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Scholarly Essay

Frans van Mieris the Elder and His Four Leiden Patrons


Bakker, Piet. “Frans van Mieris the Elder and His Four Leiden Patrons” (2017). 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 15, 2024).

After Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) moved to Amsterdam in 1631, his pupil Gerrit Dou (1613–75) soon took over his master’s prominent position as Leiden’s leading painter. Dou’s meticulous and detailed manner of painting exerted a great influence on scores of young and ambitious local artists. Only one of them, however, ever attained his high level: Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–81), “the prince of his pupils,” who, according to Dou, “carried off the crown from them all” (). Van Mieris’s work, like that of his master, was exclusively in the reach of the elite and, given the prices he commanded, only the very wealthiest of them. This essay examines these buyers, specifically the four whom Houbraken deemed to be the artist’s most important patrons: Isaac Gerard (1616–94), Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius (1614–72), Cornelis Paets (1636–94), and the mysterious “Vredenburg.”

Van Mieris vis-à-vis Dou

Van Mieris initially worked in the style of his master; his Kitchen Maid Drawing Water from a Well made before 1655 is even a literal copy of an original by Dou. He most likely produced other early work while in Dou’s workshop, including Elderly Couple in an Interior from The Leiden Collection (). After 1658, the year Van Mieris joined the Leiden Guild of Saint Luke, however, he increasingly distanced himself from his teacher. Though he still derived subjects from Dou, he now drew inspiration from the Haarlem genre painter Adriaen van Ostade (1610–85), whose work found particular favor in Leiden. Other important influences were his fellow townsmen Quiringh van Brekelenkam (after 1622–ca. 1669) (), with whom he had worked as a pupil in Dou’s workshop for some time, and Gabriel Metsu (1629–67) (). Moreover, he and his good friend Jan Steen (1625/26–79), who had returned to Leiden from Delft in 1657, mutually influenced each other. Van Mieris based his various versions of Oyster Meal on Steen’s somewhat earlier Girl Eating Oysters now in The Hague, while Steen derived his variations of Doctor’s Visit from Van Mieris’s famous “prototype” in Vienna (). Van Mieris’s definitive break with his master’s style, however, can be credited to Gerard ter Borch (1617­–81), whose genre paintings of prosperous figures in elegant interiors had a substantial impact on Van Mieris. Van Mieris must have already been quite familiar with Ter Borch’s work in the 1650s, judging from the affinity between his Child’s Lesson (Hannah Entrusting Her Son Samuel into the Care of the High-Priest Eli?) () from the second half of the 1650s and Ter Borch’s The Reading Lesson from just after 1650 ().

Van Mieris lived up to Dou’s expectations and, already quite early in his career, gained a reputation equal to and sometimes even surpassing that of his master. For instance, Cornelis de Bie’s (1627–1715) comment in 1661 that whoever sees a picture by Van Mieris “has the work of Dou in mind,” underscores the parity between the two painters. The Amsterdam city physician Jan Sysmus, in about 1670, even deemed Van Mieris to be “better than Dou.” The view that Van Mieris eclipsed his teacher was also held by the Frenchman Roger de Piles (1635–1709), who noted in his La vie des peintres of about 1695 that Van Mieris improved on Dou particularly with respect to composition and coloration. Gerard de Lairesse (1641–1711) also estimated Van Mieris above Dou in some respects: “Francis Mieris has not only curiously followed his master Gerrard Dou, in the elegant modern manner, but is, in some things, his superior.”

Surprisingly, however, much as with Dou, extant estate inventories in Leiden and other cities do not list many of Van Mieris’s paintings and provide little documentation about his reputation.. His name is not among the most frequently cited artists in seventeenth-century estate inventories (see Tables 2 and 3 in the essay Leiden Fijnschilders and the Local Art Market in the Golden Age in this catalogue). Of the 258 Leiden estate inventories used for this research, only ten list works by Van Mieris. This seeming anomaly is not as strange as it might initially appear, for Van Mieris’s work, like that of Dou, was so expensive that only a select few could afford to buy it.

Isaac Gerard and the Price of Van Mieris’s Work

Van Mieris was one of the best-paid painters in the Dutch Republic. Attestations of this fact are found primarily in literary sources, and they generally touch on the exorbitant amounts that foreign princes were willing to pay for his work. These were often substantially higher than the valuations given in the estate inventories of burghers and dealers. Of the more than 750 paintings evaluated in the 258 Leiden estate inventories, only 22 were worth 100 or more guilders. Of this modest number, 15 works—including the three most valuable ones, all by Van Mieris—were the property of a single individual. The owner of this first-rate collection was Isaac Gerard, one of the four patrons of Van Mieris mentioned by Houbraken in his Schouburgh. Gerard, a bachelor, was a fabulously wealthy merchant with businesses in Leiden and Amsterdam. He was also a member of the vroedschap, or town council. He lived in Leiden in a splendid house at 24 Rapenburg that had formerly been the property of the banker Francois Tortarolis, from whose heirs Isaac Gerard bought it in 1654 for the steep price of 25,000 guilders.

