Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


JAN MYTENS (The Hague 1613/1614 – The Hague 1670)

Portrait of a Family Group by an Ornamental Fountain in a Pastoral Landscape

signed and dated A°: 1663. Mytens F: (with the signature partially effaced)[1] in the lower left center

oil on canvas

51 ⅜ x 61 ¾ inches        (130.6 x 156.8 cm.)


Sold to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Auckland, New Zealand


Private Collection of a Castle, Limbourg, Belgium until 2012


Jan Mytens (or Mijtens) was the most fashionable portrait painter working in The Hague during the period bracketing the middle of the seventeenth century. It is thought that his initial training may have been with his uncle Isaac Mijtens and after 1634 with his uncle Daniel. Jan was the son of Daniel’s elder brother David, a saddle-maker in The Hague. Daniel Mijtens the Elder, who had been court painter to Charles I in England, was strongly influenced by Anthony van Dyck as well as Peter Paul Rubens and most likely instilled their innate elegance into the work of his nephew. In 1642 Jan married Daniel’s daughter Anna. In 1639 he became a member of the Guild of St. Luke in The Hague and in 1656 one of its governors. He was also one of the founders of the painter’s society De Pictura in The Hague. From 1667 – 1668 he was a governor of the society and from 1669 – 1670 its dean. He was the instructor of his son Daniel Mijtens the Younger, a painter of portraits and mythological scenes.[2]

Although he occasionally executed mythological and Biblical scenes, the majority of his output was devoted to portraiture. Whether individual portraits or family groups, Jan Mytens’ clientele derived mainly from The Hague’s most prominent citizens, although he also did some work at the court in Berlin. His earliest known works date from 1638 and are predominately family groups (for example see Portrait of a Family in Pastoral Dress, Louvre, Paris, inventory no. 1590). These family portraits typically depicted harmonious groups viewed full-length and elegantly attired in an Italianate landscape at sunset. Often an allegorical element was included in the composition. Other family groups by the artist are in the collections of the museums of Amsterdam; Antwerp; Birmingham; Dessau; Dublin; Kasteel Duivenvoirde; Göteborg; The Hague; Moscow; New Brunswick, Canada; New Orleans; Schloss Oranienburg; Rennes; and Stockholm.[3]

Although unidentified, Alexandra Nina Bauer believes the sitters in Portrait of a Family Group by an Ornamental Fountain in a Pastoral Landscape to be members of the upper echelon of The Hague society. In the early 1660s Mytens began to work for members of the House of Orange. He received commissions from military commanders, high ranking government officials and the nobility. Typically very few attributes were included in these compositions to identify the sitters.[4] By placing the family in an Italianate setting complete with dense woods, rocky cliffs, a lake, and classical buildings dotting hills in the far distance, Mytens is drawing from the tradition of pastoral literature which by this time was extremely popular in the Netherlands.  The appeal of the pastoral in literature and art to the Dutch, the most urbanized country in Western Europe, was multifaceted. Dwelling continually in a cold damp climate made the sunlit warm meadows described in these scenes of Arcadia (in Greek mythology the home of Pan inhabited by nymphs, satyrs, shepherds, dryads and other acolytes) something to savor. Life in the countryside was perceived as peaceful, contemplative, and free of worry or hardships, a time to pursue pleasure. Land itself was a highly prized commodity as it was in extremely limited supply; much had been reclaimed from the sea and was under constant threat from flooding. These visions of rolling unpopulated vistas also coincided with a rise in the purchasing of country estates by wealthy townsmen during a period of increasing prosperity which would culminate in 1650 with the Netherlands the richest country in the world. With the acquisition of an estate an elevation in social status was assured. The pastoral tradition in literature and plays had been embraced by an aristocratic class since classical times, continuing through the Renaissance and remained popular in seventeenth century France among the elite. To be painted in a style that embraced its ideals signaled ones arrival. Even those who could not afford to purchase an estate sought to be painted in such a manner for the same reason – “a tangible expression of power and wealth.” By the 1640’s familiarity with the pastoral was so ingrained that the mere inclusion of such elements as shimmering gowns, plumed hats, flower garlands, and antique buildings suggested Arcadia to the viewer.[5] By painting the light in these works to reflect sunset the suggestion of tranquility and the antique were heightened.[6]

