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Young Woman Holding a Sunflower

Bartholomeus van der Helst (Haarlem 1613 – Amsterdam 1670)
oil on canvas
99.9 x 74.9 cm
signed information

signed and dated in light paint, upper center: “B . vander . helst . f . / 1670”

inventory number
Currently on view: Chicago, The Art Institute

Nogrady, Elizabeth. “Young Woman Holding a Sunflower” (2024). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed July 13, 2024).

An emphatic display of love and fidelity is at the heart of this three-quarter-length portrait by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613–70). In his arresting painting, Van der Helst situated a young woman with soft, golden curls and slightly parted lips against a dark background defined only by the hint of a curtain at upper left. With her shoulders subtly turned, as though in motion, her large eyes look outward to meet the gaze of the viewer. The young woman wears a shimmering white corset, blousy sleeves trimmed with lace, a full skirt, and a shawl of sky-blue drapery encircling her form. Her extravagant wardrobe is further adorned with expensive jewelry: tear-shaped pearl earrings, a diamond ring on her little finger, and a red-jeweled brooch affixing an energetic white feather to her hair. She points purposefully toward her heart with her right hand, while with her left she holds the substantial stem of a sunflower, its imposing blossom raised slightly above her head. The flower’s yellow ray florets curl around a circle of disc florets, angled downward as though eyeing the viewer. Water droplets on the leaves and spiky hairs on the thick stalk suggest that the flower is freshly picked.

While the young woman’s identity is unknown, she likely belonged to Amsterdam’s social elite, the wealthy regents and other city leaders who frequently patronized Van der Helst because of his ability to create engaging and dignified portraits. A key innovator in Dutch portraiture of the mid to late 1600s, Van der Helst created likenesses featuring bright and diffuse light, often paired with vibrant color. These characteristics can be seen in one of his early masterpieces, Militia Company of District VII under the Command of Captain Roelof Bicker, ca. 1640–43, which hung in the banquet hall of the Kloveniersdoelen near The Night Watch of 1642 by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69). In notable contrast to Rembrandt’s darker palette and broad tonal range, Van der Helst presented his militia subject in an even light that reveals the varied fabrics of their costumes, some with pastel hues, as well as their individualized faces. In the following decades, wealthy Dutch patrons were increasingly attracted to Van der Helst’s dynamic and persuasive style of portraiture, and he became a major force in the Amsterdam portrait market, his popularity exceeding that of Govaert Flinck (1615–60) and Ferdinand Bol (1616–80).

Young Woman with a Sunflower, which Van der Helst painted in 1670, the last year of his life, reveals many of the finest qualities of the masterful portraits he created throughout his long and productive career. Evident here is his remarkable ability to render lifelike flesh tones by delicately layering his paints to create the illusion of translucent skin. He also could convincingly portray a wide range of materials and textures, from silky garments and smooth pearls to the prickly stem of a sunflower. As in this striking painting, Van der Helst was renowned for his skillful manner of incorporating bold accouterments and gestures to give dramatic focus to his portraits. For his clientele, these elements of self-presentation would have been fully understood as indications of social class and civility.

The sunflower had a wealth of associations for contemporary Dutch viewers. This plant, which was not native to Europe but to the Americas, was first introduced to a Northern European audience in 1568 by the famed Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517–85), who illustrated the sunflower, which he called Chrysanthemum perunianum, in his important florilegium, Florum, etcoronarium odoratarumque nonnudllarum herbarum historia. In the accompanying text, Doedens explained the name given to this flower: “They call this plant the ‘Sun of India’ because it so resembles a sun surrounded by rays.” He went on to emphasize its rarity: “We saw this plant in the delightful garden abundant with any variety of plants belonging to the excellent and worthy Johannes Brancio. . . . You may seek it in vain elsewhere, only to find it in his garden.”

