LAWRENCE STEIGRAD FINE ARTS

Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits

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HERMAN MEINDERTSZ. DONCKER (Hoorn 1595 – circa 1656)

A Young Boy with his Horse

signed and dated in the lower center H. Doncker 1646

oil on panel

54 ¾ x 42 inches          (139 x 106.7 cm.)


PROVENANCE

Kunsthandel S. Nystad, The Hague, 1964

Christie’s, London, June 11, 1971, lot 116, where purchased by

Sikora

Private Collection, Vancouver, Canada

 

LITERATURE

Charles Dumas, “Inleiding: Het Begrip Ruiterportret” in In Het Zadel, Het Nederlands Ruiterportret van 1550 tot 1900, Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, December 7, 1979 - January 20, 1980; Noordbrandts Museum, ’s-Hertogenbosch, January 26 - March 16, 1980; and Provincial Museum van Drenthe, Assen, March 22 - May 4, 1980, pp. 23-24, 105, nos. 26 (illustrated), 78

Rudolf E. O. Ekkart, “Herman Doncker” in Portret van Enkhuizen in de Gouden Eeuw, Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen, September 15, 1990 - January 15, 1991, p. 27, no. 37 (illustrated)

Frauke Laarmann, “Herman Meindertsz. Doncker – Ein origineller Künstler zweiten Ranges” in Oud Holland, volume 114.1, 2000, pp. 20-21, no. 33 (illustrated, as location unknown)

Rudi Ekkart, “Circle of Jan Claesz.” in Facing the Past, Early Portraiture 1530-1780, The Weiss Gallery, London, 2011, p. 32, no. 11, (Doncker’s A Young Boy with his Horse is mentioned as a comparative example.)

Rudi Ekkart, “West Friesland School, Circle of Jan Claesz.” in British and European Portraiture 1600-1930, Richard Green, London, 2013, unpaginated, (Doncker’s A Young Boy with his Horse is mentioned as a comparative example.)

 

Although Herman Meindertsz. Doncker is considered one of the most representative of seventeenth century artists working in Enkhuizen, there are no records of him in the town archives. Similarly, scant information exists prior to Doncker settling in Enkhuizen. His earliest known work is from 1634, the same year he enrolled in the St. Luke’s Guild of Haarlem. His paintings from this time are primarily Merry Companies, which were popular in Haarlem, and recall those of Dirck Hals, one of the genre’s leading exponents. Doncker also painted historical subjects from 1644–1645, but the core of his production was portraiture. His earliest known portraits date from 1636, and probably coincide with his move to Enkhuizen, which is thought to have occurred between 1635 and 1641. It was at this point that he developed his own distinctive style, of which A Young Boy with his Horse is a superb example. His last dated works are a pair of portraits from 1650. Paintings by Doncker form part of the permanent collections of the museums in Aachen, Amsterdam, Brussels, Houston, Mainz, Montreal, Oslo, Osnabrück, and Stockholm.[1]

In 2011, Rudi Ekkart, the leading scholar of Dutch seventeenth century portraiture, wrote an article in which this painting is referenced, about the tradition of these images stating, “Portraits of young boys standing next to miniature horses are extremely rare and were only painted in ... [West Friesland], particularly in the town of Enkhuizen.”[2]

In this panel, due to the employment of a very low vantage point, Doncker’s young sitter and horse appear to rise majestically from the ground against a miniaturized Italianate river landscape with ruins. The boy is elegantly attired in a black doublet with black sleeves, belted and fastened by a gold clasp, topped by a flat linen collar trimmed with lace as are his sleeves, sporting wide black knee breeches, striking white silk stockings, and black shoes fastened with bows. Interestingly at this time, lace was often more costly than fine fabrics, gold, or jewelry.[3]

The emphasis placed upon the boy’s eyes relates to the long-held belief of the eyes as the windows to the soul, and is a trait often found in Dutch seventeenth century children’s portraits. It is a concept that can be traced back to antiquity, carried forth in medieval literature, to form part of the Netherlandish canon. Karel van Mander, author of the highly influential Schilder-Boeck, expressed the concept as, “The eyes are the messengers of the heart (boden des herten), the seat of desire as well as of pure virtue (De ooghen den legher der begeerlijkheyt oock nieuwers degher) and the mirror of the mind (spieghelen des gheests.)”[4]

