Godefridus (also called Godfried) Schalcken was born in Made near Geertruidenberg in 1643 to the clergyman Cornelis Schalcken and Aletta Lydius, who came from a respected family of preachers and theologians.1 When Cornelis was made rector of the Latin school in Dordrecht, he and his family moved to that city in 1654.2 There, in 1656, the thirteen-year-old Godefridus was apprenticed to his fellow townsman Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–78), after which he went to study under Gerrit Dou (1613–75) in Leiden around 1663.3 Exactly when Schalcken returned to Dordrecht is unknown, it was presumably shortly after he completed his training. In any case, he was living in Dordrecht again around 1669.4
In October 1679 Schalcken married Francoisia van Diemen from Breda, the daughter of Christoffel van Diemen, an officer in the State army, and Elisabeth Beens, who came from a prominent Breda family.5 Schalcken and his wife had seven children, of whom only their daughter Francoisia (b. 1690) reached adulthood. She married twice; the first time in 1713 to the Hague architect Pieter Roman (1676–after 1733).6
Together with Eglon van der Neer (1635/36–1703) and Caspar Netscher (1639–84), Schalcken was among the most important representatives of a third generation of fijnschilders (fine painters) after Dou and Frans van Mieris (1635–81). Schalcken was the first fijnschilder from outside of Leiden, although naturally he was introduced to fijnschilderkunst (a fine and meticulous manner of painting) there.7 According to Houbraken, he was influenced primarily by Dou, “whose facture he was able to emulate almost perfectly.”8 As an example, he mentions Schalcken’s Vrouwtje komt ten Hoof (“Game of Lady Come into the Garden”), which enjoyed a certain renown in Dordrecht in the 1670s.9 Still, this early work already demonstrates that Dou’s influence remained limited to his technique and that Schalcken assimilated Van Mieris’s style, as did Van der Neer and Netscher.10
Schalcken and the other fijnschilders, however, soon took a new tack. Responding to the shifting and more internationally oriented tastes of the upper class who were becoming tired of traditional subjects, Schalcken became increasingly captivated by the classicism emanating from France, which had begun to leave its mark on Dutch painting in the 1660s.11 Schalcken expressed his striving for a classical ideal of beauty not only in the rendering of figures and their refined, “aristocratic” lifestyle, but also in experimenting with more elevated scenes from the Bible and classical antiquity.12
Though Schalcken’s history paintings were satisfying, his reputation at home and far beyond the boundaries of the Dutch Republic rested on his kaarslichtjes, or pictures with figures in a nocturnal setting illuminated by artificial light. The artist’s rendering of artificial light was unsurpassed and this talent stood him in good stead when painting portraits: the diffuse candlelight allowed for a soft modeling of the face, giving the sitter an amiable and elegant impression. Two notable examples are his portrait of Stadholder-King William III by candlelight,13 and his nocturnal self-portrait, which he sent around 1695 to Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in response to the latter’s request for a painting by the artist.14
Schalcken achieved great renown with his portraits. Portraiture did not lend itself well to the time-consuming “fine painting,” and thus “from time to time he turned to a more pleasing and airier manner of painting.15 After Nicolaes Maes (1634–93) moved to Amsterdam in 1673, Schalcken became Dordrecht’s leading portrait painter, and his reputation soon extended well beyond that city. In 1676 he painted portraits of the wealthy Leiden cloth merchant Pieter de la Court and four members of his family.16 As of the 1680s Schalcken traveled regularly to The Hague to work on the many lucrative portrait commissions he received from the distinguished circles around first Stadholder and then, as of 1689, King William III (1650–1702). The artist’s Hague interests led him to join the local painters’ society Pictura in 1691, although he continued to reside in Dordrecht.
Together with his family Schalcken crossed the North Sea around 1692 and established himself in London. According to Houbraken, he met with great success there and the English elite was eager to sit for him. Weyerman, who had little liking for Schalcken’s work, perceived his London years in an entirely different light.17 He maliciously informed his readers that the English soon had had enough of Schalcken’s portraits, which were “as flat as unrisen pancakes,” lacking “the firm, round, loose, and powerful manner that [viewers] discerned in the delightful likenesses by the Knight [Godfried] Kneller […] and many others in that century of blossoming portraitists.” As a consequence, Schalcken was forced “to paint history scenes and ‘night lights’ [nocturnal scenes].”18 Whether Schalcken actually had such a dearth of patrons in London is unknown, but it is true that very few portraits by Schalcken can be linked to his London years.
The artist was back in the Dutch Republic in June 1698 and settled in The Hague to build further on the success he had enjoyed there prior to his departure. Particularly notable was his intensive contact with Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm, an aficionado of Dutch painting who, together with the Danish king Frederick IV (1671–1730) and the Prussian king Frederick I (1657–1713), was one of the artist’s most important patrons in the final phase of his life. The contact with the Elector even led to a brief sojourn in Düsseldorf in 1703. During this visit Johann Wilhelm presented Schalcken with a gold chain in gratitude for his service, which he depicted in his self-portrait of 1706.19 This was to be his last self-portrait; Schalcken died in The Hague on 13 November of that same year.