On 21 January 1659, the Dutch painter Adriaen van der Werff was born in what was then a small village just outside the port of Rotterdam. Although he has been largely forgotten today, his rise was prodigious and he was well established by the time of his death on 12 November 1722. This article and its sequel tomorrow show a small selection of his paintings to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of his death.
Van der Werff started to learn to paint when he was only ten, and was apprenticed two years later to the history painter Eglon van der Neer. He completed that when he was seventeen, becoming a master in his own right with his studio in Rotterdam. At some stage he took his younger brother Pieter on, first as a pupil, then as one of his assistants.
He painted this Portrait of a Family in a Garden in 1682, when he was only twenty-three. Although its setting is dark and mysterious, he has rendered the fabrics in great detail.
Van der Werff’s modern reputation includes painting the erotic, and his Amorous Couple in a Park Spied upon by Children, or Paris and Oenone, from 1694, is one of his earlier works exploring the intense relationship of this legendary couple. As a shepherd, Paris of Troy went everywhere with his pipes, here depicted as an instrument resembling a modern recorder. His first marriage was to the nymph Oenone, whom he later abandoned to marry Helen.
In about 1696, van der Werff painted another pastoral romance, of a Shepherd and Shepherdess in Love, which might be an expurgated version of the previous painting.
That year, Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine, and his wife Anna Maria de’ Medici, visited van der Werff in Rotterdam and commissioned two paintings for her father, Cosimo III de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. This started a period of patronage during which the artist travelled frequently to the Elector’s court in Düsseldorf, culminating in his being appointed a knight and court painter in 1703. For the next thirteen years, until the Elector’s death in 1716, he painted many official portraits, and a steady supply of rather racy scenes from classical mythology.
Van der Werff’s rendering of textiles in this Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Margareta Rees from 1698 is also exceptional, although I’m not sure what she is holding in her hands, which appears to be a vegetable from the darkened garden behind her.
His Self-portrait with the Portrait of his Wife, Margaretha van Rees, and their Daughter Maria from 1699 is one of the finest and most ingenious family portraits I’ve seen. He holds his palette and brushes with his left hand, and around his neck is a medallion awarded by his patron, the Elector Palatine. His right hand supports a portrait of his wife Margaretha van Rees (1669-1732) and their daughter Maria (1692-1731).
The next two paintings show scenes from the Biblical story of Hagar, who was originally the maidservant of Abraham’s barren wife Sarah, and an Egyptian slave. Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as his concubine, so that he could father the child he needed to fulfil God’s promise that he would be the father to many nations. When Hagar became pregnant, tensions rose between the two women, and Hagar was forced to flee into the desert.
An angel appeared to Hagar, telling her to return and bear her son Ishmael. Later, after Sarah finally became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael were sent away into the wilderness, where they were rescued by God, and Ishmael went on to found a great nation.
Van der Werff’s first painting of Sarah presenting Hagar to Abraham (1699) shows the older Sarah talking with Abraham, whose left hand rests on the shoulder of the young Hagar.
Its sequel shows The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (c 1699), as the young mother and her son Ishmael leave Abraham, with Sarah looming behind him in the shadows.
Diana Discovers Callisto’s Slip from 1704 is based on the myth told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses about the daughter of the King of Arcadia, who was a follower of the goddess Diana. As they were required, she took a vow of celibacy, but Jupiter took a fancy to her, disguised himself as Diana, and raped her. She fell pregnant, which was noticed by Diana, and she was cast out, turned into a bear by the vengeful Juno, and finally catasterised. Here Diana, at the right, is pointing out Callisto’s swollen abdomen as an early sign of her pregnancy.
Van der Werff continued to paint religious stories too, here The Flight into Egypt (1710), with Joseph and Mary picking their way down a rocky path, and the infant Jesus held precariously in Mary’s arm.
In 1714, van der Werff painted a fairly conventional version of the Old Testament story of Bathsheba, who is seen combing her hair under the distant gaze of King David. This composition is similar to that of Rembrandt’s first version from 1643.
Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at her Toilet followed the popular trend, only his model was past her best, and the distant voyeur king has disappeared into the gloom of old varnish. Over the next dozen years, he came up with his much improved version, which van der Werff may not have seen.