Situated in a park-like setting on their estate this handsome as well as splendidly attired family mirrors these ideals. The father’s out-stretched hand is intended as both welcoming and demonstrative of his bounty. Artists during the seventeenth century in order to project a sense of the antique in works devoted to the pastoral increasingly employed simpler draped garments in pastel colors and white consisting of plainly fitted satin gowns with fluttering transparent shawls. It was a style first popularized by Van Dyck for his sitters at the English court. Fashion changed almost as rapidly then as it does today, and the advantage of such dress was that it imbued the sitters with a sense of timelessness.[7] For these works Mytens created clothes that were based on current fashion but obscured and romanticized their origins by use of veils, glittering ornamentation and inventive detail. Such things as the extremely wide sleeves of the young girl in orange were never a real style. The lack of collar and cuffs on the children and mother’s outfit intentionally separate the clothes from a distinct period. The father is dressed in a semi-classical knee-length robe yet sports modern shoes. The hairstyles of the girls and mother are also up-to-date with corkscrew curls on the sides and the back swept into buns.[8]

Coinciding with the work’s pastoral motif are its allegorical elements. Pearl necklaces adorn the females and the mother and older sister have them interwoven into their hair. The large pear-shaped pearl earrings worn by the mother, young girl in orange and her older sister on her pearl choker, were the most popular type of pearls in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They could range up to 20 millimeters in diameter and were called unions d’excellence reflecting the difficulty of finding perfectly matched pearls of such large size.[9] The jewelry is of course indicative of the family’s wealth. Pearls were further symbolic of femininity as their pale iridescence was associated with the luminosity of the moon, the watery origin with fertility, and its period in the shell with miraculous birth. Pearls were viewed as emblematic of purity, innocence and perfection as well as virginity and fertility.[10]

The basket of flowers proffered by the younger sister as well as the garlands of flowers that encircle the head and wrist of her brother were standard attributes of children depicted in pastoral landscapes. The innocence of childhood was regarded as fragile and continually threatened which paralleled the delicacy and beauty of flowers that can quickly fade and decay.[11] More unusual is the hunting cap with ostrich feathers worn by the younger sister along with the lively little dog at her side. It was young boys who were often portrayed as hunters, but here the reference is two-fold. By depicting the young girl as a huntress the classical reference to the goddess Diana is plain and befitting of the pastoral setting. Further the right to hunt had always been the exclusive privilege of the nobility but with the purchase of an estate a rise in social status occurred. Although hunting’s restrictive rules remained intact through the eighteenth century wealthy burghers felt entitled to avail themselves of the pretense.[12] Besides functioning as an attribute of Diana, the dog is a metaphor often found in children’s portraits of the period for the need to reign in natural tendencies. This could be accomplished for both child and dog only through instruction and education.[13] Evocative of the English court and another status symbol the dog is a King Charles spaniel, at this point a fashionable breed throughout Europe.[14] A charming passage is the young boy gripping his mother’s hand. Boys and girls of this age wore skirts and there does not seem to be a set rule as to when it was deemed appropriate to transfer young boys into breeches. A leading string is visible behind his right shoulder; these bands were attached to the upper garments of young children so an adult could support them when learning to walk.[15] The baby seated on his mother’s lap is also a boy. Although in this work Mytens has covered the child with a thin veil, male babies were regularly shown naked to make a point of their sex. As the sons of the elite they were regarded as the key to the family’s future fiscally as well as generatively.[16]

The oldest sister’s right hand rests on an ornamental fountain composed of a dolphin being ridden by twin Cupids which immediately evokes the antique. The dolphin was renowned for its protective and gentle nature and associated with Venus. Venus who was born in the foam of the sea was pushed to shore on a large cockle-shell propelled by dolphins. Her son Cupid is regarded as the harbinger of love; two Cupids represent the idea of sacred and profane love.[17] One Cupid holds a jug from which water spouts, while the other carries a base for blowing bubbles, indicative of the concept of homo bulla (man is like a bubble) symbolizing the passage of time. The overt gesture of the older sister touching the base of the fountain can be interpreted as the desire for future love. Circling cherubs overhead drop flowers as further testament to the family’s glory.[18]

We are extremely grateful to Alexandra Nina Bauer for viewing this recently re-discovered work and for her invaluable contribution in the writing of this entry.



