Set in a capriccio landscape, by a classical building, nonetheless these siblings were most likely the city-dwelling offspring of wealthy Amsterdam merchants. Portraits of children from this period were commissioned to express status, wealth and continued lineage, as well as a conscious desire to capture a precious moment in a child’s life, when infant mortality was high.
The eldest child, a young girl of around five or six years old, stands by a rosebush in bloom – a symbol of love, her innocence and youth, and the notion of the child as a ‘blossom’. She holds a rose from the bush as well as a carnation – often used in portraiture of the time to denote an engagement. Meanwhile, the younger sibling grasps a male doll in military garb. This may be a marker of the child’s gender – the possibility that he could be a young boy. There was little or no difference in the clothing of very young children – they all wore ‘skirts’ and bonnets, regardless of whether they were male or female. Boys did not pass out of skirts and into breeches until they were around six or seven years old.
Both children are wearing necklaces and bracelets made of red coral. Coral jewellery was commonly used in the seventeenth century for its legendary protective qualities. Believed to ward off the evil eye, it was worn as a talisman to repel sickness and disease, and even used for teething pains. Coral jewellery was a common baptism gift, often carried until marriage, then passed on to the next generation.
Nicolaes van Helt was born in Nijmegen in 1614. He was one of Bartholomeus van der Helst’s (1613 – 1670) most talented followers, emulating his master’s poignant, colourful portraiture. As a young artist he travelled to France and Italy, and spent some time in Antwerp before settling in Amsterdam, where he died in 1669. Besides landscapes and individual group portraits, he produced large history paintings, including three for the new Amsterdam town hall, commissioned by the burgomasters. He also painted allegorical ceilings for the two large front rooms of the grand Trippenhuis in Amsterdam, owned by members of the Trip family who had made their fortune as munition dealers.