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. 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. Typically, such works depict itinerant street musicians offering entertainment or food vendors hawking fish or produce to members of a bourgeois family [fig. 1]. 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.
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, the artist consistently pictured parents observing their child’s behavior, thereby underscoring their role in transmitting social values and moral character to their offspring.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
May 7, 2019