Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A Mother and Child; she, wearing black dress, white ruff and large, jewelled cross; the child, holding a parrot, wears fawn and rust-coloured tunic, white lawn collar and cap with fresh flowers, cherries in their left hand, gilded border, c.1620 

Dutch or Flemish School 

A Mother and Child; she, wearing black dress, white ruff and large, jewelled cross; the child, holding a parrot, wears fawn and rust-coloured tunic, white lawn collar and cap with fresh flowers, cherries in their left hand, gilded border, c.1620, Dutch or Flemish School
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Watercolour on vellum
17th Century
Rectangular, 6 ¼ in x 5 1/8 in (158 x 130 mm)
 
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The techniques employed in this double portrait are most unusual in Dutch or Flemish seventeenth century art. The tradition of portrait painting in watercolour on vellum, so prevalent at this time in England, was extremely rare in Holland and Flanders. Most small, early seventeenth century portraits were painted in oil on metal – a type of ‘portrait miniature’ that was brought to England by itinerant Dutch or Flemish artists. The present portrait combines early English ‘limning’ techniques with the compositional structure of double portraits from the Dutch Golden Age. The unknown artist had possibly spent time in England, returning to Holland armed with the knowledge of limning.

Like many portraits of this period, the portrait contains objects which convey meaning on both a secular and religious level. The moral and social message conveyed by this portrait would have been a familiar pictorial language to the contemporary viewer. It is probable that this portrait was formerly one of a pair, the other portraying the child’s father.

The parrot held by the child traditionally symbolised the Virgin Mary in paintings. This association appears to stem from the simple notion that both a talking bird and a pregnant virgin were improbable situations, but the bird also symbolised purity. Often Mary herself is depicted with a parrot – such as in Jan van Eyck’s ‘Madonna with the Canon van der Paele’, 1436 [Groeninge Museum, Bruges].

The parrot was also associated with the Garden of Eden, as seen in Albrecht Dürer’s 1504 engraving ‘Adam and Eve’. Here, the bird is often shown averting its gaze so that it does not witness the couple’s fall and therefore it is also associated with the attribute of wisdom, and a love of learning. In the present portrait, the inclusion of the parrot may therefore also allude to the theme of the child’s education. Imported from South America, parrots were also very popular as domestic pets in wealthy seventeenth century Dutch households and it could be included in this portrait simply to indicate the status of the family.

Status is further denoted in this double portrait through the sitter’s clothing. Black was a colour which indicated sobriety and modesty in the wearer, but it was also the most expensive colour to wear, as a true black dye was difficult to achieve. Here, the sitter’s gown is not only in costly and fashionable black but is made up of a complex selection of panels and patterned fabric. This is offset by a long jet necklace and matching earrings, a magnificent, large ruff and gold cross set with diamonds. Although this sombre clothing may be a reflection of the sitter’s conservative religious status, it also reflects her high economic and social position in society.

The child in this portrait is also dressed in the most fashionable garb of the period, wearing a slashed bodice over fine, white lawn collar and cuffs and lace cap. The cherries held by the child also have religious significance. They were considered fruits of Paradise and were often held by children to symbolise innocence and virtue.

The present portrait is fascinating and distinctive on many levels, but it is also a tender portrayal of mother and child. Their closeness is emphasised by the hand of the mother on the child’s arm – a protective and natural gesture. The child’s approaching independence is implicated by the control of the prized bird on their hand. The cap is adorned with a carnation, reinforcing the connection between the mother and child with images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. The Greek name for carnation, dianthos, means ‘flower of God’, and for this reason the carnation often appears in paintings of the Madonna and Child.
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