The quality of much of Jacob Ochtervelt’s work—his oeuvre counts around one hundred paintings—is so great that it is difficult to understand why Gerard van Spaan (1651–1711) makes absolutely no mention of the painter in the list of local artists in his 1698 history of Rotterdam.1 While Arnold Houbraken does refer to Ochtervelt, he does so only briefly and in connection with Pieter de Hooch (1629–84). Houbraken wrote that unlike De Hooch, Ochtervelt painted his “Kamergezichten” (interior views) “without using much perspectival depth to the background views, which requires mathematical insight and close observation,” talents that Ochtervelt evidently did not possess. He “derived satisfaction from the fact that he could depict small companies of young ladies and gentlemen or a woman sewing or lace-making naturally and elaborately.”2
Ochtervelt’s work garnered more appreciation from Jan van Gool (1685–1763). After noting with surprise (thus erroneously) in his Nieuwe Schouburg (1753) that “not a single writer has devoted attention to the man’s origins and artistry,” he describes Ochtervelt as a painter “whose manner and handling are very reminiscent of Metsu, and may have issued from that school,” because “the images of clothing and household trappings are clear evidence that he must have lived around that time.”3
Van Gool was only partly right: although Gabriel Metsu (1629–67) and Ochtervelt were indeed contemporaries, Metsu was not Ochtervelt’s teacher. According to Houbraken, Ochtervelt trained, together with De Hooch, under the Haarlem painter Nicolaes Berchem (1620–83). This statement, however, is now seriously doubted. The early work of both Ochtervelt and De Hooch displays so many stylistic parallels with that of the Rotterdam painter Ludolph de Jongh (1616–79) that an apprenticeship with their fellow townsman is far more likely.4
Jacob Ochtervelt was baptized in Rotterdam on 1(?) February 1634. His parents were Lucas Hendricks, a cobbler and the bridgekeeper of the Roobrugge over the Nieuwe Haven, and Trijntje Jans, a skipper’s daughter.5 He grew up in humble circumstances, as is indicated not only by his father’s occupation, but also that of his brothers and brothers-in-law, who all but one were involved in seafaring. Two of them were employed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), including his brother Pieter, who was a gunner on the Schiedam.6 Given Ochtervelt’s modest background, it is ironic that our present appreciation of his work is based primarily on his faithful renderings of elegant companies in lavish interiors. It should be noted, however, that he became familiar with upper middle class circles when he married Dirckje Meesters in 1655. His father-in-law, Jan Meesters, made sails and compasses and his mother-in-law, Maria de Gelder, was the daughter of a Dordrecht merchant.7 While the Meesters lived in comfortable circumstances, Ochtervelt’s brother-in-law Dirck Meesters had a major impact on his career. This notary developed into an excellent administrator and held numerous public offices, including that of burgomaster.8 Dirck’s success was based on his marriage to Barbara Elsevier (1640–89), scion of a celebrated Leiden printers’ family who was related to several Rotterdam regent families.9 She would have introduced Ochtervelt to the merchant Isaack Elsevier—her father’s first cousin—whose family the artist portrayed in 1664.10 Moreover, Ochtervelt may have had the Elsevier family to thank for his most important patron. In that same year, Isaack’s sister Maria Elsevier married the Rotterdam landscape painter Willem Viruly IV (ca. 1636–78), a close relative of the wine merchant Hartlief van Cattenburgh, who owned no fewer than ten paintings by Ochtervelt, presumably all pendants, at the time of his death in 1669.11
Ochtervelt would also have been acquainted with Viruly, as well as with the painter Pieter de Bloot (1601–58), whose widow he accompanied when she had her will drawn up in 1661.12 In 1667 Ochtervelt, together with Abraham Westerveld (ca. 1620–92) and Cornelis Saftleven (1607–81), was nominated for the headman of the Guild of Saint Luke, but he lost the election to Saftleven. In that same year he rented a house in the Hoogstraat for a four-year period. He was still in Rotterdam in 1672 when he witnessed the baptism of one of the children of his brother-in-law Dirck Meesters, but moved to Amsterdam shortly thereafter, presumably because the economic decline affecting the market for paintings that had set in earlier in cities such as Delft, Haarlem and Leiden was also now making itself felt in Rotterdam.13
Ochtervelt must have hoped to find a healthier market for his art in Amsterdam, but even there the situation was no longer ideal. This notwithstanding, in 1674 he was engaged to portray the regents of the Leper House, and thus seems to have been faring reasonably well. He and his wife rented a house on the Keizersgracht, near the Spiegelstraat, and lived next door to the celebrated landscape painter Willem Schellinks (1623–78).14 In 1677 Ochtervelt was owed money by a colleague, Lodewijk van Ludick (1627–ca. 1697). He only lived in Amsterdam for one decade. After trading the Keizersgracht for the “Schapemarckt bij de Munt” (Sheepmarket near the Mint) in the beginning of 1681, he died in 1682 and was buried in the Nieuwezijds Kapel on 1 May. His marriage had remained childless, and not long after Ochtervelt’s burial, his widow moved back to Rotterdam, where she died in 1710.