By the early seventeenth century, the craving for sunflowers had spread throughout the Netherlands. In his 1614 publication Hortus Floridus, Crispijn de Passe (1565–1637) included both a page devoted to sunflowers and a depiction of an idealized garden in which they are featured prominently at center. While this perfectly manicured plot appears to be an idealized site rather than a specific one, De Passe did indeed examine specimens firsthand, beginning his publication with a word of thanks to those lovers of flowers and herbs in Utrecht, Leiden, Haarlem, and Amsterdam who opened their gardens to him in preparation for the text. Among the most spectacular depictions of the sunflower in a seventeenth-century botanical treatise was that rendered by Basilius Besler (1561–1629), whose sumptuous compendium, published in 1613 and more widely distributed in 1640, recorded plants from the garden of Prince-Bishop Johann Konrad von Gemmingen of Eichstätt in Bavaria (). By 1670, when Van der Helst painted his portrait of a young woman, he may have known images of sunflowers from such botanical treatises. He also could have seen sunflowers firsthand, which seems likely given the painting’s naturalistic details, such as the finely rendered dewdrops and bristles on the plant’s stem.

Many botanical texts highlight the sunflower’s heliotropism: when young, the plant faces east in the morning and, over the course of the day, tracks the sun across the sky until it faces west in the evening. The belief that sunflowers faithfully followed the sun led to a myriad of mythological, literary, and poetic uses soon after the plant arrived in Europe. The sunflower was frequently connected to the story of the water nymph Clytie from Greek mythology. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Clytie was spurned by her beloved, the sun god Helios, but nevertheless remained devoted to him and every day followed his movements across the sky. After she died of a broken heart, Helios transformed her into a heliotrope, a small plant with purple flowers that tracks the sun as it traverses the sky. After the spectacular sunflower was introduced to Western Europe, it began to supplant the heliotrope in depictions and descriptions of Ovid’s story.

In seventeenth-century emblem books, the sunflower took on broader meanings, most importantly fidelity in love, as in Otto Vaenius’s Emblemata aliquot selectiora amatoria, 1618, with the emblem “Quo pergis, eodem vergo” (I incline where you go) (). Because of the sunflower’s association with the sun, it also embodied the concept of “day.” In 1643, Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) painted for Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria a series depicting the Months of the Year and Day and Night, in which the allegorical figure of Day includes a sunflower. In 1645, Joost van Vondel (1587–1679) published verses describing Sandrart’s series, in which Day is a beautiful youth with “blonde locks” and “snow-white robes,” holding a sunflower. Yet, even as the sunflower infuses Van der Helst’s portrait with multiple allusions like these, its predominant meaning in the Leiden Collection work is not ambiguous. By pairing the sunflower with a finger aimed to the chest, the artist clearly indicates that Young Woman with a Sunflower overwhelmingly concerns matters of the heart.

The sunflower’s association with faithful, marital love in portraiture would have been a familiar trope for Van der Helst’s patrons in Amsterdam. Ferdinand Bol, Van der Helst’s near contemporary, included a sunflower (along with a thistle, also associated with fidelity) in Couple on a Balustrade of 1654 (), to underscore the bond of the man and woman depicted in his painting. Later, around 1669, Bol used—and presumably designed—an ornately carved frame in gilt wood with a sunflower at its apex for his self-portrait, today in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (). In this instance, Bol presented himself as an elegant gentleman in a silk dressing gown, standing beside a small statue of cupid sleeping and, notably, lacking the tools of his trade. Bol likely painted this work at the time of his wedding to his second wife, Anna van Erkel (1624–80), and incorporated the sunflower into the narrative to indicate his love for her. Van der Helst may have similarly painted Young Woman Holding a Sunflower to celebrate the young woman’s engagement or marriage. Such an occasion would have been fitting for this assertive display of luxurious clothing, the large diamond ring, and the sitter’s gesture toward her heart; the import of the flower symbolizing fidelity is underscored by the young woman’s unwavering gaze. Together, these elements forcefully declare: my love is true.

