In the foreground of Caspar Netscher’s (ca. 1639–84) evocative, dusky landscape, a well-dressed young soldier pays rapt attention to a young woman who examines his extended hand, presumably relating the future she divines there. He wears a soldier’s buff leather jerkin and gleaming metal breastplate, but his other garments incline more toward flamboyance than battle-ready practicality: unusually lush gold and silver brocade sleeves, shoes rather than sturdy boots, a decorative walking stick, and in the corner, a lavishly plumed hat. The soldier is so mesmerized by the young woman’s words—or her beauty—that he is unaware of the child slipping a purse from his coat pocket. An older woman stands just behind the group, calmly surveying the proceedings. In the distance to the right are several soldiers at rest. In contrast to the rich detail lavished on the foreground players, these figures are quickly and summarily drawn, their garments unremarkable.
Dark hair and exotic dress suggest the fortune teller is Romani. The Romani (gypsies) had migrated across Europe from their probable origins in India, arriving in northern Europe by about 1420.1 Their proud independence, nomadic lifestyle, and unusual costumes and customs prompted curiosity and ultimately, a degree of fear and resentment among many settled Europeans. The majority of Romani in Europe supported themselves with easily portable professions built upon wit and pragmatism—often at the expense of trusting Europeans (gadjé)—such as animal training, horse trading, carnival entertainments, magic, and fortune telling. By the late fifteenth century, “gypsies” had gained a widespread reputation for untrustworthiness, trickery, and generally bad behavior; many cities and localities issued orders of expulsion or meted out severe punishments for even minor civil infractions.2 Existing on the fringes of settled society, the Romani were slow to adopt the behavior and, particularly in the case of women, the dress of their gadjé neighbors. Traditional Romani dress for women comprised a long white shift covered by a colorful mantle knotted at one shoulder, which served as both garment and blanket to sleep in, and a wide, disk-like headdress known as a bern.3 Although Netscher’s fortune teller lacks this distinctive headgear, the remainder of her garments (described in greater detail below) evoke traditional Romani garb.
The earliest representations of European Romani in Netherlandish art cast them in a fairly positive light. Because they were thought to originate in Egypt (hence the term “gypsy”), they were often included in depictions of biblical events thought to have taken place in Egypt, or in representations of Christian sermons, indicating the Church’s mission to reach a broad and diverse audience.4 By the late sixteenth century, however, the Romani had a growing reputation for being (among other things) tricksy card players and “duplicitous tellers of fake fortunes.” In the visual arts, therefore, depictions of individuals with Romani costume and physiognomy triggered stereotypical assumptions that while perhaps intriguingly exotic, such individuals were also patently devious and demonstrably “other.”5
From the fifteenth century onward, European artists explored the theme of a gullible young man or woman having his or her palm read by a Romani fortune teller—most frequently, one assumes, to know the future of a love affair.6 Usually the palm reading is accompanied by a theft perpetrated on the client; sometimes, too, the fortune-teller herself is robbed. Part of the appeal of these images lay in the fact that the viewer is made complicit in the deception, as, for example, in Caravaggio’s iconic Fortune Tellers of about 1595 in Rome and Paris, in which the proximity of the figures to the picture plane forces the viewer’s involvement in their exchange.7 Caravaggesque artists in Italy, France, and the North continued to explore and elaborate upon the theme through the ensuing decades (fig 1). In Netherlandish depictions of palm reading, fortune tellers also proliferated independent of Caravaggio’s example.8 The fortune teller is typically an older woman, wearing the boldly patterned and sometimes ragged garments of a traveler, and the client is a man. Almost always, he is represented as “twice duped”: tricked into believing the fortune’s veracity, and simultaneously robbed of his purse, jewelry, or other valuable. If the fortune teller is an attractive younger woman, her physical charms help seduce her client into ruinous gullibility. Often, the readings take place in an outdoor setting or a location such as a guardroom or brothel, not only referencing a soldier’s desire to know his future in love and war, but also denoting a location distant from civic regulations that would otherwise limit citizens’ encounters with marginalized Romani.9
There are also, of course, numerous representations of women having their palms read in seventeenth-century Dutch art, including Netscher’s own, earlier treatment of the subject (fig 2). These depictions generally emphasize the client’s innocence and naïveté and juxtapose her cultured, refined, and affluent youthful beauty with the natural sensuality (or advanced age) and rough poverty of the fortune teller.10
Netscher’s Fortune Teller retains many of the traditional elements of scenes depicting male clients consulting fortune tellers, but rather than shaping a narrative of malice and trickery, places greater emphasis on the amorous sentiments that appear to flow equally between deceiver and deceived. The fortune teller seems gently melancholic, the young soldier more love-struck than irredeemably naïve. The secondary figures are similarly gentled: the older woman is more a benign chaperone than an avaricious madam, and the thieving child simply matter-of-fact. While this shift is generally in keeping with the gentrifying tendencies prevalent in Dutch high-life genre painting of the second half of the seventeenth century, it might also reflect a specific scene from contemporary literature or theater.
