This endearing early seventeenth century portrait of four young children and their dog has survived in remarkable condition with much of the original glazes and brushwork intact. They form a compact group, which virtually fills the entire painting, and the composition is not in the least bit stiff, thanks to the children’s tender gestures – the younger boy grasping his elder brother’s arm, and the youngest girl holding their pet dog.
Zierikzee, City Hall Museum, Portraits by Zeeland Masters from the Golden Age, 24 December 2020 to 14 November 2021.
F. van der Ploeg, Portretten door Zeeuwse Meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw, Zwolle 2020, p. 81, no. 100.
The Weiss Gallery, A Noble Visage, London 2001, no. 18.
The symbolism within the portrait provides a pointed and aspirational narrative that would not have been lost on contemporary viewers of the work. For example, the presence of the family dog, apart from being a charming pictorial device, is a clear allusion to fidelity and training; how nature can be corrected by means of education and exercise. The book that the young brothers hold together further alludes to their education, while the basket of cherries and apple held by the youngest girl are references to her innocence and future potential for a fruitful marriage. The inclusion of fruit in child portraiture also signified that children should be cared for and cultivated, in the same way that fruit should be cultivated for a rewarding crop. The eldest daughter holds a small book, most likely of prayers, to project her piety, as well as a richly embroidered silk glove, a costly accessory and reference to her gentility.
The portrait clearly represents the difference in maturity between the children: the two boys are represented as scholars, old enough to attend school, their seriousness emphasized by the severity of their costumes and a certain assurance of manner. The eldest sister is presented as a pious and well-educated young woman, whilst in contrast her younger sister is more playful and her pre-occupation with their family pet and colourful attire suggest the lively, carefree existence of a child not yet at school.
The girls’ costumes are sumptuous and richly embroidered with intricate ruffs and lacework, all of which indicate that they were clearly the children of a wealthy patrician family. In particular, the eldest girl proudly holds her gloves in such a way that the embroidery on the cuffs can be clearly seen. Their highly decorative clothing and distinctive lace collars suggest that the family came from the Dutch province of Zeeland, the westernmost province of the Netherlands. The costumes are so distinctive that the dresses and lace collars are almost replicas of those worn in a portrait of nine-year-old Janneke de Looper from Middelburg, also dated 1627.
The painterly style used suggests that the artist is of Flemish origins, a theory that would correlate with the political upheaval experienced by the Southern Netherlands during the late sixteenth century and it appears that our painting is an exciting mixture between North and South Netherlandish elements, typical of attributions to other anonymous Flemish refugee painters working in Zeeland. Following Antwerp’s fall to Spanish forces in 1585 and the subsequent expulsion of all non-Catholics, many Protestant Flemish artists moved to Zeeland and settled in its capital, Middelburg, a prosperous trading centre. Middelburg gained much of its wealth from the influx of these Flemish émigrés, among them artists including the famous still-life painter Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573 – 1621). It also benefited enormously from the presence of the Dutch East and West India Companies, both of which established important regional offices in this well-situated maritime city. Middelburg’s wealthiest citizens adorned their homes with luxury goods from around the world and their gardens with rare bulbs and plants. It was only natural for these rich merchants to commission portraits of their children as well.
With this in mind, and on stylistic comparison, our painting had until recently been attributed to an anonymous Flemish artist, working in Zeeland. However, our attribution has been revisited thanks to an exhibition concerning Zeeland portraiture from the ‘Golden Age’, which was hosted in Zierikzee in 2020/21. The exhibition’s catalogue, written by the Dutch art historian Frank van der Ploeg, includes a proposition that the present picture must be connected with the artist Salomon Mesdach, who was the most prominent portrait painter then active in Middelburg. Although there is not much biographical data known about the artist, there are records within the Middelburg city archives that record him being a painter and burgher in Middelburg in 1617, a witness to two baptisms performed in 1619 and 1622, and being appointed Dean of the city’s Guild of St Luke in 1628. Until the Zierikzee exhibition, attributions to Mesdach had been cautiously applied to several paintings, which is understandable considering only two paintings, which are signed, are the only reference pieces firmly attributed to the artist. The earliest of these, dated 1612, shows a very similar family group, which includes four children, with a closely knit composition akin to the present painting.
Of the many comparable compositional qualities shared between these two paintings, it is worth remarking on the following: both include the ages of each sitter in near-exact script above their heads; each child holds an object that alludes to their maturity (in particular, one of the boys holds a book and the youngest holds a stem of cherries); and whilst two of the children are shown (notably, and rather awkwardly) back-to-back, the other two tenderly hold each other’s hands. Structurally-speaking, it is interesting to note the horizontal formatting of the panels, when it is more typical to see them adhered to one another vertically. All of these shared pictorial devices, and the evident references to the city of Middelburg, would indicate that our painting is a later work by Salomon Mesdach, painted a year before he was appointed the Dean of Middelburg’s Guild of St Luke.
 J. Bedaux, ‘Discipline for Innocence. Metaphors for Education in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting’ from The reality of symbols. Studies in the iconology of Netherlandish art, 1400-1800, 1990, p. 127.
 The province, located in the south-west of the country, consists of a number of islands and peninsulas (hence its name, meaning ‘sea-land’) and a strip bordering Belgium.
 Janneken de Looper (1616 – 1665) (Zeeuws Museum, Middelburg, Zeeland, inv./cat.nr M-80-048), attributed to an obscure artist referred to only as A. Rombouts, about whom nothing is known. Our thanks to Sabine Craft,-Giepmans of the RKD for suggesting this connection. See: https://rkd.nl/explore/images/193978
 See: https://rkd.nl/explore/images/103066
 We would like to thank Mr Van der Ploeg for his recent research and supporting this new attribution, which had been considered by the gallery before the exhibition.