Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits



Portrait of a Young Woman

signed J. Delff with the initials conjoined and dated Aº 1654, in the center right

oil on panel

29 x 24 5/16 inches          (73.6 x 61.7 cm.)


Anonymous sale, Sotheby’s, London, July 9, 1947, lot 64, where purchased by


Anonymous sale, Sotheby’s, Scotland, August 28, 1970, lot 175, where purchased by

Private Collection, Massachusetts, until 2015


Jacob Willemsz. Delff (also called Jacobus Delffius or Jacob Willemsz. Delfius) began his training in the workshop of his maternal grandfather, the renowned portraitist Michiel van Mierevelt. His paternal grandfather was the portrait painter Jacob Willemsz. Delff the Elder. His father was Willem Jacobsz. Delff, a portrait engraver who worked for twenty years in Mierevelt’s studio. Following the deaths of Mierevelt’s sons Pieter and Jan, who were also employed in the workshop, his grandson Jacob was designated as his successor. Several works exist that are signed by both Mierevelt and Delff the Younger, as well as examples signed solely by Delff prior to his grandfather’s death in 1641. This would have constituted a break from tradition as well as a sign of great confidence in the young painter’s abilities. After Mierevelt’s death, Delff took charge, completing unfinished commissions and receiving new orders. Initially the conservative style of his grandfather was maintained, one which emphasized the reserved dignity of his patrician clientele.[1]

Not only did Delff inherit Mierevelt’s studio but he also lived in Mierevelt’s large house (now 71, Oude Delft). On October 15, 1641, he was named Master of the Delft Guild. In 1642 he married Anna van Hoogenhouck with whom he had five children. In 1654 he joined the city council and from 1657-1659 served as the harbormaster of Delft.[2] He was a sergeant in the civic guard to which only those of “the most reputable character and moneyed background were admitted”.[3] Unsurprisingly the majority of Delff’s sitters were from the Delft elite. The Officers of the White Banner (Gemeente Musea Delft), executed in 1648, depicts the senior officers of the Delft civic militia, and is considered one of his most famous works. Arnold Houbraken viewed it as a testimony to his skill, declaring the painting “could well hang beside those of his grandfather”. It further marks a stylistic change towards a more elegant depiction of his subjects in keeping with the prevailing trend of the times. Until his death in 1661, Delff, along with Anthonie Palamedesz., was regarded as a leading portraitist in Delft. Portraits by Delff can be found in the museums of Amsterdam, Dayton, Delft, Gouda, The Hague, Loosdrecht, Philadelphia, Prague, and Rotterdam.[4]

The 1654 date of Portrait of a Young Woman coincides with a catastrophic event in Delft. On October 12th of that year, the Secreet van Hollandt powder magazine, which held about 90,000 pounds of gunpowder, exploded. Most of the surrounding buildings were leveled, and hundreds are believed to have perished. The painter Carel Fabritius was killed.[5] The Oude Doelen which housed Delff’s Officers of the White Banner, as well as Jacob Willemsz. Delff the Elder’s The Arquebusiers of the Fourth Squad, Mierevelt’s Civic Guard Banquet and his great uncle Rochus Jacobsz. Delff’s The Officers of the Orange Banner, was also destroyed. All of the works suffered damage and the task of restoration was undertaken by Delff.[6] In the aftermath of such a calamitous event it is hard to conceive of the painter executing this charming Portrait of a Young Woman. In all likelihood it was finished prior to the explosion.

Serenely seated against a dark background, the portrayed young lady is a study of elegance formulated from the contrasting hues of black and white. An enigmatic smile plays across her lips. Her dress and hair are reflective of the latest fashion. After 1650, long locks on either side of the face ending in bows was de rigueur. The remaining hair was gathered in the back and held in place, in this case by a network of silver braid ending in multiple loops topped off with a round clasp of onyx stones. She wears a black patterned satin gown with ribbing. A black onyx brooch banded by gold is pinned to a center stay. At this point, sleeves had been shortened to end just below the elbow. The lace cuff attached to the sleeve, patterned in a foliage design, matches that of the double collar. The two-tiered conical collar, which took hold in the 1650s[7], is tied at the neck and fastened across the shoulders by floral bows fashioned from stiffened lace. Lace at this time was often more costly than woven fabrics or jewelry.[8] She wears a pearl and onyx necklace. The pearl is indicative of the sitter’s wealth but also emblematic of purity, perfection, and femininity.[9] Its properties serve as a just summation of the portrayal.



[1] Biographical information taken from Rudolf E.O. Ekkart, “Jacob Willemsz. Delff” in Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, volume 25, K.G. Saur Verlag, Berlin, 1992, p. 441; Rudolf E.O. Ekkart, “Willem Jacobsz. Delff [Delft]” in The Grove Dictionary of Art, From Rembrandt to Vermeer, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2000, pp. 87-88; Rudolf E.O. Ekkart, “Michiel (Jansz.) van Mierevelt [Miereveld]” in The Grove Dictionary of Art, op. cit., pp. 213-214; and Dr. Ronni Baer, “Dou and the Delft Connection” in Face Book, Studies on Dutch and Flemish portraiture of the 16th-18th Centuries, Primavera Pers, Leiden, 2012, p. 281.

[2] L. Burchard, “Jacob II Willemsz. Delff” in Thieme-Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Kunstler, volume IX, Veb E.A. Seeman Verlag, Leipzig, 1913, p. 15; J. W. Salomonson, “The Officers of the White Banner: a civic guard portrait by Jacob Willemsz Delff II” in Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, volume 18, no. 1/2, Stichting Nederlandse Kunsthistorische Publicaties, 1988, pp. 37, 45; and Rudolf E.O. Ekkart, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Kunstler, op. cit. p. 441.

[3] J.W. Salomonson, op. cit., p. 25.

[4] Ibid, p. 15; and Rudolf E.O. Ekkart, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Kunstler, op. cit., p. 441.

[5] Axel Rüger, “Egbert van der Poel, A View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654” in Vermeer and the Delft School, exhibition catalog, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 8 - May 27, 2001, p. 326.

[6] J. W. Salomonson, op. cit., pp. 13 - 15, 62.

[7] Frithjof van Thienen, Costume of the Western World, The Great Age of Holland 1600-60, George G. Harrap and Company Ltd., London, 1951, pp. 12, 24-25.

[8] Santine M. Levey and Patricia Wardle, The Finishing Touch, Frederiksbourg Museum, Denmark, 1994, p. 4.

[9] Jack Tressidder, ed., “Pearls” in The Complete Dictionary of Symbols, Chronicle Books, L.L.C., 2004, pp. 376 - 377. 

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