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Alexandra Libby, “Jacob Ochtervelt/A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer/1663,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed March 02, 2024).

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May 07, 2019 Version

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A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer, signed and dated 1663, represents Jacob Ochtervelt at his artistic height. It depicts a young boy about three years old offering alms to a family of beggars. The household’s maid tenderly holds his hand while his parents, visible through the open doorway, proudly observe their son’s charity—a virtue taught in the home and of great importance to the Dutch. The beggar boy sets his foot cautiously on the hall floor to receive a coin while his mother holds a nursing infant to her breast. Because the patrician boy is still so young he wears his hair in long curls and is outfitted in a freshly ironed white dress, as was common for boys until the age of around seven. Ochtervelt masterfully contrasts the privileged world of the aristocratic family with the uncertainties of the life of the poor by differentiating the dark, ragged clothing of the beggars with the splendid marble hallway and luminous attire of the house’s inhabitants.

Throughout his career, Ochtervelt focused on patrician life and leisure—men and women reading and writing letters, eating and drinking, and making music. However, his most innovative scenes were those depicting the interactions between the upper and lower classes at the threshold of an elegant townhouse. These are known as voorhuis (front hall) scenes. A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer is one of his finest voorhuis paintings, characterized by Ochtervelt’s clarity of light and color, and by his sympathetic rendering of people from all social classes. A native of Rotterdam, Ochtervelt spent the majority of his successful career in that great port city before moving to Amsterdam in 1674, where he lived until his death.


In this radiant painting, Jacob Ochtervelt pictures a tender moment unfolding between a young patrician boy and a ragged beggar who has come to his family’s door asking for alms.[1] As the young beggar sets his foot cautiously on the hall floor with outstretched hat in hand, his mother stands outside nursing an infant. The patrician youth, elegantly robed, coiffed, and standing next to the family maid, drops a coin in the boy’s hat while his parents, visible in the adjacent room, proudly observe their son’s charity. Just outside the home on the doorstep, two girls play a game with knucklebones, while indoors a brown-and-white spaniel barks excitedly at the strangers.

Ochtervelt brings remarkable intimacy to this scene of 17th-century life. The forthright gaze and spotless attire of the patrician boy suggest a maturity beyond his years. However, the gesture of holding his nursemaid’s hand belies his aloof demeanor and reveals the sense of assurance he receives from her touch. The young beggar similarly seems to possess self-confidence in his approach. Yet his total fixation on the coin as it drops into his hat and the presence of his mother looking on carefully beside him temper his bold gesture and remind us that he, too, is only a child. Although the two youths do not make eye contact, their exchange establishes a meaningful connection between their two worlds.

A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer, which is signed and dated 1663, is traditionally placed within Ochtervelt’s corpus of genre work. He was best known as a painter of high-life genre scenes, his most innovative of which were those which took place in the front hall (or voorhuis). As in the Gallery’s painting, he used the threshold of the home to stage interactions between individuals from different social worlds.[2] Typically, such works depict itinerant street musicians offering entertainment or food vendors hawking fish or produce to members of a bourgeois family [fig. 1].[3] A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer similarly juxtaposes the privileged world of an aristocratic family with the uncertain life of the poor, thereby endowing it with the feel of Ochtervelt’s other genre scenes. However, it differs from his other voorhuis paintings in that the scene is a demonstration of a virtue (charity) and shows the patrician boy and his parents gazing out of the picture—qualities that suggest the painting may not be strictly a genre scene, but rather an idealized, genre-like portrait of a wealthy family.

In the same year that Ochtervelt painted A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer, he executed Portrait of a Family, now at Harvard Art Museums [fig. 2]. The family’s refined clothing and handsomely appointed surroundings—particularly the adjacent room, replete with a large marble fireplace, gold-framed painting, and gilt leather wall covering—recall the decor in A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer, as does the conception of this portrait as a demonstration of the family’s value system. The father turns the pages of a large book as a symbol of his erudition while the young child coaxes a dog to sit on its hind legs, symbolically indicating the importance of education and discipline. To this family, such training required a constant reiteration of rules, which also meant that the child possessed the virtue of industriousness.[4]

Ochtervelt’s Portrait of an Unknown Family in the Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest [fig. 3], similarly pictures a family in elegant attire in a richly appointed room. He brought remarkable liveliness to the family members through their different gestures and glances, thereby naturalizing their interaction. Similar to the painting at Harvard, in this scene one of the children tends to a spaniel dancing obediently on its hind legs. The girl’s bright smile and warm eyes convey her pride at her ability to control the dog, who patiently waits for the treat she holds in her hand.

A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer may belong to this tradition of portraiture that demonstrates a family’s moral underpinnings through seemingly everyday activities undertaken by children. Although family portraiture accounts for but a small percentage of Ochtervelt’s oeuvre,[5] the artist consistently pictured parents observing their child’s behavior, thereby underscoring their role in transmitting social values and moral character to their offspring.[6]

If A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer represents historical persons, their identity remains unknown. The child can be recognized as a boy because of the character of his skirt’s hemline and the way he wears his medal.[7] However, further attempts to identify the family based on its setting have proven unsuccessful, and, given the extraordinary sumptuousness of the interior, it may be imagined. Multispectral infrared reflectography confirms that Ochtervelt orchestrated the image with great care. Using precisely drawn, ruled lines, he demarcated the door frames, floor tiles, picture frames, and the fireplace. Underdrawing is also visible in the contours of the maid’s face, areas of the patrician boy’s costume, and throughout the fireplace’s entablature, as well as in the two large Italianate landscape paintings hanging over the door and fireplace [fig. 4]. Despite its verisimilitude, marble flooring was very expensive in the 17th century, and to have it in two adjacent rooms was unusual.[8] The level of gilding on the fireplace’s columns, entablature, and cornice, not to mention on the leather wall and the frame around the large landscape painting in the room occupied by the parents, would also have been rare.[9] The rounded building visible through the open door that contains arrow loops, the vertical slits characteristic of medieval towers from which archers shot arrows at attackers, also appears to be fanciful.

