VOS, Marten de
(b. 1532, Antwerpen, d. 1603, Antwerpen)
Portrait of Antonius Anselmus, His Wife and Their Children1577
Oil on oak, 103 x 166 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Family harmony is a source of prosperity and happiness. So proclaims the Latin inscription in the cartouche at the top of the picture. This is the message of this family portrait, which does much more than simply depict wealthy members of Antwerp high society. Antonius Anselmus, an alderman of the city from 1580 to 1582, and his wife Joanna Hooftmans, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, are placed in front of a neutral background, accompanied by their two children, both born in Antwerp, Gillis in 1575 and Joanna in 1576. A third child was to be born in Hamburg, where the family sought refuge for a time after the city of Antwerp was returned to the Catholics. The Anselmus family, like the Hooftmans, were Calvinists.
The family's high social ranking is immediately visible in the various items of decor: the carved furniture, the silver inkwell on the table, and the fragile Venetian glass vase, as well as the costly lace on the parents' garments and the children's aprons. The little girl holds a sumptuous vermeil rattle, a prestigious object symbolising the wealth of the newly born child. This object was offered to very young children by a godfather or an important person. The one represented here has at one end a whistle and at the other a wolf's tooth, to which popular belief attributed the double power of protecting children against the evil eye and reducing teething pain. On the table between the couple are the marriage gloves and a rose, symbols of the love that unites them. The children express the prosperity of the couple as does the fruit being held by the elder. At the same time the tame bird on his shoulder is a metaphor for a successful education.
Maerten de Vos, who excelled in the portrait genre, was also known for his religious paintings, producing, among other works, six paintings of episodes from the life of St Paul for the dining room of Gillis Hooftmans, Joanna's father. It is possibly following this commission that he painted the family portrait. By creating a unified and enveloping space around the figures, the artist succeeded in given a new dimension to the genre, intensifying both the psychological study and the allegorical significance. A partial replica of this painting, containing the head of Joanna, is conserved at the Wallraf Richartz-Museum in Cologne.