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Essay – Caesar van Everdingen – Portrait of a man

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Essay - Caesar van Everdingen - Portrait of a man

This little-known portrait of a man surfaced at an American auction in the spring of 2013. Its comprehensive restoration by Martin Bijl, completed in 2014, achieved a veritable metamorphosis, reinstating the painting's cool, subdued colouring. Though the work is unsigned, it was undoubtedly produced by the Alkmaar painter Caesar van Everdingen.[i] The oeuvre of this classicist artist was rediscovered around 1980, and since then Van Everdingen's paintings have been firmly re-established in the canon of Holland's Golden Age. He was known in his own day as one of the best artists in his city. Following an apprenticeship with an unknown artist in Alkmaar he continued his training in Utrecht, probably under Jan Gerritsz van Bronchorst (c.1603-1661). In the course of 1641, Van Everdingen worked in Amersfoort, in the house of the famous painter and architect Jacob van Campen (1596-1657), on his first major commission, the wings of the organ of the Grote Kerk (St Lawrence's Church) in Alkmaar. His meeting with Van Campen would have a decisive impact on Van Everdingen's career. In 1646 the painter married Helena van Oosthoorn, and two years later the couple settled in Haarlem, where his brother Allart (1621-1675) – a well-known landscape painter – also lived. Caesar van Everdingen was one of a team of artists who worked in this period, under Van Campen's direction, on large paintings for the Oranjezaal of Huis ten Bosch Palace in The Hague, the king's residence. The scenes all revolved around the life and work of Stadholder Frederik Hendrik, who had died in 1647. In 1662 Van Everdingen moved back to Alkmaar, where he would remain until his death in 1678. Van Everdingen worked mainly on commission, and most of his oeuvre consists of portraits and history paintings. He is an exponent of Dutch Classicism, a school of Dutch painting and architecture of the Golden Age whose subjects and designs are drawn from classical antiquity.

In this painting, an extremely self-assured gentleman has had his portrait made, with a sense of grandeur, by his city's leading portraitist. The portrait's elegance is enhanced by the classical contrapposto of the man's left arm. In painting this portrait, Van Everdingen opted for a tried and tested formula, placing his subject in front of a parapet, with draperies behind which part of a column can be made out.[ii] The white lace of the man's flat collar, which is depicted in extremely sharp lines, contrasts splendidly with his long, slightly curly hair, which tumbles over it. The rendering of materials demonstrates Van Everdingen's great craftsmanship: the play of light in the painting picks out every fold in the fabric, which has been made almost tangible. The white shirt under the short black jerkin, which is unbuttoned at the bottom, has very striking, wide sleeves, which are fastened with decorative ribbons at the wrists. On the basis of these and other details of his clothing, such as the ribbons stitched around his waist, decorations that form part of his trousers, this portrait can be dated to the years 1665-1670.[iii] Lavish apparel of this kind was not always admired in this period, and indeed sometimes attracted censure.[iv]

The man's identity is unfortunately a mystery, although he probably came from the Alkmaar region, like much of Van Everdingen's clientele. While the painter's other portraits often give information about the sitter's age, this one contains no information at all about the man. Furthermore, the painting may possibly have been reduced in size at some point, which would explain the absence of any signature or date. It is unfortunate that the original frame has been lost, since in seventeenth-century portraits, frames were often essential parts of the scene, frequently including references to the sitter's family name. Given that the man holds a carnation in his hand – though curiously upside-down – it seems fair to conclude that his portrait was made to mark his engagement.[v] No pendant has thus far come to light with a portrait of his fiancée, but it may surface at some point in the future.

Quentin Buvelot, September 2014

[i] The painting has already been included in the painter's oeuvre before; see the monograph P. Huys Janssen, Caesar van Everdingen 1616/17-1678, Doornspijk 2002, pp. 108-109, no. 47 and fig. 65. This was after W. van de Watering had rejected the old attribution to Ferdinand Bol, in the photograph in the collection of the Institute of Art History (RKD).

[ii] Curiously, the parapet does not continue on the right, at the man's hand. Van Everdingen had been using compositions of this kind with a column and/or draperies since his earliest portraits in 1636 (see Huys Janssen 2002, nos. 40-41, 54-55, 57, 66 and ill.).

[iii] Huys Janssen (2002, p. 108) dated the portrait to after 1670.

[iv] See A. Rüger in R. Ekkart, Q. Buvelot, Hollanders in beeld: Portretten uit de Gouden Eeuw (also published as Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals), [ok??] London (The National Gallery), The Hague (Mauritshuis) 2007-2008, p. 80.

[v] Huys Janssen 2002, p. 109.