This delicate portrait of a young Dutch girl is one of the first painted by Johnson after his departure from England to the Netherlands in 1643, where he firstly settled in Middelburg. Presented within a feigned stone oval, it is similar in design to Johnson’s earliest works, notably of members of the Dutch Reformed Church in England, of which the artist was himself a close member. It mimics the format of the portraits painted in 1634 of the Dutch minister of Austin Friars, Willem Thielen (1596 – 1638) and his wife, Maria de Fraeye (1605 – 1682), themselves from Middelburg, (Catherijneconvent Museum, Utrecht), and latterly of their eldest son, painted in 1644 after the Thielen family’s return to their native city (Private collection, Amsterdam) – all of which are set within the familiar marble cartouche.
John H.H.V. Lane (d. 1917), King's Bromley Manor, Lichfield;
Christie's, London, 12 December 1912, lot 136 (420 gns.); with A. Wertheimer, London; from whom acquired by Adolph Hirsch, London; by descent to his grandson George Pinto (1929 – 2018).
F. van der Ploeg, Portretten door Zeeuwse Meesters uit de Gouden Eeuw, Zwolle 2020, p. 82, no. 102 (as ‘Elisabeth Thielen (1636 – 1671)?’).
The Weiss Gallery, A Connoisseur's Eye, London 2020, cat. 10.
It is likely that this young girl is the child of someone in Johnson’s close circle in Middelburg, painted at a time when he would have been re-establishing his network. People whom Johnson already knew well in the city included the Hoste family, and the widowed Maria de Fraeye (van Thielen), and it is possible that our sitter could indeed be a member of Maria’s family.
The young girl, aged around five years old, engages with the viewer confidently, in spite of her youth. She wears a simple oyster satin dress, and a blue silk mantle, draped in the manner of a Van Dyck: this is a child of some wealth. Her starched linen cap, reaching over the crown of her head, and back to her ears, is a peculiarly Dutch fashion. The large pearl-drop earrings, reminders of Dutch trading links with the Orient, have been attached to her cap by black silk threads, perhaps on account of their weight, and the child’s diminutive age. Johnson brilliantly captures the sweetness of his subject whilst avoiding sentimentality.
Johnson must have been a pragmatic character, with a resilience to his personality, for it was a bold move to uproot his family and practice to the Protestant northern Netherlands in 1643. As Vertue describes, he ‘stayed in England till the Troublesom civil war. Being terrifyd with those apprehensions & the constant persuasions of his wife he went to Holland.’ His wife was herself from a Dutch migrant family, so her encouragement is not surprising. They settled firstly in the prosperous city of Middelburg, before moving to Amsterdam in 1646. In 1652, the artist and his family moved on again, this time to Utrecht, where he was to be acclaimed as the leading portrait painter of that city.
Johnson’s experience painting both the British aristocracy and gentry must have given him an appealing social ease, a mercurial ability to engage with a broad cross-section of society. His skill in capturing a likeness, but also in painting costumes and sumptuous fabrics did not go unobserved. The artist’s chameleon-like ability to adapt his portraiture to the taste and style of the country in which he was now living ensured his continuing success, and his Dutch-period works are notable for their finesse and naturalism, executed with a more subdued palette in keeping with the restrained Dutch sensibility.
 With thanks to Karen Hearn for her suggestion of this possibility and her endorsement of the attribution.