HEEMSKERCK, Maerten van
(b. 1498, Heemskerck, d. 1574, Haarlem)

Family Portrait

c. 1530
Oil on wood, 118 x 140 cm
Staatliche Museen, Kassel

This painting of a family is one of the most important works of portraiture in 16th-century Netherlandish art. It also provides an exemplary illustration of the possibilities offered by the combination of Early Netherlandish tradition, Italian influences and creative talent.

A respectably dressed family is gathered around a table whose white damask cloth is spread with food. The father, looking out at the viewer, has a large purse hanging from his belt; his right hand holds out a wine-glass in an inviting gesture, while the left hand with its signet ring rests on his daughter's shoulder. The youngest child in the mother's lap holds out to the viewer the crucifix that hangs from her rosary. The signet ring identifies the father as Peter Jan Foppeszoon, a wealthy burgher, town councillor and church warden of St Bavo in Harlem. By 1530, his wife Alijdt Mathijsdr. had given birth to three children, Jan, then around five years old, Cornelia, about three, and Pieter, born around 1530. The birth, or perhaps christening, of the youngest child may have been the occasion for the commissioning of this family portrait.

The clear compositional structure, stabilized by its "corner posts" of father and mother yet with no sense of rigidity, reflects both the influences with which Heemskerck was confronted in Rome and his own endeavours to lend plastic conviction to his figures and objects. The richly decked table, on the other hand, with its carefully executed tableware and food, takes up the love of detail so characteristic of Early Netherlandish painting. It is but a short step from here to the emergence of the still-life as a genre in its own right.

While the different ages of the three children are accurately characterized, the figures nevertheless remain coolly distanced from the spectator. The inner world of the painting remains hermetically sealed, an impression reinforced by the technique employed for the background, whereby the paint is applied in thin, smooth layers in pale forms which seem to be abstracted from clouds.

Heemskerck's Family Portrait, one of his greatest works, was for a long time attributed to his fellow Dutchman Jan van Scorel.