Jan van Mieris
(Leiden 1660 - 1690 Rome)
Vanitas Portrait of a Young Woman, 1687
Oil on panel, 21 x 17.1 cm
Signed and dated on the base of the column in the middle J. van Mieris/1687
W. Baumgärtner, Oberer Luisenpark, Mannheim (according to label on the back).
This small panel depicts a rosy-complexioned young woman in a lustrous satin gown with slashed sleeves over a full, puffed chemise. Her dress is the height of fashion. She gazes out at the viewer with an air of quiet introspection. Beside her, on the cornier pier of a marble balustrade, stands a large monochrome-glazed faience jardinière with elaborate relief decoration. It contains a single, tall-scaped tulip. Its foliage is dying down and its petals have dropped, lying scattered on the balustrade. The young woman’s right hand points to the fading petals, while her left hand is raised against her breast with a pointing gesture, as if to engage the viewer in a visual disquisition both on the transience of life and on the vanity of earthly beauty and riches. The doubly symbolic meaning of the withering tulip transforms an ostensible portrait of a fashionable young woman into a memento mori. Like the vanitas, the memento mori was intended to convey a moral message exhorting the viewer to consider his own mortality and lead a pious existence in preparation for the afterlife. The vanitas enjoyed popularity among affluent Protestant citizens in seventeenth-century Holland as a reaction to Roman Catholicism.
It is possible that the painting may also have triggered recollections of tulip mania1, a phenomenon with its own moral message that took hold of the Netherlands some fifty years before the present work was executed. The story of tulip speculation is often viewed as the first example of a major economic bubble. Speculators with irrational expectations traded the flower’s bulbs for such high sums that the market overheated. At the same time, over-enthusiastic propagation of the rarest bulbs is likely to have increased supply at the expense of rarity value. The collapse came without warning, but the idea that it threatened the economic stability of the fledgling Dutch republic is conjectural.2
The international success of Gerrit Dou (1613-75), who was born and active in Leiden, encouraged other painters to study under him, and his style was widely admired and emulated. Dou is regarded as the founder of a tradition known as the Leiden school of fijnschilders [fine painters]. The school was highly regarded for its meticulous, highly finished techniques and striking realism, especially in the depiction of fabrics. The application of paint in multiple, fine layers created a surface of almost enamelled smoothness. This came into fullest effect on durable, smooth surfaces such as wood panels and copper plates which were fairly readily available and therefore became the supports of choice. The technique was time-consuming and costly, which might explain a general preference for small formats. These cabinet paintings were in demand all over Europe and highly valued among collectors such as Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony (1670-1733) in Dresden and Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1642-1723) in Florence.3 4
Jan van Mieris was born in Leiden on 17 June 1660. He was the eldest son of the painter Frans van Mieris (1635-81), at the time Leiden’s most successful fijnschilder. Jan’s younger brother, Willem van Mieris (1662-1747), was also a painter. Both brothers were taught by their father. Frans van Mieris, who held great respect for the work of the classicist and history painter Gérard de Lairesse (1641-1711), initially wanted his son to complete his training under de Lairesse in Amsterdam.5 Jan van Mieris registered as an independent painter with the Guild of St. Luke in Leiden on 14 June 1686. He traveled through Germany to Italy in 1688. Van Gool notes that through his father, Jan had received a promising introduction to the Court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Florence.6 However this was later withdrawn on grounds of religious dissent – Van Mieris would have been taken into Court service, had the devout Grand Duke not insisted that he become a Catholic.7 Jan then moved to Rome, where he died on 17 March 1690 at the age of only twenty-nine. Within his small oeuvre signed and dated works are of exceptional rarity.
1 By the 1620s, tulip prices were already rising dramatically and the craze reached its height in 1637. Popular legend has it that the entire population was involved, even children. At one point, an entire townhouse is said to have been exchanged for 10 bulbs. The average price of a single tulip exceeded the annual income of a skilled worker. Tulips sold for over 4,000 florins. But when people began to sell, a domino effect took place and over the course of a week, prices drastically fell. However, recent research by Anne Goldgar has debunked much of the ‘moralizing myth’ of tulip mania and found scant evidence to support the claim that bankruptcies were widespread or that it had a significant economic influence on the prosperity and stability of the Dutch republic. See Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, Chicago 2008.
3 Peter Hecht, De Hollandse Fijnschilders van Gerard Dou tot Adriaen van der Werff, exhib. cat., Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1989, pp. 13-19.
4 Eric Jan Sluijter et al., Leidse Fijnschilders: Van Gerrit Dou tot Frans van Mieris de Jonge 1630-1760, exhib. cat., Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal Leiden, Waanders 1988, pp. 13-55.
5 Opinions are divided as to whether Jan continued his training under Gérard de Lairesse in Amsterdam. Jan van Gool, writing in 1751, states that Frans van Mieris disapproved of Lairesse’s ‘immoral conduct’ and decided against apprenticing his son to him. Jean Baptiste Descamps, in a biography of Frans van Mieris published in 1760, states that Frans called his son back from Lairesse’s workshop, fearing he would be exposed to a si mauvais exemple. See P. Hecht, op. cit., p. 100.
6 Eric Jan Sluijter, ‛Een zelfportret en de ‟schilder en zijn atelierˮ: het aanzien van Jan van Mieris’, in Leids Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 8 (1989), pp. 287-307.
7 Jan van Gool, De nieuwe Schouburg der Nederlantsche kunstschilders en schilderessen, 2 vols., The Hague 1750-51, II, p. 442.