Frans van Mieris was born in Leiden on 16 April 1635 to the Remonstrant goldsmith and diamond-cutter Jan Bastiaens van Mieris and his second wife, Christina van Garbartijn.1 Frans came from a family of gold- and silversmiths; two uncles practiced this craft, as did his older cousin Willem Fransz van Mieris (ca. 1600–56). In 1645 Jan apprenticed Frans to this cousin for six years, presumably intending him to continue the family tradition.2
It soon became apparent, however, that Frans’s talents lay elsewhere. He turned out to be a gifted draftsman, and upon the insistence of the cloth merchant and, later, poet and calligraphic glass engraver Willem van Heemskerck (1613–92), Frans’s father sent him to study with the drawing master and glass engraver Abraham Toorenvliet, father of the painter Jacob Toorenvliet (1640–1719).3 Frans’s command of drawing developed so well under Toorenvliet that according to Houbraken, “his father decided to surrender him entirely to art, to which end he delivered him to the renowned Gerrit Dou.”4 Dou quickly dubbed Van Mieris “the prince among his pupils, and said that he carried off the crown from them all.”5 Once Van Mieris had mastered the art of drawing, his father apprenticed him to Abraham van den Tempel (1622/23–72) to “familiarize him with a broad handling of the brush.”6 Nevertheless, given that Van Mieris was “more inclined to painting in a small format and in fine detail, he returned to Gerrit Dou for instruction.”7
We do not know when Van Mieris completed his training, but he was probably still quite young. In any case, it was the sixteen-year-old “Frans” who presented the members of the gold- and silversmiths’ guild a painting of Eloy, their patron saint.8 His earliest dated work, the famous Doctor’s Visit, originated in 1657 and was preceded by at least fifteen pictures.9 Most of them diligently emulate his teacher Dou. Yet he soon abandoned the excessive detailing and countless accessories so typical of Dou to focus increasingly on the interaction among the figures, thereby conveying a liveliness generally absent in Dou’s work.10 Van Mieris rapidly developed an entirely personal style, which first manifested itself fully in the aforementioned Doctor’s Visit.
Despite all these signs of early independence, Van Mieris did not join the Guild of Saint Luke until 14 May 1658.11 He had married Cunera van der Cock (1629/30–1700) one year earlier, on 15 March 1657, six days after the birth of their first daughter, Christina (1657–85). The couple would have four more children, including Jan (1660–90) and Willem (1662–1747), who followed in their father’s footsteps.12
The many extant paintings from the early 1650s confirm Houbraken’s comment “that [Van Mieris] found admirers and patrons from the very beginning.”13 Among these affluent Leiden citizens was the town councilor Cornelis Paets (1636–94), who had assembled a splendid collection of paintings and was an amateur painter who had learned “the art of drawing and painting in his youth” from Van Mieris.14 Paets commissioned Van Mieris to portray his wife, Agatha, and the painting was “esteemed by all art lovers as one of his consummate works of art.”15 Paets also owned “a young lady swooning, as well as a doctor and an old woman weeping.”16 Quite exceptionally, for the commission of his wife’s portrait, Paets paid Van Mieris by the hour, an arrangement that ultimately cost him 1,500 guilders. This may have been the painting that French envoy Balthasar de Monconys (1611–65) saw Van Mieris working on in 1663, noting in his diary that he could hardly believe the high price the patron was willing to pay for it.17 Cosimo III de’ Medici (1642–1723), Grand Duke of Tuscany, offered Paets more than 3,000 guilders for this work on several occasions, but according to Weyerman, this was “fortunately in vain,” for “this would have been a great loss for the city of Leiden, as that magnificent work of art is deemed an inimitable wonder by all connoisseurs.”18 The fabulously wealthy merchant and regent Isaac Gerard (1616–94) was also a great aficionado of Van Mieris. He owned four expensive pictures, possibly including Man Offering Oysters to a Young Woman and The Sleeping Officer, both now considered outstanding works.19
His most important patron, however, was Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius (1614–72). In 1658 this former “huisarts” (physician) was appointed a professor of chemistry and medicine at the Leiden Academy, and soon made a name for himself far beyond the country’s borders.20 Sylvius was the proud owner of a collection that ultimately counted 185 paintings. Among them were ten, or possibly eleven, pictures by Dou, and seven by Van Mieris, including a double portrait of Sylvius and his wife, Margareta Lucretia Schlezer.21 Sylvius held Van Mieris in such high esteem that according to Houbraken he regularly requested “that any work that he [Van Mieris] created would be for him, or that he might be granted the privilege of offering a price commensurate with what someone else wanted to give.”22
Sylvius also acted as an agent for Van Mieris. For instance, in 1660 Van Mieris painted the celebrated Cloth Shop “through the grace of the gentleman mentioned, his patron” for the art gallery of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614–62) in Vienna, “which so delighted the Archduke that he paid him 1,000 guilders for it.”23 Leopold, moreover, tried to persuade the artist to work at the court in Vienna for an astonishingly lucrative remuneration—an offer Van Mieris nevertheless declined. Furthermore, Sylvius brought Van Mieris into contact with Cosimo III when he visited Leiden in 1667 and 1669. The Grand Duke, too, was so impressed by Van Mieris’s work that he engaged the artist to paint five pictures, including a self-portrait, for his famous portrait gallery of celebrities.24
Despite the fact that notable collectors and princely patrons were prepared to pay dazzling prices for his work, Van Mieris repeatedly faced financial difficulties. In 1666 he even had to pledge part of his property as security to defray a substantial debt.25 These predicaments were sometimes related to arrears in rent (Van Mieris never bought a house), which is surprising given that the amounts were generally but a fraction of what he must have earned from painting on an annual basis.26 That he regularly had money problems also emerges from his active correspondence with Giovacchino Guasconi, the envoy of Cosimo III, in which Van Mieris frequently requested advances even though he never delivered the commissioned works on time.
His financial difficulties were also partly related to excessive drinking; at least this is suggested by a debt he owed an innkeeper in 1674.27 Van Mieris regularly imbibed too freely. In a letter in 1675 Guasconi wrote that Van Mieris turned up for an appointment blind drunk and had left behind at a tavern the painting he was supposed to bring to the envoy.28 When it came to payment for this painting, Van Mieris’s wife, Cunera, insisted that the money be given to her because she feared that otherwise it would evaporate “like acid on an etching plate.”29 Houbraken suggests that Van Mieris regularly sought the company of his good friend Jan Steen (1625/26–79) who “fell deeper and deeper into drinking,” whereby “it also sometimes transpired that our Mieris tended to have one too many.”30 One cannot escape the impression that Van Mieris had a drinking problem, also because the quality of his paintings seems to have diminished somewhat toward the end of his life. This, however, in no way affected the great demand for his work, which remained constant. Frans van Mieris died on 12 March 1681, and was buried in the Pieterskerk a few days later.