Whether the interior Ochtervelt represented in A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer is real or exaggerated, the sitters would have had to be extraordinarily wealthy if the work is indeed a family portrait. The shimmering attire of the household’s inhabitants, from the boy’s satin leading strings and ribbons to the mother’s and father’s velvet and fur-trimmed outfits, belong to a family of high means. Perhaps no accoutrement conveys this message better than the large gold medal and chain draped over the boy’s shoulder.[10] Shining against his bright white apron, it stands out as an important visual focus in the painting. Modeled with delicate strokes and in exceptional detail, though not enough to identify the profile figure represented or assist in an identification of the family, it is not only a symbol of the family’s wealth and rank, but also a reflection of the boy’s maturity and good breeding.[11]

A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer represents Ochtervelt at his artistic height. His brushwork is exquisite, his textures are dazzling, and the colors of the composition are disarmingly radiant. Moreover, it combines the keen understanding of human relationships that Ochtervelt gained from his work as a genre painter with his insights into the messages individuals wish to convey about themselves provided by his work as a portrait painter. Intimate and tender, A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer brings to life the concerns, ambitions, and, ultimately, virtues of this elegant, if unknown, family.

Alexandra Libby

May 7, 2019


lower right on the floor: J. Ochtervelt f. / 1663


Thomas Theodore Cremer [1742-1815], Rotterdam; (his estate sale, at his residence by Nozeman, Van der Looy, W. van Leen, and W.A. Netscher, Rotterdam, 16-17 April 1816, 1st day, no. 84); Sérafin Lambert Louis Malfait [1775-1827], Lille. Charles Piérard, Valenciennes; (his estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 20-21 March 1860, no. 53). Comte de M*****; (his estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 29 December 1860, no. 23). acquired c. 1982 by private collection, Europe; (sale, Sotheby's, New York, 20 January 2014, no. 38); (Johnny Van Haeften, London); sold 10 September 2015 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Clouds, Ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2021, no. 16, repro.

Technical Summary

The primary canvas support is a fine, plain-weave canvas that has a slightly irregular weave. Strong cusping is visible in the x-radiograph around all four sides of the composition.[1] The tacking margins were removed during a previous treatment and the painting was lined to a canvas with a tight, regular plain weave.

A thick, tan ground is visible at the intersection of objects throughout the composition; under magnification, the ground appears as a yellow-brown matrix with large white particles and smaller black and earth-brown particles of varying size. On top of the ground is a thin, semitransparent red-earth imprimatura that was locally applied under the black and white marble tiles and the red and white marble tiles in the adjacent room.

Examination with multispectral infrared reflectography reveals an extensive underdrawing, though it is also visible with the aid of magnification in the form of thin black lines along the edges of objects and architectural elements.[2] In addition, in normal light, black lines that do not correspond to the painted image are faintly visible under the marble floor. The underdrawing was applied directly on top of the ground or imprimatura if present. It is unknown which medium Ochtervelt used for the underdrawing; however, the black lines appear slightly blended into the paint layers above, indicating that the upper paint layers were applied when the black lines were only partially dry. The underdrawing is composed of both ruled lines, which were used to delineate the architectural elements (the door frames, the marble tiles, the straight elements of the fireplace, and the picture frame), and freehand sketching, which was used for the decorative elements (on the fireplace, the putti on the mantel, and the landscape composition). While there are a few drawn lines in the patrician boy’s clothing and one contour indicating the maid’s jawline, no underdrawing is visible in the other figures in the multispectral infrared reflectogram or through microscopic examination.

Numerous pentimenti are visible in the multispectral infrared reflectogram, including changes to the angle and placement of some perspective lines, as well as several smaller adjustments to the shape and positioning of the figures’ heads, arms, and clothing.

There is a pinhole on the right side of the composition, near the proper left elbow of the seated man in the background, visible in the paint layer in normal light (under magnification), as well as in the x-radiograph. Most of the perspective lines of the architectural elements and marble tile floor all recede to the identified pinhole.

The paint medium is estimated to be oil and was finely applied so that no brushstrokes are visible. The crisp quality of the marble floor is partly due to Ochtervelt incising the paint with a tool along the edges of the tiles when the paint was still semi-wet. There are fingerprints in the paint layers on the right edge, near the top and middle of the doorway. Under magnification, it is clear that the paint layers, rather than the varnish layer, were disrupted while still wet.

The support, ground, and paint layers are all in excellent condition. There are some small scattered areas of retouching throughout, a larger cluster of retouching in the top left corner, as well as some reinforced lines on the lintel above the front door, and in the shadow of the dog.

Dina Anchin

May 7, 2019


Libby, Alexandra. "Jacob Ochtervelt, A Nurse and a Child in the Foyer of an Elegant Townhouse." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 54 (Spring 2016): 20, repro.

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