atmosphere of the image and, like the Geertruida portrait, can be interpreted as a reference to an Arcadian world, as can the laurel and flower wreaths adorning their heads and the bird’s nest that so captures their attention.
Finally it is striking that Backer uses the same ruby-red drapery seen in the portrait of Geertruida as the background to the young girls, but this time in a more schematic configuration. The same holds true of the blue sky and yellow clothes. Backer has executed the Two Young Girls with a looser brush which gives them a rather more mercurial appearance. Whereas Geertruida’s features had to be a good likeness, the girls were primarily there to play their part in a genre piece; they were artists’ models not clients. In his genre painting Backer is clearly more concerned with spontaneity than with background detailing and facial features. Although the Two Young Girls comes from a different world from Geertruida, both pieces nonetheless fit perfectly into the seventeenth-century historicising pastoral tradition. A theme which had great appeal in the Netherlands, particularly among the patrician class.

And that is precisely where Geertruida came from. Interestingly, that is also exactly where she remained until recently. After Geertruida’s death her portrait was inherited by her niece Agatha Hasselaer, who married Jan Elias Huydecoper in 1692. For generations the painting, along with Backer’s portraits of Gerard and Agatha Hasselaer, remained the property of the Huydecoper family until the last member, Dowager Huydecoper van Maarseveen, died in 1886 at Huize Wulperhorst in Zeist. Geertruida Hasselaer’s portrait subsequently passed to the female line, becoming the property of the Baud and Taets van Amerongen families. Finally when the last descendant died without issue at the end of the twentieth century this impressive piece came on the market for the first time.
Geertruida was the eldest daughter of Nicolaes Hasselaer and his second wife Sara Wolphaerts van Diemen. She was baptised in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk in 1624, where she was also buried on 2 October 1696. In 1643 she married her first cousin Cornelis van Werkhoven (his mother was a Hasselaer), but as Geertruida had no children, her estate went to her niece.
The Hasselaers were originally Haarlem brewers and had formed part of the Amsterdam patrician class since the sixteenth century. In common with many of their station they had themselves immortalised in portraits, and they did so with a conspicuous eye for quality, almost invariably commissioning one of the foremost artists of their day. In 1611 grandfather Pieter Hasselaer had himself portrayed by Cornelis van der Voort, while Geertruida’s parents commissioned Frans Hals no less. Today their portraits of around 1635 rank among the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum’s finest pieces. And the exhibition Face Values: Amsterdammers Portrayed 1600-1800, which was presented in the autumn of 2002 at Amsterdam Historical Museum, saw Geertruida reunited with her parents for the first time in 300 years.
So it is not surprising that Geertruida chose Jacob Backer. At that time Backer received many important commissions, one of which was for a portrait of Geertruida’s half-brother Gerard and his wife Agatha. But although Geertruida’s portrait shows many striking resemblances in terms of composition and style of painting to the picture of her sister-in-law Agatha, the painterly qualities and subtle rendering of Geertruida’s features are unsurpassed.

Innocence of youth
Almost nothing is known about the precise genesis of the Two Young Girls with a Bird’s Nest, but Backer probably painted it for the open market. Apart from the general Arcadian resonance of the Two Young Girls, the presence of the bird’s nest points to a specific significance. This motif is known from a small number of pastoral children’s portraits, and exponents of the genre include Jacob Backer, Jan Mijtens and Jacob Ochtervelt.
As far as we know the earliest image depicting children with a bird’s nest is a print by Jan Saenredam, which he made after a design by Hendrick Goltzius. The inscription tells us that the engraving represents the spring and forms part of a series of prints entitled The Four Seasons of 1601.
In Backer’s image one of the girls points towards the birds, a gesture which appears to be derived from the Saenredam print. Yet despite the connotation with springtime, the scene of the Two Young Girls does not form part of a set of seasons. Instead we should probably interpret the composition in more general terms as an allegory of the spring of life.

Ongoing insights
This points-up once again that our knowledge of art history is continually developing. Newly discovered sources shed fresh light on old pictures, providing surprising insights. Thus Geertruida Hasselaer has restored to Jacob Backer the renown that had been wrongly accorded to Salomon de Bray. Just a few years of art-historical research can make all the difference in the world of 350-year-old paintings!

The family in which Jacob Backer grew up moved to Amsterdam shortly after he was born. Around 1626 at the age of eighteen, Jacob returned to the provinces to study under the painter Lambert Jacobsz. in Leeuwarden. It is possible that at that time Backer also had contact with Friesland’s leading portraitist Wybrand de Geest, a brother-in-law of Rembrandt. He got to know Govert Flink at his teacher’s studio and in 1630 they went back to Amsterdam together. By that time Backer had probably already built up a good reputation as a portraitist, because shortly after establishing himself as a free master in Amsterdam he was given the prestigious commission to make the group portrait the Regentesses of the Amsterdam Orphan House.
Backer worked in a variety of styles and his brief period with Rembrandt proved sufficient for him to absorb aspects of his master’s manner. From 1640, however, his work displays more Flemish influences. The artist never married and he died in 1651 at the age of 43 in Amsterdam.


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