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Essay – Jacob Adriaensz Backer – Portrait of a woman with a white cap

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Essay - Jacob Adriaensz Backer - Portrait of a woman with a white cap

When Otto Benesch published this portrait for the first time in 1934, as a portrait by Rembrandt from his early Amsterdam period, e.g. 1633-34, his publication may have stirred some attention, but certainly not with the small crowd of connoisseurs, such as Abraham Bredius and Kurt Bauch.1 In fact, after the short article by Benesch, the painting was never published again. This may sound odd, but several Rembrandt specialists, like Hofstede de Groot or Wilhelm von Bode had just passed away. Others, like Bredius, had retired and had become less active. Nevertheless, when Bredius published his long-awaited monograph of Rembrandt one year later, this small portrait was not to be found, not even in the 1937 English edition. Furthermore, Europe was in turmoil and serious academic research was not a priority in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and even Monaco, where Bredius resided.

The portrait has been part of the paintings collection of the Kielmansegg Family in Vienna. On the back of the panel three red seals can be found and one of them could be identified as presenting the coat-of-arms of the Kielmansegg Family.2 The other two seals could not be identified, unfortunately. Additionally, two black stamps can be made out. One of them is blurred and unreadable, the other one, however, can easily be read: “STATNI PAMATKOVI URAD PRO CECHY V PRAZE”, which means “The state office for historic preservation in Czechia”. This stamp was used in the period between the two world wars, the interbellum, during the time of the first republic of Czechoslovakia (1918-1938). Possibly the stamp relates to an export license, but it may have been Czech property either before 1930 (when Friedländer wrote his photo certificate) or after 1934, since between those years the picture definitely was in the Kielmannsegg Collection.3 Just before the second world-war took its toll on each and everyone, the painting surfaced in April 1939 at Kunstsalon Franke in Leipzig, where it stayed at least until 1940. It possibly traveled to Leipzig via Prague, at a time the first republic of Czechoslovakia was still in existence, e.g. in 1938 at the latest. We do not know anything about the whereabouts of the picture after 1940 and only 69 years later, the painting resurfaced at a sale in Hannover, not as by Rembrandt, but as by Jacob Backer. Although it is unknown who brought the picture in, it is quite conceivable that it came from an old German collection, the ownership possibly going back all the way to 1940.

It is not known who was responsible for the attribution to Jacob Backer, but the portrait carried that name when it came up for sale. I am confident that this attribution is justified, however. The portrait can be dated towards the early- and mid-1630s, based on the lady’s attire, a modest pleated ruff and a headdress, consisting of two pieces, a tightly fitting cap around her head as well as an added broader cap that flares over her ears. She wears the same attire as the 83-year old Aechje Claesdr, who was portrayed by Rembrandt in 1634.4 Compared to the Portrait of Haesje van Cleyburg, Aechje’s daughter-in-law, painted by Rembrandt in the same year, it is evident that our painting cannot have been painted by Rembrandt.5 The thick impasto layers with which Rembrandt worked up the flesh colors of the sitter’s face, in short and powerful brush strokes, is wholly absent in the face of our lady.

The thin and fluent application of long and elegant brush strokes and the use of ground layers for the right side of the face, hidden in the shadow, are absolutely typical for Backer’s painting technique. Using white, yellow, grey and pink tones in alternate layers, Backer brings life to the healthy cheeks of this lady, who cannot be much older than 40 years. These fluent, thin and speedily applied brush strokes can be found in her ruff as well and add a wonderful transparent quality to her headdress. Focusing on her subtly painted features, one is able to notice the highlights Backer added to the bridge of the nose and especially the eyes that sparkle thanks to Backer’s finishing touch. How different is Rembrandt’s working method to bring out Haesje van Cleyburgh’s facial features: layer by layer Rembrandt brings out her face in an almost three-dimensional way; the wrinkles around her eyes add to her physical appearance. Otto Benesch compared our picture with another Rembrandt, the 1633 Portrait of Margaretha van Bilderbeecq, now in Frankfurt (fig. 1).6 And indeed, this portrait lacks the thick impasto of the 1634 portraits in London and Amsterdam and the use of a grayish-green ground from which the layers are built up, combined with a less dramatic chiaroscuro puts the Bilderbeecq portrait rather close in style to our portrait.

However, when Jacob Backer arrived in Amsterdam in 1632,7 he must have been incredibly impressed by Rembrandt’s portraits and it is hardly surprising that several of his early portraits were not only attributed to Rembrandt, but wore fake signatures of the latter as well, like the so-called Portrait of Anna Roefs in the Wallace Collection (fig. 2), or the Boy in gray in the Mauritshuis.8 Indeed, it is in fact the only period, in 1632 and 1633, that Backer is trying to duplicate Rembrandt’s painting technique – and then specifically his portraits – and to be fair one should add that he performed very well. That Backer took Rembrandt as a model is not at all strange. Backer was not trained as a portrait painter – he made large religious paintings for Lambert Jacobsz – and was therefore looking for a model and found that model in the portraits that were produced in the shop of Hendrick Uylenburgh, on the Jodenbreestraat. Backer, like Uylenburgh, was a Mennonite and since Uylenburgh was Lambert Jacobsz’ partner, Backer must have frequented Uylenburgh’s ‘Academy’ regularly. Since Rembrandt was the head of Uylenburgh’s studio, his painting style, that differed so strongly from that of the older generation of Amsterdam portrait painters, like Pickenoy or Thomas de Keyser, dominated the market almost directly and his portraits provided a model for many a young painter that arrived in Amsterdam.

Indeed, many of Backer’s portraits from the period 1632-1635 are close to Rembrandt’s portrait convention and this Portrait of a woman with a white cap only strengthens that point of view. When compared to his own portraits, two paintings especially come to mind. First and foremost I would like to point out the already mentioned Portrait of Anna Roefs in the Wallace Collection, datable to circa 1634 and even closer in technique, the Portrait of a woman in the Antwerp Museum, from the same period.9

The present size of the portrait is most certainly not the original one; it must have been larger, but not by much. It was certainly not an oval, as was suggested by Benesch in 1934. Furthermore it is highly unlikely that the painting had a companion piece. No doubt the painting is an autonomous work; the sitter is presented on the heraldic right side, the strong side, usually reserved for men, not for their spouses, unless she was from higher birth or played a role of someone like that, like couples portrayed as Granida (a princess) and Daifilo (a shepherd). Of course this rule did not apply to autonomous portraits, as this astounding resurfaced painting proves.