[1] Upon acquisition this painting bore the false signature of Nicolaes Maes which disappeared in the subsequent cleaning. The now partially effaced original signature of Mytens was thus revealed. The same tampering with a Mytens signature changed into Maes occurred in the 1661 A Family Group in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. The deception was also revealed when cleaned (see Homan Potterton, “Jan Mytens, A Family Group” in Dutch Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin 1986, pp. 100 – 102, no. 62, figs. 112, 262). The plausibility of altering works by Mytens into Maes is due to the fact that in the 1660s Maes’ portraits were greatly influenced by those of Mytens (see William W. Robinson, “Nicolaes Maes” in From Rembrandt to Vermeer, 17th Century Dutch Artists, The Grove Dictionary of Art, New York, N.Y., 2000, p. 203).

[2] Biographical information taken from E. Bénézit, “Daniel Mytens le jeune” in Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, volume 7, Libraire Gründ, Paris, 1976, p. 634; Homan Potterton, op cit., pp. 100 – 101; Rudolf Ekkart, “Jan Mijtens” in From Rembrandt to Vermeer, 17th Century Dutch Artists, The Grove Dictionary of Art, New York, N.Y., 2000, p. 218; and Alexandra Nina Bauer, Jan Mijtens, Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg, 2006, pp. 274 – 275.

[3] Biographical information taken from Rudolf Ekkart, op. cit., pp. 218 – 219; Karin Sidén, “Johannes Mijtens” in Dutch and Flemish Paintings II, National Museum, Stockholm, 2005, pp. 308 – 309; Alexandra Nina Bauer, op. cit., 2006, pp. 233 – 272; and Alexandra Nina Bauer verbal communication while viewing the work, Maastricht, March 16, 2012.

[4] Alexandra Nina Bauer, op. cit., 2012; and written communication with Alexandra Nina Bauer, January 25, 2013.

[5] Alison McNeil Kettering, The Dutch Arcadia. Pastoral Art and its Audience in the Golden Age, Totowa, New Jersey, 1983, pp. 10 – 11, 18, 65, 70 – 71.

[6] Scott A. Sullivan, The Dutch Gamepiece, Rowman & Allenheld Publishers, Totowa, New Jersey, 1984, pp. 62 – 63.

[7] Marieke de Winkel, Fashion and Fancy: dress and meaning in Rembrandt’s paintings, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, c. 2006, pp. 222, 224.

[8] Alison McNeil Kettering, op. cit., p. 65; and Saskia Kuus, “Jan Mijtens” in Pride and Joy, Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands 1500 – 1700, exhibition catalog Frans Hals Museum, 2000, pp. 221 – 223.

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

[10] Jack Tresidder, ed., “Pearls” in The Complete Dictionary of Symbols, Chronicle Books, L.L.C., 2004, pp. 376 – 377.

[11] Jan Baptist Bedaux, “Portrait Historie” in Pride and Joy, op. cit., p. 24.

[12] Scott A. Sullivan, The Dutch Gamepiece, op. cit., p. 40.

[13] Jan Baptist Bedaux, The Reality of Symbols, Gary Schwartz, SDU Publishers, The Hague, 1990, pp. 113, 110.

[14] Saskia Kuus, “Skirts for Girls and Boys”, in Pride and Joy, op. cit., pp. 79 – 82.

[15] Homan Potterton, op. cit., p. 102.

[16] Jan Baptist Bedaux, “Sitter” in Pride and Joy, op. cit., pp. 27 – 28.

[17] Charles Avery, A School of Dolphins, Thames & Hudson, New York, 2009, pp. 7, 26, 40, 57, 132.

[18] Alexandra Nina Bauer, op. cit., 2011.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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