The Wallace Collection

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Bartholomeus van der Helst: The Van Aras Family (P110)
Treasure of the Month - July 2007

Bartholomeus van der Helst: The Van Aras Family (P110)

This month’s Treasure of the Month complements a major exhibition of Dutch portraits which has just opened at the National Gallery in London. It also celebrates the recent cleaning of the painting and the identification of the previously unknown sitters

Van der Helst was an Amsterdam artist who by the mid-1650s had become the leading portrait painter in the city, even eclipsing Rembrandt. Painted in 1654, The Van Aras Family demonstrates perfectly the smooth finish and bold colours which characterized his work and ensured his popularity with the ruling elite (in contrast to Rembrandt’s much broader, darker style). The recent cleaning of the painting has revealed a dazzling array of colours, from the deep red of the man’s jacket to the brilliant whites and blues of the female figures’ dresses and the gorgeous multi-figured sash at the daughter’s waist. It has also emphasized Van der Helst’s characteristically meticulous observation of such details as the soft fur of the hare or the ‘black spot’ disease on the leaves of the tree above the Van Aras’s heads.

The most distinctive feature of seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture, as of Dutch art generally, was the marked degree to which it was ‘democratic’ compared with other European societies. Outside the Netherlands it was extremely rare for middle-class sitters to be represented full length on a scale as large as this. Yet, as Rembrandt’s Pellicorne portraits on the same wall also demonstrate, this was not unusual in Dutch art. (All three Dutch pictures may be contrasted with Van Dyck’s Philippe Le Roy and Marie de Raet on the opposite wall which depict aristocratic sitters, typical of Flemish art, though admittedly Le Roy’s aristocratic status had largely been gained through successful business dealings.)

Van der Helst’s Van Aras Family beautifully demonstrates not only the openness of Dutch portraiture to middle-class patronage, but ironically the degree to which in this supposedly ‘bourgeois’ society social status and aristocratic prestige were still important considerations. Jochem van Aras (died 1662) was a well-to-do baker from Amsterdam who was also a prosperous merchant. In 1648 he bought a ‘large, beautiful and pleasant manor’ in the vicinity of Overveen, near Haarlem. It is Haarlem that can be seen on the horizon, and almost certainly the house with the small tower in the middle ground is Van Aras’s country retreat. The area around Overveen contained many wealthy houses which were often included in the background of contemporary portraits as an indication of the sitter’s prosperity. In Van der Helst’s painting the theme of the sitters’ wealth is also emphasized by the inclusion of references to hunting – Van Aras’s hunting costume and riding boots, the hunting hounds, and most obviously the hare held by Van Aras’s wife, Elisabeth Claes Loenen (c.1616-73). The main reason why she seems so pleased with her trophy is that it had only been shortly before this portrait was painted that hunting rights had ceased to be the exclusive privilege of the aristocracy and been granted to wealthy middle class people like the Van Arases. The sumptuous fabrics worn by the sitters, particularly the daughter, Maria van Aras (c.1644-84), also allude to the importance of rich textiles as indicators of wealth and status in Dutch society (as The Laughing Cavalier next to The Van Aras Family incomparably demonstrates).

Van der Helst’s The Van Aras Family was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, father of Sir Richard Wallace, in 1862.