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.
I would like to thank Arthur Wheelock and Henriette Rahusen in the department of northern baroque paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, for sharing their thoughtful comments in the preparation of this essay.
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.
Susan Kuretsky, who was unaware of the Gallery’s A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer at the time she published her catalogue raisonné of Ochtervelt’s work, counts 14 voorhuis paintings in The Paintings of Jacob Ochtervelt (1634–1682) (Oxford, 1979).
Susan Kuretsky discusses the general trends related to Ochtervelt’s voorhuis scene in The Paintings of Jacob Ochtervelt (1634–1682) (Oxford, 1979), 34–39.
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
During the 17th century, educational literature routinely called on Plutarch’s De liberis educandis, a treatise on education in which he recalls the parable of the Spartan king Lycurgus, who raised two dogs, one through habit and discipline and the other without any training at all. The first dog became an obedient hunter through the constant reiteration of rules, and the second dog became an unruly glutton. The story, which Plutarch used metaphorically to illustrate the importance of training children to ensure their future good behavior as adults, was reprinted, translated, and adapted throughout the 17th century. See Jan Baptist Bedaux, “Introduction,” in Pride and Joy: Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands 1500–1700, ed. Jan Baptist Bedaux and Rudi Ekkart (New York and Ghent, 2000), 19–22. On 17th-century children’s education in the Netherlands more broadly, see Jeroen Dekker, Leendert Groenendijk, and Johan Verberckmoes, “Proudly Raising Vulnerable Youngsters: The Scope for Education in the Netherlands,” in Pride and Joy: Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands 1500–1700, ed. Jan Baptist Bedaux and Rudi Ekkart (New York and Ghent, 2000), 43–60.
Ochtervelt’s Portrait of an Unknown Family in the Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest
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,
Kuretsky also catalogs a total of 12 portraits in Ochtervelt’s oeuvre, seven of which are signed and dated. See Susan Kuretsky, The Paintings of Jacob Ochtervelt (1634–1682) (Oxford, 1979).
Charity was a Christian virtue taught in the home and of great importance to the Dutch. On its importance in 17th-century Dutch education, see Mary Frances Durantini, The Child in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting (Ann Arbor, 1983), 109–113.
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.
See Saskia Kuus, “Drie aperocken van tieren taij en ander kindergoed uit Wendela Bickers rekeningenboek, 1655–1668,” Kostuum (1997): 45–62; Saskia Kuus, “Children’s Costume in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in Pride and Joy: Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands 1500–1700, ed. Jan Baptist Bedaux and Rudi Ekkart (New York and Ghent, 2000), 73–83.
For a discussion of marble flooring as a painterly technique rather than a realistic representation of 17th-century decor, see Marjorie E. Wieseman, “Acquisition or Inheritance? Material Goods in Paintings by Vermeer and His Contemporaries,” in Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, ed. Adriaan E. Waiboer (Dublin, 2017), 52–53; C. Willemijn Fock, “Semblance or Reality? The Domestic Interior in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting,” in Art & Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt, ed. Mariët Westermann (Zwolle, 2001), 86–91.
Marjorie E. Wieseman, “Acquisition or Inheritance? Material Goods in Paintings by Vermeer and His Contemporaries,” in Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, ed. Adriaan E. Waiboer (Dublin, 2017), 53–54.
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.
It is unclear whether the object hanging from the gold chain is a medal or a coin. Tom Eden, a numismatist at Morton & Eden in London, believes that it could be a 10-ducat coin, as large gold coins were often used as presentation pieces and are often found mounted or with traces of mounting. Tom Eden, personal communication with author, Nov. 18, 2015.
One often finds gold medals hanging around the necks or across the chests of children in 17th-century Dutch portraiture. Since the Renaissance, gold medals on chains were given as gifts from political figures to individuals in their service as a means of rewarding loyalty. Although such medals would have been given to adults and not to children, around 1600 Dutch artists began to portray children wearing medals around their necks or at their hips, hanging from double and sometimes triple gold chains. Such medals indicate the honor and integrity of the children’s parents, who presumably received the medal, as well as their own promise to possess such virtues. In the Gallery’s painting, the medal serves as an analogy for the patrician boy’s good breeding, underscoring the message of his charitable deed as a demonstration of his already strong moral compass. For a thoughtful analysis of the meaning of medals, see Ann C. Claxton, “Medals in Portraits of Children in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting,” The Medal 27 (1995): 12–23.
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
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.
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.
X-radiography was carried out with a Comet Technologies XRP-75MXR-75HP tube, and the images were digitally captured using a Carestream Industrex Blue Digital Imaging Plate 5537 (14 × 17 in.). The parameters were 35 kV, 8 mA, 40 seconds, and 97.5 in. distance (from source to plate). The resulting digital images were composited and processed using Adobe Photoshop CS5.
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.
Multispectral infrared reflectogram rendered in color of Ochtervelt’s A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer; composite of three registered sets of false-color spectral images, in wavelength bands 1100–1400 nm (blue), 1500–1800 nm (green), and 2100–2400 nm (red), courtesy of John Delaney and Kate Dooley, scientific research department, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
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.
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.