Michiel van Musscher was born in Rotterdam on 27 January 1645. His parents were the Mennonite Jan Jacobs van Musscher and Catalijne Michiels Comans. Michiel’s father took a second wife in 1656, Catalijntje Martens, who was also a Mennonite. Although most documents refer to Jan Jacobs as a “cruydenier,” or grocer, his burial certificate states that “in his life he [had been] a painter.”1 Michiel, therefore, came from an artistic family. His grandfather, Jacob van Musscher, who died in Delft in 1623, also painted,2 as did his maternal grandfather the cabinetmaker Michiel (I) Comans (1587–1664) and his uncle Michiel (II) Comans (1621–87), a dyer and schoolmaster. The latter was immortalized by Van Musscher posing at his easel in 1669 in one of the artist’s most appealing early portraits.3 Marten van Musscher, Michiel’s half-brother, was also a painter, although he appears primarily to have decorated houses.4
Van Musscher, who had already begun “at the age of five … to draw figures and animals on paper,”5 was—according to a note by Van Musscher himself—sent by his father and stepmother at the age of fifteen to be trained in Amsterdam. He initially spent a few months with Martinus Saeghmolen (ca. 1620–69), “to learn the fundamentals of drawing.”6 The following year he was apprenticed to Abraham van den Tempel (1622/23–72), a fellow Mennonite, “to learn to mix paints and handle the brush.” In 1665 he took “seven art lessons from Gabriel Metsu” and then completed his training in Haarlem in 1667 with a three-month stay with Adriaen van Ostade (1610–85).7 During his time in Amsterdam, Van Musscher initially boarded with his uncle Michiel Comans, though he was soon reunited with his parents, who moved from Rotterdam to Amsterdam in 1662. Like so many Mennonites, they settled along the Haarlemmerdijk, living in a house between the Eenhoornsluis and the Haarlemmerplein. Both locations are depicted in genre scenes that Van Musscher painted while at his parents’ home in 1668 and 1669.8
Genre painting, though, did not become Van Musscher’s specialty. He soon developed into a very popular portraitist, attracting patrons from two social spheres. Many came from his own Mennonite community; besides the likeness of his uncle mentioned above, he painted prominent Mennonite elders such as Tobias van de Wijngaert and Galenus Abrahams. That the Mennonite mercantile elite also found their way to his studio is evident from portrait commissions for the De Neufville and Rooleeuw families. His clientele also included regent-patrician families. Van Musscher profited greatly from the gap in the Amsterdam portrait market that opened up around 1670 when Ferdinand Bol (1616–80) stopped painting and Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613–70) died. His main competitor, Nicolaes Maes (1634–93), returned to Amsterdam from Dordrecht in 1673. Various members of influential Amsterdam families such as the Bickers, the Valckeniers (MM-102.a and MM-102.b), and the Van Loons had their likenesses painted by Van Musscher. His most significant patron in the higher echelons of society was possibly “the art-loving Mr. Jonas Witsen.” The portrait Van Musscher painted of Witsen was described by Houbraken as “outstanding in the art of painting,” surpassing all others.9 In executing it, Van Musscher had “spared neither time nor diligence … and there was a reason for this; considering that this gentleman was his greatest Saint Christopher, who held [Van Musscher] high upon his shoulders so that Envy would not scratch him.”10 The impact of Van Musscher’s portraits was so strong that he even attracted princely patrons, including the Frisian stadholder Hendrik Casimir II and his wife, and Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen. Among his most prestigious commissions were portraits of the Russian czar Peter the Great and members of his entourage during their visit to the Dutch Republic in 1697.
Van Musscher was already in great demand as a portrait painter when he married Eva Visscher in 1678. The marriage took place in the Dutch Reformed Church, even though Van Musscher was still a Mennonite. His wife, however, was not, although she did come from a Mennonite family.11 Van Musscher did not remain faithful to his religion, converting in 1684 to the Remonstrant faith. This move does not seem to have alienated him from his circle, though, because in 1691 he married Elsje Klanes, once again a woman with a Mennonite background. Van Musscher died in 1705. As had been done upon the death of Elsje Klanes in 1699, an inventory was drawn up of all his possessions. Many canvases remained unfinished, evidence that he remained a popular portraitist right up to his death. On 21 April 1706, the Haarlemsche Courant announced that the contents of his studio were to be auctioned, including works by a number of other famous painters, as well paintings by Musscher’s own hand.12