Despite this painting’s distinctive character, the precise circumstances surrounding its conception have been lost over the course of time. The portrait’s provenance can only be traced to the late nineteenth century; in 1887, it was sold in Amsterdam at the posthumous sale of Jan Hendrik Cremer (1813–85), the Dutch consul general in Switzerland. By 1921, it was in Basel, Switzerland, in the collection of Adolf Peter Vischer-d’Assonleville (1852–1929). Vischer-d’Assonleville, who was acquainted with Dutch art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863–1930), was a collector of Dutch seventeenth-century art and owned paintings by, among others, Salomon van Ruysdael (ca. 1602–70), Rembrandt (1606–69), and Willem van Mieris (1662–1747). Van der Helst’s painting remained in Switzerland after World War II. According to an annotation found in the image files in the Netherlands Institute of Art History (RKD), it was then in the possession of “L. Lichtenhain,” presumably Lucas Lichtenhan (1898–1969), the Swiss dealer and curator at the Kunsthalle Basel. Young Woman Holding a Sunflower was acquired by The Leiden Collection in 2006.

- Elizabeth Nogrady, 2024
  • Jan Hendrik Cremer (1813–85), Brussels (his sale, Frederik Muller & Co. and Van Pappelendam & Schouten, Amsterdam, 21 June 1887, no. 18).
  • (Sale, Van Pappelendam & Schouten, Amsterdam, 11 June 1889, no. 67 [possibly to C.F. Roos & Cie].)
  • [Possibly C.F. Roos & Cie., Amsterdam, 1889.]
  • Adolf Peter Vischer(-Bölger) d’Assonleville (1852–1929), Basel, by 1921.
  • Lucas Lichtenhan (1898–1969), Basel, by 1950.
  • [Otto Naumann Ltd., New York.]
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2006.
  • De Gelder, Jan Jacob. Bartholomeus van der Helst: Een studie van zijn werk, zijn levensgeschiedenis, een beschrijvende catalogus van zijn œuvre, een register en 41 afbeeldingen naar schilderijen. Rotterdam, 1921, 40, fig. XL; 209, no. 531; 220, no. 687.
  • Bruyn, J., and J.A. Emmens. “De zonnebloem als embleem in een schilderijlijst.” Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 4, no. 1 (1956): 9.
  • De Jongh, Eddy. “Bol vincit amorem.” In Ars auro prior. Studia Ioanni Bialostocki sexagenario dicata. Warsaw, 1981, 379–90.
  • De Jongh, Eddy. “Bol vincit amorem.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 12, no. 2/3 (1981­­–82): 160, fig. 21.
  • De Jongh, Eddy. Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw. Exh. cat. Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum. Zwolle, 1986, 91–92, fig. 9i.
  • De Jongh, Eddy. “Reticent Informants: Seventeenth-Century Portraits and the Limits of Intelligibility.” In Polyanthea: Essays on Art and Literature in Honor of William Sebastian Heckscher. Edited by Karl-Ludwig Selig. The Hague, 1993, 67, fig. 24.
  • De Jongh, Eddy. Kwesties van betekenis: Thema en motief in de Nederlandse schilderkunst van de zeventiende eeuw. Leiden, 1995, 126, fig. 28.
  • De Jongh, Eddy. Questions of Meaning: Theme and Motif in Dutch Seventeenth-Century Painting. Edited and translated by Michael Hoyle. Leiden, 2000, 125–26, fig. 28.
  • Van Gent, Judith. “Bartholomeus van der Helst (circa 1613–1670): Een studie naar zijn leven en zijn werk.” PhD diss., Utrecht University, 2011, 117n466; 438–39, no. 158.
  • Van Gent, Judith. Bartholomeus van der Helst (ca. 1613–1670): Een studie naar zijn leven en werk. Zwolle, 2011, 343, no. 158.
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