Bakker, Piet. "Jan van Mieris." In The Leiden Collection Catalogue. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. New York, 2017.
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Jan van Mieris was born in Leiden on 17 June 1660 as the “eldest son of the widely famed Frans van Mieris” and Cunera van der Cock. 1 Like his younger brother Willem, Jan initially received instruction from his father. However, given “that his natural artistic drive tended most toward the painting of life-size objects,” his father wanted to apprentice him to Gerard de Lairesse (1640–1711), a plan he ultimately abandoned “because [Lairesse’s] conduct bore no resemblance whatsoever to his exemplary artistic ability,” whereupon Frans decided to train his son himself. 2
Jan’s name first appears in an official document in 1684. He witnessed the posting of the banns of his brother Willem and Agneta Chapman, at which time he stated that he was living on the Bloemmarkt. Two years later he joined Leiden’s Guild of Saint Luke. The buyers of his work came from the same families that patronized the other members of his artistic family. 3 Petronella de la Court (1624–1707), for instance, in addition to a genre and history painting by Jan van Mieris, owned a portrait by him of her cousin’s son Pieter de la Court van der Voort (1664–1739). 4 And Pieter, the most important benefactor of Willem van Mieris, owned five works by Jan. In his inventory, Pieter noted next to “a young woman feeding a “little sparrow [titmouse?]” and a “student with a tick-tack table” that Jan had “painted [them] here for me.” 5
Pieter’s annotation implies that Jan painted these two works before 1688, for in that year he left Leiden and traveled to Italy via Germany. He wrote a letter to his mother from Venice on 14 January 1689, in which he tried to reassure her and indicated that he had found himself in a position “to paint a little for the most eminent citizens of Venice, yet wished that they were as cordial and generous as they are polite.” 6 Despite the cheerful tone of the letter, reading between the lines it is clear that he was lonely and sorely missed his daily visits to his brother-in-law, the painter Abraham van Eijck, in Leiden. His mother was charged with conveying Jan’s greetings to Van Eijck, as well as to “Mr. Heemskerck.” 7 He also relayed to his mother that he had yet to sell the paintings he had taken along with him from Leiden. He thus conceived a plan to travel to Florence to investigate “whether better opportunities could be found there,” but noted “it appears that we are among the unlucky ones. It is rumored that the Duke of Tuscany wants to hand over power to his son and has become so devout that he is hardly involved in worldly matters anymore.” 8 Jan was introduced to the grand duke’s court through friends of his father and, as noted by Johan van Gool, would have done well “had he been able to reconcile his conscience with the religion of the court; but being firmly and irrefutably wedded to the precepts of his faith and unwilling to embrace any other religion than that into which he had been born and raised, he elected to follow the pure Truth.” 9 When the grand duke realized that Van Mieris would not adopt his Catholic convictions, he withdrew his offer to take him into service, whereupon Van Mieris left for Rome. His stay in the Eternal City was short-lived, however: he died, unwed and childless, on 17 March 1690, just a few months before his thirtieth birthday. Shortly before his death, he had met in Rome the Leiden cloth manufacturer Jan Poelaert (1653–1701), brother-in-law of Pieter de la Court van der Voort, to whom he sold a “Samaritaansch vrouwtje aan de put” (Samaritan woman at the well). According to Allard de la Court (1688–1755), a later owner of the painting, it was “’t laatste stuk door hem geschildert” (the last picture that Van Mieris painted). 10