One of the most popular literary works to feature Romani protagonists was Cervantes’s La Gitanilla (1613), a romantic tale of love between a girl raised by Gypsies (Pretiose) and a young cavalier (Don Jan). Translated into Dutch as “Het Spaens Heydinnetje” (1637) and provided with a moralizing gloss by Jacob Cats (1577–1660), in the Netherlands the engaging story inspired plays by Mattheus Gansneb Tengnagel (1613–52) and Catharina Verwers Dusart (1618–84), in 1643 and 1644, respectively, and painted representations by artists such as Paulus Bor (ca. 1601–69), Jan Lievens (1607–74), Jan van Noordt (1623–81), Pieter Quast (1606–47), Godefridus Schalcken (1643–1706), and others.11 Whether Netscher’s Fortune Teller was in any way inspired by earlier interpretations of La Gitanilla in image or text is difficult to say. Dutch translations of Cervantes’s story (such as Cats’s) studiously avoided any mention of Pretiose’s proficiency in the dubious art of chiromancy, although such episodes are clearly described in the original text. It is conceivable that Netscher might have known either the original Spanish text or the French translation of 1614, both of which include occasions when Pretiose read palms.12 There is, moreover, no obvious influence on Netscher’s painting from other artists’ interpretations of Cervantes’s tale, although an illustration to “Het Spaans Heydinnetje” by Adriaen van de Venne (1589–1662), also depicting the lovers gazing longingly at each other in an open landscape, projects a similar tone.13 Romani tricksters and fortune tellers were popular “types” in seventeenth-century theater, and it is entirely possible that Netscher’s Fortune Teller reflects a contemporary theatrical production that has otherwise been lost.14
In his portraits and narrative scenes, Caspar Netscher was extraordinarily attentive to the rendering of textiles: gleaming satins, glittering brocades, crisp linens, and plush velvets are depicted with a mimetic fidelity that stimulates tactile awareness and enhances appreciation of the image. The theme of the Fortune Teller—hinting at exoticism, sensuality, and a venture into the unknown—offered a perfect opportunity for the artist to introduce an array of luxurious fabrics. Swathed in layers of silks imported from the East, the figure of the fortune teller represents one of the most striking demonstrations of Netscher’s ability to recreate the distinctive properties of these rare and costly textiles. Even judged against the most refined interpretations of the fortune teller theme, the garments worn by Netscher’s protagonist are extraordinarily luxurious. She is draped in a heady mix of shimmering imported textiles: the figural motifs on her cloak recall Safavid (sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Iranian) woven textiles, while the cloud motifs on her blue undergarment suggests a Chinese or Japanese silk. Safavid textiles were noted for their exceptional quality and large-scale figural motifs derived from contemporary manuscript illuminations, typically interspersed with stylized floral and animal designs (fig 3).
The fact that Netscher included comparable fabrics in several other works over the course of his career suggests that he owned a selection of these imported textiles (fig 4).15 Beginning in the early seventeenth century, silks from China and Japan were among the most prized commodities imported by the V.O.C. (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) into the Netherlands; in the early 1620s, the V.O.C. established a factory in Persia and began to import quantities of Persian silk for Dutch trade.16 Although Asian silks were initially quite expensive on the Dutch market, as availability increased, prices dropped accordingly. By the 1630s, there were several shops in Amsterdam devoted to selling East Indian goods imported by the V.O.C. By 1677 (and perhaps earlier), there was a shop in The Hague specifically devoted to selling East Indian textiles.17
Although it is not known for certain that Netscher owned Safavid or other Asian textiles, the inventory of the estate of his widow, Margaretha Godijn (d. 1694), taken in September 1694 mentions “several lengths of silk and satin in the painting studio” (“eenige lappen van zijde en satijn totte schildercamer”) as well as four silk robes (“vier zijde roken” [sic]), presumably the Japanese padded silk robes so fashionable among the elite in the latter part of the seventeenth century.18 Given Netscher’s avowed interest in the depiction of textiles, it would have been curious if he had not sought out these beautiful and sophisticated materials to enhance the appeal of his paintings.
The saturated colors, refinement, and portrait-like characterization of the figures in the Fortune Teller suggest a date in the late 1660s, when Netscher was shifting his attention from high-life genre scenes to painting sophisticated historical subjects and elegant portraits of the international elite. The luxurious textiles, as well as individual figure types and the choice of a theme brimming with exotic sensuality, are particularly close to Netscher’s Bathsheba Receiving the Letter from King David, dated 1667 (fig 5).19 As well as in the Bathsheba, the dark-haired model for the fortune teller appears in several other of Netscher’s paintings from the mid to late 1660s, including Two Women in an Interior with a Basket of Lemons in The Leiden Collection. The older woman and the young pickpocket also bear a passing resemblance to the figures of Sarah and the eavesdropping child in Netscher’s Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham of 1673, now also in The Leiden Collection (fig 6).
When the Fortune Teller was in the collection of the Duc d’Orléans in the early eighteenth century, and until sold separately from the collection of William Wilkins in 1820 and 1830, it was in fact pendant to Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham (see Provenance). The paintings are of similar dimensions and exhibit certain narrative and compositional parallels: a scene of implicit sexual attraction involving a woman in shimmering silk garments standing before a seated man, accompanied by an older woman and with a child as bit player in the drama. However, the works were executed some years apart, and it is unlikely that Netscher himself would have intended the two paintings as a pair. They were probably made into “pendants” in the eighteenth century while in the Orléans collection.20 It is delightful coincidence that the two works are now together once again.