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Visit from Holland: Dutch Regents at the Gemäldegalerie

14.04.2017
Gemäldegalerie

Thanks to a generous loan by the Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden, the Gemäldegalerie at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin has the privilege of displaying for a total period of two years an extraordinary example of 17th century Dutch portrait painting: a group portrait of ‘regents’ by the painter Jacob Fransz. van der Merck.

‘We are grateful to be the sole international institution besides the National Gallery to have been granted the privilege of displaying a loaned artwork from the Museum De Lakenhal, which is currently undergoing renovation work,’ said Michael Eissenhauer, Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Director of the Gemäldegalerie. ‘Displayed at the Gemäldegelerie, Van der Merck’s “Regents” will enter into dialogue with another work from our own collections, Werner van den Valckert’s Five Regents of the Groot-Kramersgild’.

In contrast to the rest of Europe, the most important source of art commissions in the Netherlands in the 17th century was not the nobility, but rather members of the wealthy urban bourgeoisie. To illustrate their social status, representatives of urban gilds in particular (such as the ‘regents’, or provosts, of charitable and social institutions) would have themselves painted in life-size group portraits. Typically, commissions would be given to local artists who specialized in this sort of portraiture. In the case of the present painting, the commission was awarded to the painter Jacob Fransz. van der Merck (around 1610–1664), himself a native of Leiden. In 1658, he painted a portrait of the five provosts of the Loridanhof, a charitable foundation for elderly people. However, also depicted (in a somewhat withdrawn position on the left-hand edge of the picture) are the institution’s porter and clerk. The varying degrees of prominence accorded by this arrangement is hardly surprising, since each sitter had to pay for his own portrait, which resulted in differences in the depictions of the individual subjects. Hence such regents’ portraits also partly offer a visual portrayal of socio-economic relations in 17th century Dutch society.

Group pictures of this kind generally remained in the possession of the city and did not come onto the art market, with the effect that this particular type of portrait is hardly ever found in art collections outside the Netherlands. The Gemäldegalerie is grateful to have the opportunity of exhibiting the large ‘regents’ portrait from Leiden for a period of two years, thus complementing the presentation of its own collection of Dutch paintings. Visitors can see The Regents of the Loridanhof in Leiden in room 432 in the context of 17th century Dutch portraiture.

Another extraordinary feature of the artwork is that its original frame, featuring gilt cartouches and the regents’ initials, has been preserved, meaning that it is possible to identify each of the regents shown in the portrait. The small portrait inserted at the top of the frame shows Pieter Loridan, a wealthy cloth dyer and native of Leiden, who in 1655 gave instructions in his will for the establishment of the Loridanhof as a residential home for needy, elderly married couples. An additional fascinating point of interest is that all the invoices for the Leiden group portrait have been preserved, so that today we are able to gain detailed insights into the costs for the frame, carving, and gilding. The entire complement of painting, frame, and documents makes the loan from Leiden a unique stroke of luck for visitors and scholars alike.