14 October 2012
Portrait of a Girl in a Blue Dress with a Parrot in a Palatial Garden
Willem Verelst (active c. 1734-c. 1752)
English School, c. 1730/1740
Oil on canvas, 156 x 103 cm
This life-size portrait of a girl is a fine example of the British art of portrait painting in the early 18th century. The child is shown posing on a terrace, which is enclosed at the right foreground by the plinth of a pillar; the background is mainly filled with trees and shrubs. Although the background is rather dark, lit only by a few sparse sunbeams, the face and upper body of the child are intensely illuminated by a light source located outside the painting. Despite her youth, the girl holds the pose of a young lady. The position of the left foot in the center ground causes her body to twist through a quarter-turn to the front, increasing the dynamic of the youthful model. The sideways inclination of her head and the courtly attitude of her arms and fingers make it clear that this girl was familiar with the rules of aristocratic etiquette.
According to the signature, the portrait can be attributed to Willem Verelst. Little is known about the life of this artist. What is known is that he was a member of the Verelst family of painters, who originated in The Hague and several of whom settled in London. The head of the clan, Pieter Verelst (1618-after 1668) painted portraits as well as genre paintings and still-lifes, while his sons concentrated on flower paintings and portraits. The best-known member of the family is undoubtedly the haughty Simon Verelst (1644-1721), “the god of flowers”, who became famous particularly as a creator of floral still-lifes. His brother Herman (1643-1690) married the Venetian Cecilia Vene in Amsterdam on 20 November 1667. After spending some time in Rome and Vienna, he moved to London in 1683, where he painted the Portrait of the Philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in 1689 (London, National Gallery). His children Maria (1680-1744) and Cornelis (1667-1728) also went on to enjoy great renown.
The painter of the portrait exhibited here, Willem or William Verelst, was almost certainly the son of the aforementioned Cornelis. The portrait shown here illustrates the skills that characterised the entire Verelst clan. The girl, in full-length portrait, is shown posing in front of a rural backdrop. She is holding a basket containing a peach and a few cherries, and on the plinth of the pillar next to her is a parakeet or small parrot with one foot resting on her left hand and with its beak extended towards her finger. Honeysuckle tendrils twine around the pillar. In her hair she wears two red bows and several flowers. The fruit is generally a reference to fertility, while the honeysuckle is a more specific symbol of the all-encompassing love from which the girl was born. It is no coincidence that Peter Paul Rubens self-portrait with his wife, Isabella Brant, dated circa 1608 (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) also shows the couple backed by honeysuckle. The significance of the parrot must also not be forgotten. In the context of the Counter-Reformation, this bird often appears as an attribute of Mary, as a reference to purity or virginity. The bird also appears regularly in the iconography of the marriage portrait from the Baroque period. According to Eddy de Jongh, this signifies a form of symbol migration, in which a motif from the religious genre has moved across to the profane world. In this portrait by Willem Verelst the flowers, the fruit and the parrot may serve as a reference to the pure marital love shared by the parents of the child. In addition, the small parrot can also be a reference to inquisitiveness and schooling, important elements in the 17th-century child-rearing ideal.
Katlijne Van der Stighelen
1638, the year Louis XIV was born –his second name, Dieudonné, alluding to his God-given status– saw the diffusion of a cult of maternity encouraged by the very devout Anne of Austria, in thanks for the miracle by which she had given birth to an heir to the French throne. Simon François de Tours (1606-1671) painted the Queen in the guise of the Virgin Mary, and the young Louis XIV as the infant Jesus, in the allegorical portrait now in the Bishop’s Palace at Sens.
The Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation’s Orientalist Painting Collection includes two children’s portraits that are often featured in exhibitions on the second floor of the Pera Museum. These portraits both date back to the early 20th century, and were made four years apart. One depicts Prince Abdürrahim Efendi, son of Sultan Abdulhamid II, while the figure portrayed on the other is Nazlı, the daughter of Osman Hamdi Bey.
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