Little else is known about him, but the estate he left behind in 1694 confirms that Houbraken was right—Gerard was a great aficionado of Van Mieris. Among the close to two hundred paintings with a total value of more than 6,100 guilders, five were by Van Mieris, three of which were the most highly valued of them all. “Een stuckje daer osters gegeten warden” (A picture in which oysters are being eaten), possibly The Oyster Eaters in St. Petersburg (), was valued at 750 guilders by the painter Jacob Toorenvliet (1640–1719) and the art dealer Cornelis Berckhey; “een slapent mannetje” (a man sleeping), possibly The Sleeping Officer in Munich (), at 660 guilders; and “een stuckie met drie figuurties” (a picture with three figures) at 500 guilders. No such high valuations occur in any of the other Leiden estate inventories. Moreover, the fourth most expensive painting was also the property of Gerard, “een nagtstuckie” (a nocturnal scene) by Gerrit Dou worth 300 guilders according to the appraisers. Whether these generous amounts correspond to the prices Gerard actually paid for the works is not certain. Gerard’s inventory dates from 1697, long after the death of both Dou and Van Mieris, and in a period when their work fetched record prices at auction.

Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius

The most important of the four patrons mentioned by Houbraken in his biography of Van Mieris was Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius, who also features elsewhere in this catalogue as a benefactor of Dou (). Originally of French-Flemish origins, Sylvius was born in Hanau, Germany in 1614 to the merchant Isaac de le Boë (1588–1643) and Anna Vignet (d. 1648). He moved to Leiden to study medicine in 1634. Disappointed with the academic climate, he left the following year and went on to obtain a doctoral degree in Basel, before returning to Leiden in 1638 as a professor. This second sojourn too was short lived, for he moved to Amsterdam in 1641 and opened what proved to be a highly successful and profitable physician’s practice. There, in 1649, he married Anna de Ligne (1626–57), the youngest daughter of the wealthy grain merchant Abraham de Ligne and Catharina de Willem.

After the death of his wife in 1657, Sylvius accepted a position as professor of medicine in Leiden for an honorarium of 1,800 guilders per year, twice what his colleagues received. By then his reputation extended far beyond the Dutch Republic. For instance, a German student commended “Sir Dr. Sylvio […] [for] his erudition, which brought him fame unequaled in Holland and Germany. All of the great men in Europe sought his council and gave him lavish gifts.” Foreign scholars who spent some time in Leiden also spoke of him with respect. The Danish scholar Ole Borch (1626–90), who was in Leiden between 1661 and 1663, took detailed notes of Sylvius’s lectures and the chemistry experiments he conducted in his laboratory at his house on the Rapenburg. Borch also wrote extensively about his discussions with Sylvius. Borch, thus, was speaking from first-hand experience when he lavished praise on Sylvius, extolling his character in a letter in 1661 to the Danish physicist and mathematician Thomas Bartholinus (1616–80).

Sylvius was a great art lover, who at the time of his death in 1672 left behind 185 pictures, though whether he personally purchased them all is unknown. For example, research on his second wife, Margareta Lucretia (ca. 1647–69) makes it clear that her contribution to the collection was significantly larger than has hitherto been assumed. Not only did she inherit family portraits, but presumably also the portraits of Queen Christina of Sweden, and of Martin Luther and his wife, as well as the portrait of King Charles I of England by Anthony van Dyck (1599–1640). The picture by Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610) described in the estate inventory as “een groot Duyts landschap” (a large German landscape) most likely also came from her father’s estate.

Margareta Lucretia was the daughter of Johann Friedrich Schlezer (1609/10–ca. 1673), from Mecklenburg, and Maria Tentenier (d. 1648), of Utrecht. Her mother hailed from a family of merchants that had gained entry into Utrecht’s patriciate. Her father was born to a distinguished Lutheran family, several members of which moved in the social circles around the Swedish court. Johann’s father, as well as his grandfather, had been the personal physician of the Swedish king, and his brother Adolf was ambassador of Brandenburg in Stockholm. Schlezer came to the Dutch Republic to read mathematics at the Leiden Academy in 1629. He continued his study in Rostock, but was back in Leiden once more in 1634 as a student of mathematics.