By doffing his hat, the boy welcomes the viewer into the picture. This was a common courtesy in the seventeenth century, and meant as a show of respect for and obedience to authority. It also represented proper breeding.[5] Although we are given the impression that the child has just dismounted, the horse is saddleless, and harnessed as a draft horse (a horse meant to do heavy labor). The boy’s tight hold on the reins of his prancing steed is assuredly an allusion to contemporary educational beliefs that originated with Plutarch, who drew a parallel between child rearing and the taming of an animal. Paraphrased numerous times, these ideas were reiterated in the early 1640s by the physician Johan van Beverwych of Dordrecht: “As with horses (as Plutarch says), which, if not tamed and properly trained at an early age and always kept reined in, will no longer take heed when given their head, so it is with children, if one gives them their head and allows them to grow up wild.”[6] Doncker, by introducing such a spirited animal who sports an impish grin, renowned for its strength, underlines the challenge of implementing such tenets. The boy’s raised left foot, instead of being firmly planted on the ground, echoes that of his companion’s, revealing his compliance as not yet complete. This also adds an element of movement into the composition.

During the 1640s, Doncker typically placed his subjects in front of Italianate landscapes that recall the works of Cornelis van Poelenburgh and Bartholomaus Breenberg.[7] In this portrayal, Doncker has placed the sitter in the midst of an Arcadian dream, populated by pastoral figures alongside ruins, with blue skies and pink clouds overhead. At this time, pastoral literature was extremely popular, and presented a vision of Arcadia as a paradise inhabited by nymphs, satyrs, shepherds, dryads and other acolytes, dedicated to the pursuit of love. It suggested a perfect world free of the mundane tribulations of daily life, particularly those encountered in town and court. Generally, life in the country was perceived by wealthy townsmen as peaceful, contemplative, and free of worry or hardships, a time to pursue pleasure. Painted visions of these idylls coincided with affluent urbanites purchasing country estates during a period of increasing prosperity. By 1650 the Netherlands would become the richest country in the world. Land in the Netherlands was a highly prized commodity in extremely limited supply, and with the acquisition of an estate came an elevation in social status. If property was unaffordable, the assumption of ownership could be attained in a painted work, irregardless of the fact that the subject could not afford to purchase an estate.[8] Whether real or perceived, as we know nothing about the sitter’s family, Doncker’s message in A Young Boy with his Horse is clear – “a tangible expression of power and wealth.”[9]

Yet it is also so much more. In a monumental panel, under a confectionary sky set in a paradisiacal setting, this boy embodies the hopes, dreams and aspirations all families cherish for their offspring. This child’s innocence, gentility, and humility resonate some three hundred seventy years after its execution with undiminished vitality. One of the few surviving examples of this rare subject, the painting constitutes a masterpiece in Doncker’s extant oeuvre. Or, simply stated, it is a work that continues to delight.

 

 

[1] Biographical information taken from Rudolf E. O. Ekkart, op. cit., 1991, p. 25; and Frauke Laarmann, op. cit., 2000, pp. 8-9, 15-16, 20.

[2] Rudi Ekkart, op. cit., 2011, p. 32.

[3] Santina M. Levey and Patricia Wardle, The Finishing Touch, Frederiksburg Museum, Denmark, 1994, p. 4.

[4] Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, The Visible and the Invisible, On Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting, De Gruyter, Berlin, 2009, p. 269, fn. 772.

[5] Wayne Frantis, Paragons of Virtue, Women and Domesticity in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 158.

[6] Rudi Ekkart, “Jan Claesz., Five-Year-Old Boy,” in Pride and Joy, Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands 1500-1700, Ludion Press, Ghent, 2000, p. 118.

[7] Rudolf E. O. Ekkart, op. cit., p. 27; and Frauke Laarmann, op. cit., p. 23.

[8] James Hall, “Arcadia” in Dictionary of Subject and Symbols in Art, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1979, pp. 30-31; Allison McNeil Kettering, The Dutch Arcadia, Pastoral Art and its Audience in the Golden Age, Totowa, New Jersey, 1938, pp. 10-11, 18, 65, 70-71; and Scott A. Sullivan, The Dutch Gamepiece, Rowmant Allenheld Publishers, Totowa, New Jersey, 1983, pp. 62-63.

[9] Allison McNeil Kettering, p. 71.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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