Pieter van der Werff was baptized in Kralingen on 1 May 1665. His parents were Arjen Jans, the owner of a flourmill on the Oudendijk, and Maertje Adriaens. Pieter was the younger brother of “the renowned throughout Europe and world famous” painter Adriaen van der Werff (1659–1722).1 The family belonged to Kralingen’s upper middle class, and Pieter’s father served several terms as an alderman.2 Pieter studied under his brother, who was six years older, as a matter of course, and Adriaen’s international breakthrough in 1696 would have contributed to Pieter’s decision to stay on as an assistant in his workshop. His activities consisted primarily of making copies of Adriaen’s pictures. He also produced signed inventions of his own, which are still deeply indebted to his brother’s art. The siblings’ relationship was strictly professional, as evidenced from a journal in which Adriaen kept a detailed record of Pieter’s activities on the basis of which he would pay him down to the nearest penny in accordance with his share and hours.3 “The only favor the Knight bestowed him free of charge was the loan of his works, from which Pieter culled models for composing the principal part of his originals.”4
In 1694 Pieter married Maria Bosman (1672–1700), the daughter of Adriaen Bosman, scion of a well-established Rotterdam brewers’ family, and Sara Teniers.5 Pieter must have met her in his brother’s workshop, because according to Johan van Gool she had been “a pupil of the Knight van der Werff, already wonderfully advanced in art.”6 If she were actually a practicing painter, she was not so for long because “her marriage dulled her drive, and in the end her artistic skill came to naught.”7 Moreover, she did not live much longer, and was carried to her grave from their house in the Hoogstraat on 22 March 1700. Shortly after being widowed, Pieter and his young daughter Elisabeth moved in with Adriaen on the Delftsevaart, next to the house called Paradijs.8
Pieter must have enjoyed a certain authority among his colleagues because he served as dean of the Rotterdam Guild of Saint Luke from 1703 to 1716. However, this appreciation could not prevent his life from taking a troubled turn. According to Van Gool, he had “een heel wonderzinnigen inborst” (a very peculiar disposition), which first manifested itself in a penchant for seclusion, and later in “noch vreemder grillen” (even stranger quirks) as a consequence of “eener ongemakkelyke Zenuwkwael, of zo genoemde Hypochondrie” (a disturbing nervous disorder, or so-called hypochondria), whereby “tot groote droefheit” (to the deep regret) of his family he could no longer function normally.9 Pieter died in September 1722, and his body was carried from Adriaen’s house to the family grave in the Grote Kerk. His brother made the same sad journey seven weeks later; however, his funeral did not go unnoticed and displayed a certain pomp and circumstance: bells pealed loudly and without interruption in the town for no less than four hours.
The totally different circumstances surrounding the two funerals are highly illustrative of the brothers’ careers. While Adriaen’s was grand and compelling, Pieter’s was very modest and practically invisible. If Adriaen enjoyed a clientele from far beyond the borders of the Dutch Republic and the highest social circles, Pieter’s patrons came predominantly from Rotterdam and were of middle-class standing. Adriaen’s art was praised in every possible way, yet nothing is known about the contemporary appreciation of Pieter’s art; Van Gool was the first to mention him (1750). Van Gool believed that Pieter “can rightly be counted among the respectable masters.”10 Pieter’s extant portraits, as well as his genre and history scenes, confirm Van Gool’s observation, even though, as has been noted, his work lacks originality. Pieter was so skilled in imitating his brother’s paintings that it was impossible even for connoisseurs “to distinguish with their eyes what was authentic or not.”11
Pieter was paid well for his work, in part because of this ability. Van Gool reports that at the 1713 auction of the renowned collection of Adriaen Paets, treasurer of the Rotterdam Admiralty, two works by Pieter went under the hammer for a substantial 550 and 335 guilders, respectively. In his biography of Adriaen, however, Van Gool mentions this same auction noting that six works by Adriaen fetched a total of no less than 15,600 guilders, an exorbitantly high amount, so high that “his art again garners a shining reputation throughout Europe, such that everyone yearns to see it, and even own it.”12 According to Van Gool, “the Knight beheld all of this, leaning out of a window next to me, his inner satisfaction palpable.”13 Whether Pieter witnessed his brother’s triumph (one of many) is unknown; Van Gool does not devote a single word to him in Adriaen’s biography.