Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


THE MONOGRAMMIST WA (Flemish, active early Seventeenth Century) 

The Birth Day

signed with initials WA conjoined in a monogram and dated 1629 in the wood paneling above the door in the upper right

oil on panel

22 ⅛ x 34 ⅛ inches          (56.2 x 86.7 cm.)


Madame J. Baron, Les Biolles, Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, 1921

Estate of Anne Hastings, Washington, D.C., 2005



Katlijne Van der Stighelen, Hoofd en Bijzaak, Portretkunst in Vlaanderen van 1420 tot nu, Waanders Uitgevers, Leuven, 2008, p. I / 25, illustrated


The Monogrammist WA is thought to possibly be Willem Anthonissone (Anthonis, Anthonisz., Anthonissen, Antonissens, Guliam Anthony, or Giliam Anthonissens) who was born in Burgundy. He became a citizen of Antwerp in 1619, and the teacher of Abraham Willemsen (c. 1610–1672) in 1627–1628. Stylistically related to Louis de Caullery (c. 1594–1620) and Sebastian Vrancx (1573–1647), the quality of the draftsmanship and attention to incidental detail are exceptional. As demonstrated by this and at least one other known work, the artist employed a great deal of gilding richly decorating the surface details of frames, lamps, and embossed leather wall coverings.[1]

This panel provides a fascinating view into early 17th century life in Flanders. It depicts the celebration of a birth in an expensively furnished and decorated kraamkamer. The kraamkamer, or birthing room, was a tradition unique to The Netherlands of the 17th century. The luxurious fabrics that covered the cradle, table, bed, and fireplace were key components.[2] The birth of a child led to innumerable feasts and celebrations. It was the custom to hold a party on the day of a child’s birth—or, at the latest, the next day—for family and friends.[3] Just as photographs of a newborn are customary today, paintings depicting a baby’s arrival and the ensuing party proved popular in the 17th century.[4]

This panel is also part of a trend whose roots lie in the 16th century: an early example of what has been labeled a genre portrait. Popular throughout the 17th century, especially in the Southern Netherlands, they employed a small-scale format for depictions of individuals informally posed while engaged in leisurely pursuits or celebrations. Intended as a reflection of the sitters’ social status and cultural refinement, the finished panel served as a record for posterity of a pivotal event in the family intended for permanent display.[5] In these works, equal emphasis was given to the surroundings in which the sitters were placed.

Our kraamkamer displays an almost encyclopedic rendering of the family’s furnishings and objects. The exposed beam ceiling, chandelier, gilded corbels, gold leather wall-hangings suspended from cornices, marble fireplace, brass firedogs, cupboard cloth dressed with plate and vessels, a draw-leaf table (here covered by probably silken velvet trimmed with fringe), paintings, and gilt-patterned black leather chairs are all typical elements of what would have been found in a house of wealth and privilege of the period.[6] The bare wood-planked floor has been covered with patterned sand for the celebration. Afterwards, this would facilitate in the cleanup, as it could easily be swept.

Within these interior genre portraits, the strongest indication of cultural refinement was the inclusion of art. Portraits of historical figures as well as scenes of edification were deemed appropriate subjects. In our panel, the paintings in a symmetrical pattern above the cornice were probably based on a series of 15 Roman emperors by Otto van Veen (1556 – 1629). Fireplaces were regarded as the visual focal point of the room. Paintings hung on the chimney wall (called schouwstuk or chimney pieces) were viewed as a key component.[7] In our work, the painting is The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, exactly matching the proportions of the chimney wall, whose importance is underlined by its double gold-bordered frame. Further, “childbirth was associated with the sin of Eve, just as the concept of original sin was associated with the sin of Adam.”[8] Apropos to the scene is The Virgin and Child that hangs above the cupboard.

In the bed lies the new mother, still wearing the sweatband, which would have been applied during the birth. She is listening to the midwife seated at the foot of her bed. Nearby, the newborn is being presented by the dry nurse to presumably the grandmother. The older woman and servants wear the more traditional ruff collar, while the younger women display the latest fashion: collars are now flat, sleeves are full, rounded forms, and, on the ostrich fan-wielding lady seated closest to the door, the latest in coiffure. The short, tightly packed, crinkly curls that broadly stand out from either side of her face, with possibly a dusting of yellow poudre de Chypre, was cutting-edge.[9] Almost all the ladies and even the young girl wear pearl necklaces and large pear-shaped pearl earrings. Called unions d’excellence, reflecting the difficult of finding perfectly matched pearls of such large size, these pear-shaped pearls become the most popular type of pearls in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. The also function as additional proof of the wealth and status of the party attendees.[10] Not to be outdone, the new father, who is about to see his newborn child, along with his companion, are equally fashionable. Wearing sloping pleated collars, wide, sweeping hats, jerkins capping ballooning breeches, and cloaks draped around their bodies, they similarly project contemporary elegance.[11]

The maid in the center of the composition holds a tray with the kandeel, or confinement cup, with another resting on the cupboard. These cups were presented to the mother after giving birth. They were used for serving kandeel, a celebratory drink, which was a mixture of wine, egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon peel. Toasts follow to the health of the mother and child.[12] The eyes of all three children are riveted upon the dish the young girl holds. It contains soikertjes, bread or pastries filled with moisjes, sugar-coated caraway seeds, or cinnamon sticks. Another plate filled with the same treats stands at the ready upon the cupboard. These were also traditionally served in celebration of a birth.[13]

We are extremely grateful to Fred G. Meijer for providing information on the Monogrammist WA and to Katlijne Van der Stighelen for identifying the subject of the work as the celebration of The Birth Day.




[1] Another example by the artist, featuring figures from the Commedia dell’Arte dancing in a similar interior, signed with monogram WA and dated 1628, was with Rafael Valls Limited, London, in 1995.

[2] Walter Liedtke, “Matthijs Naiveu, The Newborn Baby” in Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, p. 502.

[3] Mary Frances Durantini, The Child in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, MI, circa 1983, p. 303.

[4] Eva Abraham-van Der Mark, Successful Home Birth and Midwifery: The Dutch Model, Bergin & Garvey, Westport, CT, 1993, p. 87.

[5] Marjorie E. Wieseman, “The Art of ‘Conversatie’: Genre Portraiture in the Southern Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century” exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Age of Rubens, September 22, 1993 – January 2, 1994, pp. 183-191.

[6] Ibid., p. 183.

[7] Jeffery M. Muller, “Private Collections in the Spanish Netherlands: Ownership and Display of Paintings in Domestic Interiors” in The Age of Rubens, op. cit., pp. 196, 199-202.

[8] S.P. Cerasano, ed., Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, volume 28, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Vancouver, 2005, p. 36.

[9] Frithjof van Thienen, Costume of the Western World, The Great Age of Holland 1600–60, George G. Harrap and Company LTD, London, 1951, p. 21.

[10] “Pearls in Human History, The European Tradition” in Pearls: A Natural History, The American Museum of Natural History, New York, 2001, p. 82.

[11] Frithjof van Thienen, op. cit., p. 11.

[12] “Kandeel cups” on Victoria and Albert Museum website.

[13] Peter G. Rose, “Matthijs Naiveu, The Newborn Baby” in Matters of Taste, Food and Drink in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Life, Syracuse University Press, Albany Institute of History & Art, 2002, p. 94; and Walter Liedtke, op. cit., p. 502

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