A good gauge of the popularity of Frans van Mieris’s painted oeuvre is the large number of copies, the oldest of which must have been made during his lifetime.1 Nevertheless, little information exists about Van Mieris’s workshop; it is not even known if the master made replicas of his own paintings. Copies and variants of Van Mieris’s paintings, however, were certainly made after his death for Leiden collectors, a number of which came from the hand of his son, Willem (1662–1747). Some of Van Mieris’s paintings were particularly popular and frequently copied; for example, around thirty copies are known of The Oyster Meal from 1661 (Mauritshuis, The Hague).2 A Woman before a Mirror, now in Berlin (fig 1), was also frequently copied, as was this Leiden Collection painting.3 At least twenty other copies after the Berlin picture are recorded,4 making it virtually impossible to establish their individual provenances. This copy is almost identical to the Berlin original, the most conspicuous difference being the blue ribbon on the red jacket draped over the chair.
It is difficult to determine whether the present picture was made in the studio of Frans van Mieris, although dendrochronological analysis indicates that the panel does date from the seventeenth century.5 Not surprisingly, a number of later copies were made with fraudulent intent. The well-known collector and fabulously wealthy cloth merchant Pieter de la Court van der Voort (1664–1739), a great patron of Willem van Mieris, wrote to his wife on 8 August 1700 from Paris that on some of Willem’s paintings, the first name had been replaced by “Frans” or simply overpainted to create the impression that the works were by his father.6 Frans van Mieris the Elder had been dead for almost twenty years by then, but he was evidently still an international celebrity.
The theme of a young woman making her toilette appears relatively often in Frans van Mieris’s paintings.7 The concentration with which the young woman stands before a mirror while holding a piece of jewelry to her neck makes it clear that she is putting the last touches to her attire. Her dark-skinned maidservant, whose face Van Mieris prepared meticulously in a drawn study for the original painting,8 holds up a jewelry box and waits curiously to see which piece her mistress will decide to wear. To the right, through a doorway, one sees a man reading at a table.
In the context of a woman making her toilette, a mirror can be associated with vanity or sensual pleasure.9 That the woman uses the mirror here to adorn herself with jewelry seems to confirm this meaning. The opened letter on a corner of the table is without doubt a love letter—evidence of her interest in the sensual pleasures.10 In contrast to the woman’s concern with appearances, the man reading represents the opposite attitude: the life of the mind and a desire to acquire knowledge and wisdom.