Schlezer was in Utrecht in 1641 and 1644, perhaps serving as a diplomat. His compatriot and a co-student from his Leiden years, Martinus Tancken, who assisted him in drawing up his wedding contract in Utrecht in 1641, stated that he was an envoy of the Danish crown in The Hague. Schlezer was, in any event, a diplomatic agent between 1644 and 1658, and took part in many important missions as “secretaris van de Geheime Kamer” (secretary of the Privy Council) in the service of Elector Frederick William I (1620–88) of Brandenburg. Schlezer seems to have played a key role in 1646 in the wedding negotiations between the Great Elector and Louise Henriette of Nassau (1627–67), daughter of Stadholder Frederik Hendrik (1584–1647) and Amalia van Solms (1602–75). Margareta Lucretia Schlezer was born in Kleve, which probably indicates that she was born soon after the electoral wedding, since Frederick William and his bride spent the first years of their marriage in that city. Schlezer later served as ambassador on behalf of Brandenburg in Hamburg in 1651, and again in London in 1655.

Some art historians believe that Sylvius and Van Mieris enjoyed a relationship similar to that between Pieter Spiering and Dou. Houbraken, however, writes that Van Mieris “regularly requested that any work that he [Van Mieris] created might be for him, or that he might be granted the privilege of paying a price commensurate with what another [collector] had already offered.” Words such as “dikwerf” (regularly), “verzogt” (requested), and “mogt wezen” (might be) are not indicative of an existing situation, but rather a desired one. It is also highly questionable whether Sylvius could afford the kind of financial agreement that existed between Dou and Spiering. There is no doubt that he was wealthy, but whether he was rich enough to pay 500 guilders a year for the right of first refusal is unlikely. That Sylvius greatly admired Van Mieris’s work, however, is evident: at his death he owned no fewer than seven pictures by the artist. Still, that is four fewer than by Dou.

Patronage involved more than buying works of art; there were other ways of promoting one’s protégé. For instance, Sylvius ensured that Van Mieris gained entry into his scholarly network. This is suggested by the portraits Van Mieris made of two professors, Florentius Schuyl (1619–69) () and Francois Gomarus (ca. 1615–69), the latter of which is known only from his estate inventory. In 1722, a double portrait of Sylvius and wife () was in the possession of Maria Justina Kraij, the only traceable Haarlem owner of a work by Van Mieris. Since she possessed several more pictures by Van Mieris, as well as paintings by other Leiden artists, it is plausible that she, or her parents, inherited them from a relative in Leiden. A suitable candidate is Susanna Claessens, Maria’s great-aunt and the wife of Paulus Barbette (1620–65), a famous physician who died in Amsterdam in 1665. Barbette admired Sylvius greatly and knew him well. No inventory of his estate was made after his death, but one that was drawn up when his widow passed away seven years later mentions “de print van Silvius” (the print of Sylvius), which probably refers to a portrait print by Cornelis van Dalen of 1659 (). Although there is no direct indication that Barbette was the original owner of Van Mieris’s double portrait of Silvius and his wife, given the family relationship he seems ideally suited for ordering an expensive portrait of someone he knew well, but who was not a relative.

Sylvius sometimes mediated actively on behalf of Van Mieris. Houbraken writes that in 1660 Van Mieris “through the grace of the gentleman mentioned, his patron [Sylvius]” had the opportunity to paint a picture for Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria (1614–62), which became one of the Archduke’s favorite paintings: “a beautiful woman in a silk cloth shop, and an officer,” presently known as The Cloth Shop (). The commission could have radically altered the course of Van Mieris’s career. Not only did he receive the astonishingly high sum of 1,000 guilders for the work, but he was also invited to become Leopold’s court painter in Vienna for a staggering annual stipend of 2,500 guilders.  The painter thanked the Archduke most kindly for this signal honor, but asserted that he was compelled to decline because his wife was unwilling to leave Leiden. The truth of the matter, however, was that Van Mieris did not lack in profitable commissions in Leiden and therefore felt no acute need to leave his hometown.

Van Mieris found favor with yet another princely admirer: Cosimo III de’ Medici (1642–1723). In 1667 and 1669—before succeeding his father as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1670—Cosimo made two incognito trips to the Dutch Republic, during which he met many magistrates, scholars and artists. He also visited Sylvius’s home on the Rapenburg, which is probably where he first became acquainted with Van Mieris’s paintings. It also seems likely that Sylvius actually introduced the artist to Cosimo. During the 1669 trip, Cosimo collected the paintings he had ordered from Van Mieris the previous year, likely The Sleeping Courtesan () and The Quacksalver, both in the Uffizi in Florence. Van Mieris was not the only Leiden fijnschilder whom Cosimo held in high esteem. He also visited Gerrit Dou, from whom he probably bought Woman Making Pancakes. This notwithstanding, the future Grand Duke seems to have been impressed most by Van Mieris, whom he engaged to produce another five paintings in the years after his return to Florence. Van Mieris was renowned for his self-portraits, such as the one in The Leiden Collection in which he expresses surprise (). It is, thus, not surprising that one of the paintings Cosimo ordered was a self-portrait for his gallery of European celebrities.

