Ferdinand Bol was baptized in Dordrecht on 24 June 1616. His parents were the surgeon Balthasar Bol and Tanneke Fernandes.1 We do not know from whom Bol received his first lessons in painting in his native city. A logical candidate is Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp (1594–1652), Dordrecht’s most esteemed and talented painter. The long-held assumption that Bol must also have studied for a while under a Utrecht master derives chiefly from an incorrect reading of the signature on a “Bloemaert-like” Vertumnus from around 1635, which until recently was considered to be Bol’s first signed painting.2 In December 1635 he signed four notarial deeds in Dordrecht as “Ferdinandus bol, schilder” (Ferdinandus Bol, painter), indicating that he had completed his training by that year.
Soon thereafter, in 1636, Bol left his hometown and set off as a master painter for Amsterdam, where he worked under Rembrandt, the first of the Dordrecht artists to do so.3 Bol rapidly mastered Rembrandt’s style and subsequently worked for a few years as a full-fledged assistant in his workshop on the Nieuwe Doelenstraat. The documentary evidence for Bol’s association with Rembrandt includes an annotation on the verso of a drawing by Rembrandt that can be dated around 1636.4 This inscription in Rembrandt’s handwriting mentions the sale of work by “fardijnandus.” Furthermore, “” also witnessed a document dated 30 August 1640, in which Rembrandt empowers a Frisian lawyer to settle an inheritance matter in Leeuwarden.
Bol probably worked with Rembrandt until shortly before 1642, the year of his earliest dated paintings. Around that time—possibly in 1641, when Bol’s father died—he established himself as an independent artist in Amsterdam and embarked on a successful career as a history and portrait painter. Like his teacher, he produced many tronies, the first of which date from 1644.6 His work, especially his portraits, was strongly indebted to Rembrandt’s style until around 1650. A telling example of this influence is the famous likeness of Elisabeth Bas (1571–1649), presently considered by most scholars to be an early portrait by Bol, but previously thought to be an important work by Rembrandt.7 He also adopted his master’s predilection for self-portraits: there are at least six likenesses of Bol sporting a typical painter’s bonnet from the second half of the 1640s.8
Bol’s growing reputation led to his first major commission in 1649, a portrait of the regents of the Lepers’ Asylum.9 The palette of this group portrait strongly recalls that of Rembrandt, yet the poses of the regents foreshadow the elegance that would increasingly mark Bol’s portraits from 1650 on. Possibly with an eye to upcoming commissions for the prestigious decorative program of the new town hall, Bol acquired citizenship in 1652. A year later he executed his first significant commission outside of Amsterdam—a group portrait of the officers of the Gouda civic guard.10
Bol married in October 1653, at which time he was recorded as living on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Through Lysbeth’s father, Elbert Dell (1595–1667), a wine merchant and auctioneer of the Admiralty, and her mother, Cornelia Spiegel (1606–46), Bol gained entry into the Amsterdam patriciate.11 His in-laws thus played a pivotal role in the numerous prestigious and well-paid commissions he received from various municipal boards of governors after his marriage,12 such as those from the burgomasters’ and aldermen’s chamber in the new town hall in the period when Lysbeth’s uncle, Hendrick Spiegel, was burgomaster.13
Bol did not secure these commissions solely under the auspices of his influential relatives; his success was also due to his great talent. He was present, along with his master, Rembrandt, in the Kloveniersdoelen in 1654 at a celebration held by the Guild of Saint Luke, which inspired Jan Vos (ca. 1610–67) to write his paean to the leading Amsterdam painters of his day, including Bol.14 It was hardly a coincidence that virtually all of the painters who worked on the new town hall appeared in Vos’s poem. One year later, in 1655, Bol was “head man” of the Guild of Saint Luke and in this capacity, together with the painter-dealer David Colijns, appraised a collection of paintings, a role he would assume on several other occasions as well.15 In 1658 he confessed, with Govert Flinck and two other painters, to having drawn from nude female models (which was illegal at the time).
Bol faced personal adversity in 1660 when his wife died just after giving birth to their son Balthasar. Professionally, though, he remained very busy. In the first half of the 1660s he received a number of commissions for group portraits of governors, as well as of individual sitters. He also landed a few important and lucrative commissions outside of Amsterdam. The exceptionally wealthy Utrecht widow Jacoba Lampsins (1613/14–67) ordered four monumental history paintings for the salet (drawing room) of her house on the elegant Nieuwegracht in the early 1660s.16 He also painted a large chimneypiece, Allegory on the Municipal Government of Leiden, for the burgomasters’ chamber of the Leiden town hall in 1664.17
Bol had so much work in the 1660s that it is difficult to imagine he did not have some form of assistance. How long Frans van Ommeren served as Bol’s assistant is not known, but a document from 1662 indicates that he was partly responsible for the workshop production. In his Schouburgh, Houbraken mentioned two other pupils of Bol: Cornelis Bisschop (1630–74) of Dordrecht, and the German painter Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723), who became the leading portraitist in England after the death of Sir Peter Lely (1618–80).18
On 10 October, two days after Rembrandt’s burial, Bol took a second wife, the fabulously wealthy Anna van Erckel (1624–80), widow of Erasmus Scharlaken, treasurer of the Admiralty. They were already acquainted, as Bol had portrayed her and Scharlaken as Isaac and Rebecca in a painting from ca. 1648.19 According to his marriage settlement, Bol owned sixty paintings, and his possessions, partly belonging to his first wife, were valued at a hefty 14,800 guilders.20 Anna van Erckel was at least three times wealthier than he was; the couple was so affluent in fact that Bol no longer had to earn a living. He seems to have stopped painting fairly soon after he married, and lived chiefly off his investments. His last dated painting is from 1669.
Many of his final commissions stemmed from his good relations with the Admiralty. For instance, between 1667 and 1669 he painted a series of portraits of Admiral Michiel Adriaensz de Ruyter (1607–76), whose popularity had reached record heights in the Dutch Republic following his heroic expedition to Chatham.21 In 1672 Bol exchanged his house on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal for one on the Keizersgracht, between the Vijzelstraat and the Reguliersgracht. The dire economic crisis after 1672 seems to have left him and his wife unscathed. When the 200th penny levy was charged in 1674, their initial fortune seems even to have increased. As befitting a man of his standing, he joined the boards of several municipal institutions, and in 1675 he, the painter of so many regents, was himself portrayed as a member of such a board.22 Anna van Erckel died in April 1680. Bol survived his wife by only a few months and was buried in the Zuiderkerk on 24 July of that year.