Bakker, Piet. "Willem van Mieris." In The Leiden Collection Catalogue. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. New York, 2017.
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Willem van Mieris was born in Leiden on 3 June 1662. He was the second son of the painter Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–81) and Cunera van der Cock. Willem’s brother Jan had been born two years earlier, and he too became a painter. Naturally, both sons were instructed by their father, and according to Weyerman, who had known Willem personally, the latter was so advanced that after his father’s sudden death in 1681, he was able to “to stand on his own two artistic feet.” 2 It is highly likely that Frans was the only teacher of Willem and Jan. The assumption that the two brothers took over their father’s workshop upon his untimely death also seems obvious. If this was indeed the case, Willem was probably in charge given that he was the first of the two to join the Guild of Saint Luke in Leiden, on 21 June 1683; Jan followed suit three years later. The brothers’ good relationship emerges from the fact that Jan witnessed the banns of his brother’s marriage to Agneta Chapman, the daughter of a surgeon, on 21 April 1684. 3
From all accounts, Willem van Mieris’s career was remarkably successful. Evidence of this is found in his standing in the Guild of Saint Luke, on whose board he sat a number of times. 4 Moreover, together with Jacob Toorenvliet (1640–1719) and Carel de Moor (1655–1738), he founded the Leiden Tekenacademie (Drawing Academy)—no later than 1694 but probably already in the 1680s—which he led with De Moor until 1736. 5 Although his enrollment at the Tekenacademie on 22 December 1695 was not related to an academic course of study (he was thirty-three years old), he was, in fact, learned. 6 Although nothing is known about the books he owned, it is plausible that a significant share of the library that was auctioned after the death of his son Frans in 1764 had previously belonged to him. He also seems to have dabbled in the theoretical side of his craft, even though the writings relating to this were intended solely for his own use. In any event, there is no indication that his writings were ever published. 7
Willem’s social position mirrored his success as a painter. His work was highly sought after and he generally charged steep prices for it. 8 In 1705 he could even afford to buy a house on the elegant Breestraat, where he would live for the remainder of his life. He also never had a shortage of important patrons, “the most notable among whom are Madam Oortmans and the Honorable Mister Pieter de la Court van der Voort.” 9 “Madam Oortmans” was Petronella de la Court (1624–1707), a first cousin of the father of Pieter de la Court van der Voort (1664–1739) and a great art lover. 10 She was the first leading buyer of Van Mieris’s work, especially in the early years of his career. At her death in 1707 she owned six works by him. 11 Moreover, he painted three miniature pictures for her famous dollhouse. By far his most important benefactor, however, was the wealthy Leiden cloth manufacturer Pieter de la Court van der Voort, who engaged him for numerous commissions chiefly after 1700. De la Court owned fifteen works by Willem, which fetched amounts ranging from 60 to 1,600 guilders. 12 He paid the latter sum in 1709 for Van Mieris’s Armida Binding the Sleeping Rinaldo, to which Weyerman, who had seen the picture, gave the highest praise. 13
Van Mieris also copied for De la Court pictures by Gerrit Dou (1613–75) and by his father, Frans van Mieris the Elder, among others (original works by whom were difficult to come by in these years). 14 De la Court also had him finish, touch up, or add figures to paintings in his own collection, which ultimately counted 215 works. The work Willem carried out for De la Court was not limited to painting alone. That he disposed over various artistic talents emerges from the four handsome monumental garden vases with bas-reliefs he designed and modeled around 1703 for his patron’s house on the Rapenburg. 15
De la Court’s patronage ended abruptly in 1731: that year marked the beginning of a profound and protracted conflict between the De la Court and Backer families, which had become closely interwoven through marriage. 16 Van Mieris also regularly received commissions from the Backers, but this was negligible in comparison to his work for De la Court. 17 It is therefore difficult to understand why Van Mieris sided with the Backer family. This choice, however, is illustrative of his social position and artistic success. Although De la Court was clearly his most important benefactor, Van Mieris was not dependent solely on his patronage: he worked regularly for many other art lovers, some from the very highest circles. 18
The most striking illustration of Van Mieris’s international reputation is his contact with several foreign princely art collectors. The Archbishop of Mainz and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, Lothar Franz von Schönborn (1655–1729), for example, was a great lover and collector of Dutch painting. He ordered a few works from Willem and kept up an extensive personal correspondence with the painter about the desired result. 19 Duke Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1633–1714) also collected Dutch masters and was one of Lothar Franz’s fiercest competitors in acquiring the very best works. Just like his rival, Anton Ulrich highly valued Willem van Mieris and visited him in his workshop on one of his trips to the Dutch Republic. 20 Count Christoph August von Wackerbarth (1662–1734), a high-ranking German military man and confidant of the Polish king Friedrich August, courted the artist as well. 21 Weyerman gives an amusing account of von Wackerbarth’s unremitting attempts, after visiting the collection of Pieter de la Court in 1703, to buy an earlier version of the above-mentioned Armida Binding the Sleeping Rinaldo from the cloth manufacturer. He finally succeeded in doing so by paying an exceptionally high price. Van Mieris garnered great fame with his depiction of this subject based on an epic poem by Torquato Tasso (1544–95), four versions of which are known. 22 The most unusual one is the portrait of the German envoy Daniel Meinertzhagen (1675–1730) in the role of Rinaldo and his wife, Amelia van Stockum (1677–1743), as Armida. The satisfied customer paid Van Mieris a hefty “300 goude pistoolen” (300 gold pistoles) for this portrait historié. 23
Van Mieris never lacked for orders, even when his sight diminished at the end of his life. He was certainly one of the most famous painters of his time, and it is in this light that we can understand why De la Court, rather than Van Mieris, bitterly lamented the rift between the former friends in 1732. 24 Fortunately, Van Mieris outlived De la Court; had he not, the news that the painter had died in the Backers’ country house, of all places, would certainly have pained De la Court. 25 A fatal cold took Van Mieris’s life at Backershagen in Wassenaar on 26 January 1747; he was eighty-four years old. The following day his body was transferred to Leiden, where he was buried in a grave in the Pieterskerk that he had bought for himself in 1731. 26