Bartholomeus van der Helst is one of the most important Northern Netherlandish portraitists of the seventeenth century. The artist’s 155 known portraits include spectacular high points, such as the Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster (1648).1 Writing about this painting in the early eighteenth century, Arnold Houbraken extolled “the flesh, so natural, clear, and glowing; the nature of the diverse fabrics of the clothing so faithfully observed, the gold and silver beakers, and other feast ornaments and tableware painted in such natural and skillful detail that one has to be amazed.”2 The Wegwyzer door Amsterdam (1713) also notes the work’s celebrated reputation, declaring it “so skillful, so delightful, and so splendid in arrangement, attitude, and manner of painting, that one would be at a loss to find its equal elsewhere.”3
The painter responsible for this unqualified masterpiece was born in Haarlem in 1613 to Lodewijk van der Helst and his second wife, Aeltje Bartels.4 Lodewijk earned a living as a merchant , and in 1624 he was an innkeeper at Den gecroonde Oyevaer (The Crowned Stork) on the Grote Houtstraat. In 1625, he left for Amsterdam, where he is mentioned as a drogegasterijhouder (innkeeper) on the Heerenmarkt,5 but he was back in Haarlem in 1627, running the Oyevaer again. The business was likely not doing well, however, for in 1629 he was forced to give the inn’s furnishings—including “eighty scenes or paintings of different kinds and by different masters”—as security to settle a debt of 1,800 guilders for wine received.6
While it is not known where or with whom Van der Helst trained, scholars have assumed that the celebrated portraitist Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy (1588–1650) was his teacher, based on Pickenoy’s evident influence on Van der Helst’s early work. Van der Helst must have completed his artistic education before 1636, the year he married the eighteen-year-old orphan Anna du Pire (1618–79), whose parents were the peddler Jan du Pire and Susanna van de Venne of Southern Netherlandish origins. The newlywed couple lived alternately on the Nieuwmarkt and the Nieuwe Doelenstraat in Amsterdam. From 1647 on, Van der Helst rented a house on the Walenpleintje, possibly because he was in need of a larger workshop. The couple had six children, only two of whom reached adulthood, including Lodewijk (1642–after 1683), who followed in his father’s footsteps as a painter.7
Van der Helst met with instant success. His earliest known work, a 1637 portrait of the four regents of the Walloon Orphanage, immediately showcased his virtuosity.8 About two years later he produced a magisterial portrait of the militia company of Roelof Bicker (1611–56),9 which hung with Rembrandt’s Nightwatch (1640) and other works in the brand-new assembly hall of the Kloveniersgilde (Arquebusiers’ Guild) in Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Doelenstraat in 1642. This marked the beginning of the patronage of the powerful Bicker family, for whom Van der Helst went on to paint a dozen portraits in the years that followed. In 1648, he experienced a second high point with the above-mentioned Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, commissioned by Captain Cornelis Witsen (1605–69) to immortalize his militia company on the conclusion of the Peace of Münster. It hung in the Voetboogdoelen (headquarters of the Crossbowmen’s Civic Guard) near a group portrait of the militia company of Joan Huydecoper (1599–1661), which Govaert Flinck (1615–60) had painted on the occasion of the same event.
Celebration of the Treaty of Münster seems to have ushered in a new phase in Van der Helst’s career, with Witsen (who would serve four terms as burgomaster) succeeding the Bickers as his principal benefactor. In 1652, the artist reached a new peak with his enchanting full-length portrait of Princess Mary Henrietta Stuart (1631–60), the young widow of Stadtholder William II (1626–50), which may have been commissioned by the Hague court.10 It is only fitting, therefore, that Van der Helst’s name figures alongside those of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Flinck, Ferdinand Bol (1616–80), and other illustrious painters—the cream of the Amsterdam art world—to whom the poet Jan Vos (ca. 1610–67) paid tribute at the famous celebration of the Guild of Saint Luke in 1654.11 Van der Helst’s standing is also conveyed in the odes Vos dedicated to the painter’s numerous portraits of Amsterdam regents, including several that can no longer be located, such as that of Burgomaster Frans Banninck Cocq (1605–55). (We do have a likeness of Banninck Cocq, head of the Handboogdoelen, the headquarters of the Longbowmen’s Civic Guard, who appears in one of the Van der Helst’s group portraits of its board of governors.12) While a significant number of Van der Helst’s clientele were patricians, some nonregents—including members of the fabulously wealthy Trip and De Geer families—found their way to his workshop as well.13 He also portrayed famous admirals, such as Aert van Nes (1626–93), in collaboration with the well-known marine painter Ludolf Backhuysen (1630–1708), who provided seascapes in the background of Van der Helst’s portraits.14
Van der Helst’s stature is also reflected in the high prices he charged. This did not escape the notice of Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88), who in his Teutsche Academie (1675) wrote that Van der Helst made a pretty penny.15 For instance, in 1652 Van der Helst charged Pieter Lucasz van der Venne, a cousin of his wife, 1,000 guilders for a portrait of his family.16 Four years later, he received 1,400 or possibly even 2,000 guilders for a similar portrait of the family of Rijcklof van Goens, who went on to serve as governor-general of the Dutch East India Company.17 The likeness of Princess Mary Henrietta Stuart may have drawn an even higher price than 2,000 guilders.18 Van der Helst’s work would not have fetched these kinds of sums on a regular basis, certainly not for individual portraits, yet even as an exception, asking 2,000 guilders or more for a single painting is unique. No other Amsterdam portraitist, not even Rembrandt, commanded such exorbitant prices.
Even when the demand for portraits was dwindling in the 1660s, Van der Helst still managed to maintain his practice. He found new benefactors in the Amsterdam burgomaster Joan Huydecoper, who after Flinck’s death was in search of a new portraitist, and in the Hinlopen family. That he retained his sterling reputation is clear from the fact that while visiting Amsterdam in 1667, Cosimo III de’ Medici ordered self-portraits from a few painters, including Van der Helst.19 Thereafter, he went on to paint another ten or so portraits. The artist died in 1670, and on 16 December was taken from the Nieuwe Doelenstraat to be buried in the Walenkerk.
His death spelled the end of one of the most successful artistic careers of the seventeenth century. Van der Helst, who made his debut with portraits à la Pickenoy, found his own idiom in the 1640s. In these years he gradually abandoned his subtle chiaroscuro in favor of a cool, even illumination. He also replaced his plain, generally monochrome backgrounds with small vistas full of (usually significant) details in light and bright colors. His buyers must have appreciated his virtually perfect technique and great precision, as well as his unequalled rendering of textures. This held true especially for satin gowns, as can be seen in one of his most famous paintings, the 1654 double portrait of the draper Abraham del Court and Maria de Kaersgieter,20 as well as in what may have been his last likeness, his 1670 Young Woman Holding a Sunflower in The Leiden Collection.21