Cornelis Paets and the Mysterious “Vredenburg”

While staying in Leiden, Cosimo also called on Cornelis Paets and took a tour of his splendid picture collection. He was particularly struck by “a cabinet picture depicting a young lady in a swoon, along with a doctor, and an old woman weeping” (). Van Mieris had begun this painting in 1663. In that year French envoy Balthasar de Monconys had called on Van Mieris and found him at work on it. He was astonished to hear that Van Mieris wanted 1,200 guilders for the piece once it was completed. According to Houbraken, Paets had agreed to pay Van Mieris 6 guilders for every hour he worked on it (this is the famous Doctor’s Visit now in Los Angeles). This agreement ultimately cost Paets a staggering 1,500 guilders, or 300 guilders more than the already exorbitant initial amount. Cosimo was eager to acquire the work and offered Paets twice as much for it, an enticement to which Paets did not succumb.

Unfortunately, no inventory of Paets’s collection has been preserved. Nevertheless, it enjoyed such renown that Cosimo visited his home on the Breestraat to see the works. On this occasion Cosimo surely admired the stunning portrait of Agatha van Couwenhoven (), Paets’s wife, which Van Mieris had painted in 1665 and which in Houbraken’s time was held to be “one of his most skillful paintings in this country.”

Paets seems to have granted commissions primarily to Van Mieris. Indications that he also served as an agent, like Sylvius, have not been found, although such a role cannot be definitively excluded. Van Mieris may have owed the commission for the portrait of Allard van Couwenhoven, Agatha’s father, to Cornelis Paets. Paets was Van Mieris’s contemporary and had known him since his youth. According to Houbraken, Paets was a fervent amateur painter and had received instruction in drawing from Van Mieris. Paets’s involvement with and encouragement of painting (which had landed him in a deep crisis) became apparent yet again shortly after Van Mieris’s death in 1681, when Paets helped found a drawing academy.

The fourth patron mentioned by Houbraken in his Schouburgh is a certain “Vredenburg,” about whom he offers no further details. Since the only “Vredenburg” living in Leiden after mid-century was the notary Willem van Vredenburch (ca. 1621–64), he is generally assumed to be the individual Houbraken had in mind. On first consideration, he does appear to be an excellent candidate. The Dou follower Adriaen van Gaesbeeck (1621–50) was Van Vredenburch’s brother-in-law and could have stimulated his interest in fijnschilder art. On the other hand, however, the notary had neither an extensive network of contacts nor the kind of wealth that would allow him to buy paintings from Van Mieris on a regular basis. In fact, it is doubtful whether he was in a position to acquire even one work by Van Mieris; the four Leiden estate owners with only a single work by the artist were, in any case, much richer than Van Vredenburch. The only other person from Leiden who could vie for the designation “Maecenas” was the merchant Alexander de Koninck from Zeeland. In 1681 five undescribed paintings by Van Mieris hung in his house on the Nieuwe Rijn.

In light of all this, the “Vredenburg” cited by Houbraken was probably someone who was not from Leiden. A suitable contender might be Gerard van Vredenburch (ca. 1640–90), who came from a wealthy Rotterdam regent family and was closely related to Cornelis Paets. Prior to his successful career in the Rotterdam town council, Van Vredenburch had studied law in Leiden in the early 1660s. Upon his return to Rotterdam in 1665, he married Maria van Couwenhoven, a first cousin of Agatha van Couwenhoven, the wife of Cornelis Paets. Van Vredenburch surely knew Van Mieris’s portrait of Agatha mentioned above, given that in May 1667 he was staying with Paets in Leiden to witness the baptism of his nephew Allard Paets. He could also have been exposed to Van Mieris’s work through his uncle, namely Agatha’s father, for the fabulously wealthy Allard van Couwenhoven had his likeness limned by Van Mieris. When the Rotterdam city secretary and owner of more than 140 pictures died in 1683, this portrait was in his house at the Wijnhaven, together with works by Jan Both (1615/18–52), Balthasar van der Helst (1613–70), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), and Jan Lievens (1607–74), among others. Van Vredenburch’s grandson, Willem Paets (1665–1740), inherited the portrait, and it was returned to Leiden, where it hung—until Willem was old enough—in the house of Cornelis Paets, doubtless in the vicinity of Agatha’s likeness. It is therefore entirely plausible that the “Vredenburg” described by Houbraken was someone not from Leiden, but rather from Rotterdam. Nevertheless, so long as information is lacking about the pictures owned by Gerard van Vredenburch or other members of this wealthy Rotterdam brewers’ family, this identification remains hypothetical.

- Piet Bakker, 2017
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