Family portraits: A symbol of everything!

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Family portraits: A symbol of everything!
Herman Meindertsz. Doncker, An Enkhuizen Family Group with Two Goats in a Wooded Landscape. Oil on panel, 37 x 55 inches (94 x 139.5 cm.). Photo: Courtesy Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts.

NEW YORK, NY.- Have you ever had a family portrait commissioned? Or maybe asked the waiter at the restaurant to take a photo of the family? Were you busy making sure the waiter understood that the patriarch of the family was in charge, or that the children look well-mannered and educated? Maybe the ideas are transmitted in a royal photo but not as likely for the rest of us – particularly in a restaurant! Of course, there can be subtle social cues, but realistically this is not a priority in most family photos.

HERMAN MEINDERTSZ. DONCKER (Hoorn 1595 – circa 1656) An Enkhuizen Family Group with Two Goats in a Wooded Landscape oil on panel, 37 x 55 inches (94 x 139.5 cm.)

In the 17th century, the family portrait was everything for well-to-do and socially prominent families. The extent to which symbolism was used to determine social standing, wealth, family quality and fertility is overwhelming and once you start to pick apart these beautiful and charming family scenes, it really becomes a way to personally relate to these families as maybe you had not before. It is an in depth look into what a family and their own social circle found important. It is a not a window into one soul, but a window into the family’s soul and a particular society’s soul. A perfect example of this is our family portrait by Herman Meindertsz. Doncker.

Herman Meindertsz. Doncker dabbled in landscapes and merry company paintings, but the core of his work was portraiture. In our portrait, Doncker introduces us to a young family in Enkhuizen, which was one of the harbor-towns of the Dutch East India Company from where overseas trade with the East Indies was conducted. Around the time our portrait was painted, Enkhuizen was on the rise, and becoming one of the most important harbor cities in The Netherlands. Naturally this meant Enkhuizen’s population was also gaining in status, wealth, and power – as The Netherlands during these years was the richest country in the world! It is likely this portrait was commissioned by an up-and-coming family with a newly found wealth.

Doncker tended to depict family portraits outdoors. These outdoor landscapes with the family posed in a relaxed way often coincided with the family purchasing a country estate, thus emphasizing their affluence, and securing their social status. The red soles of their shoes imply they were prosperous enough not to need to dirty their shoes with any sort of manual labor. The family stands in a line, with mother and father turned slightly toward each other to symbolize their union, while the husband is depicted in the latest fashion, with a stance depicting a man of action and a thrusted elbow indicating his authority. So, as you can see this picture is packed with messages.

As the wife and mother in the portrait, the woman is also dressed fashionably, holding a carnation to symbolize marriage, while extending her hand towards her daughter, which could imply protection, guidance, family unity or ‘just’ love. The woman is adorned with jewelry including a chatelaine which hangs from her belt. This was used for carrying keys and other items but symbolizes her management of a large household - an important and significant status symbol of the time. The quality of a household held a substantial meaning in the 17th century, as it reflected all kinds of values including family, religious and moral along with implying hospitality, generosity, and domestic harmony – so a pretty loaded symbol!

The children have their own set of symbols including the ornate gold on the clothes of the little girl, echoing that of her mother’s and indicative of wealth. The visible folds in her apron mark it as freshly laundered and as having just been removed from a cupboard, again another symbol of a well-run household. The tiny girl holds two cherries which symbolize a wish for a fruitful life. She also wears a four-strand coral necklace, believed to ward off disease and evil spirits. The necklace also symbolized transformation from rough to smooth like a child’s own development! So, this tiny thing was also carrying on her shoulders the hopes and dreams of her family.

Standing to her left, her brother (similarly clothed, the norm for this period) holds a stick and the reins of a goat. Pets were routinely included in children’s portraits, and this could certainly be the case in this work, but they were also selected for their symbolic value. Goats have long been associated with lust and wantonness and their presence serves as a warning for both boys to have temptation under control. It was generally felt that passions needed to be held in check from an early age, so as not to become a guiding force later in life. And the stick; it could represent responsibility, education, ethical behavior and/or leadership. That is a fully laden stick! The other brother, brandishing a small whip with a prancing goat, wears a different type of fashion. Scholars believe this young man was added later, but his burden is no lighter. The whip could symbolize the role of discipline and education in the child’s life, or it might indicate a family's aspirations for the boy to grow into a position of authority, such as a leader, protector, or ruler. It symbolizes the idea that he is being groomed for a role of responsibility. So, as you can see, the boys weren’t able to shirk their responsibilities in this portrait either.

For these families, family portraits were not just an exercise in vanity, pride, or a decorative showpiece for their homes, they were an open book to the hopes and dreams of the entire family, rolled up into a calling card for the social status of the blood line. These portraits were hanging on the wall, for all their world to see, with family goals and all the expectations and ambitions for each of the children. I don’t know about you, but I think the biggest symbol of these portraits is bravery. I am not sure that even a modern royal photograph would want to be so loaded with ambition and aspiration, much less your photo in the restaurant taken by the waiter!

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