A highly successful artist in Amsterdam, Ferdinand Bol, much like Rembrandt, became known for the detailed characterization of his sitters–in particular his portraits of women. As is typical of a betrothal portraits, this image displays the sitter’s wealth through her lavish textiles and jewelry.
About the Portrait
oung Dutch painter, Ferdinand Bol grew up in Dordrecht, Holland. It is believed that he learned to paint there where he studied with the artist Abraham Bloemaert. Bol also worked at the studio of Rembrandt Van Rijn from 1636-41 before painting on his own (Meij-Tolsma). Early in his career, Bol became known for his composition, technique, and talent for uniquely characterizing the sitters of his portraits. Although Bol’s style was originally similar to Rembrandt’s, he began painting in a colorful and elegant manner as he developed his work independently (Liedtke 45).
In 1642, Ferdinand Bol began working as an independent artist. The painting, Portrait of a Woman, was created at this time. Bol usually began the painting process with a rough sketch. On the right is a sketch, Studie van vrouwenkop (Fig. 1), for another portrait that Bol created in 1636. Portrait of a Woman was completed early in Bol’s career, when he was twenty-six years old. Portrait of a Woman is one of three portraits of women that Bol signed his name to in 1642 (The Met). Similar, nearly contemporaneous portraits include his 1644 portrait of an unknown woman (Fig. 2) and A Lady with a Fan, 1645-50 (Fig. 3).
The sitter’s name is not included in the title of the work and remains unidentified. Although, we can assume the young, Dutch woman comes from a prosperous family by the very lavish pearls and lace depicted in the portrait. Flaunting one’s wealth in a portrait, particularly one to commemorate a marriage, was very common at this time. The portrait may have been commissioned to observe a betrothal or marriage (Liedtke 46).
As the Met curator Walter Liedtke explains, the woman appears to be shifted to the left in her posture, indicating that this painting may be part of a set in which the portrait would be hung to the right of a portrait of the man she is about to marry or is married to. The closed fan that she is holding in her hand directs the viewer’s eye to the left, where a male companion portrait would be displayed. The ring on the woman’s left hand resembles a betrothal ring, which also signifies that this portrait was painted for a couple about to get married (Liedtke 46).
Ferdinand Bol (Dutch, 1616-1680). Portrait of a Woman, 1642. Oil on canvas; 87.3 x 71.1 cm (34 3/8 x 28 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 30.95.269. Theodore M. Davis Collection. Source: The Met
About the Fashion
In Portrait of a Woman, 1642, a linen chemise undergarment can be seen peeking out from the sleeve and cuff on the woman’s right arm. Linen chemise undergarments were worn during the 17th century to keep body oils such as sweat from touching the expensive fabrics of the outer clothing. It was easier and cheaper to wash linen undergarments rather than silk gowns (Yarwood 149).
The sitter is wearing a black silk dress with a white lace-edged neckerchief. The neckerchief is fastened together at the center front with a metallic ribbon bow. It falls from the collarbones laterally to the shoulders. At the time, as we see here, neckerchiefs and collars were often trimmed with a contrasting fabric, such as lace. Lace borders, needle and bobbin-made, were originally wide and vandyked (coming to v-shaped points) but began to give way in about 1600 to round, scalloped edges (Encyclopædia Britannica). The sitter wears loose, full elbow-length sleeves with lace cuffs. The cuffs are turned back from the wrist. A very similar lace neckerchief and cuffs feature in Cornelius Johnson’s 1644 portrait of Cornelia Veth (Fig. 4). The surviving, lace-edged band collar and cuffs shown to the right (Fig. 5) also resemble those in Portrait of a Woman. The fine linen collar is trimmed with lace made in the bobbin lace technique used for Flemish lace, but its design and the type of thread suggests that it was probably made in England (V&A).
Bol’s gown includes a basqued bodice with a stomacher front. The basqued bodice was a popular style between 1620-1650. It was tabbed on the lines of a male doublet. The tabs were very deep and squared and sometimes sewn together. The gown also includes a low-necked, front-fastening bodice that is open at the front. It is pulled together at the waist beneath the stomacher by means of lacing through eyelet holes made in flaps sewn to the lining of the bodice on each side (Cunnington 94). The green stomacher with metallic gold thread detailing in the fabric appears to be laced down the front with a contrasting black lace trim, including front tabs. Related works include Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Woman, probably Maria Trip of 1639 (Fig. 6) and Portrait of Agatha Bas, 1641 (Fig. 7). The garments and detailed jewelry portrayed on the two sitters are very similar in style to the Portrait of a Woman by Bol.
Very few examples of seventeenth-century Dutch garments survive in museum collections, but a number of artists working during the seventeenth century produced costume plates illustrating regional and national dress – the best known was Wencaleus Hollar (Yarwood 149). His plates (Figs. 8-10) provide an accurate representation of construction and serve as invaluable historic records of costume and include many similar details to those seen in the portrait like the tabbed-edge of the bodice.
The skirt of the gown is high-waisted and flows loosely out from the fitted silhouette of the bodice and stomacher and is seamed together with the bodice at the waist. The gown is probably made of silk, a luxurious fabric that was reserved for the wealthy. Although the sitter would not wear this much lace and pearls on a daily basis, she shows off her wealth for the portrait (Yarwood 149).
Fastenings often included ribbons used to tie together garments in a bow. Bows were worn at the edge of décolletages frequently during this period. The loose, freer style worn by the Dutch was a reaction from the hierarchy and rigidity of Spanish dress. Holland won freedom from Spanish control in 1581, which resulted in a comparatively more comfortable and fashionable mode of dress.
The woman in the portrait is holding a fan in her right hand. Fans and mirrors were fashionable accessories during this time period and were commonly depicted in portraits of women. She is wearing ropes of pearls around her neck and wrists. During this time, pearl ropes replaced gold chains as preferred accessories. Textiles were often made in France and India and traded throughout Europe. The woman in the portrait likely purchased her fabric for this garment through trade (Yarwood 149).
The sitter in the portrait appears to be a typical Dutch woman of the period and looks similar to other women that Bol painted, including Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Fig. 2) and Portrait of a Lady with a Fan (Fig. 3). She is wearing the popular “spaniel ears” hairstyle in which women parted their hair behind their ears, rolled half of it up into a chignon at the back of the head and left the loose hair curled or in waves (Isis). The same hairstyle is also seen in the 1644 portrait by Cornelius Johnson (Fig. 4).
Likely to be hung in the home of the sitter and her husband, this very formal painting is to observe their marriage. They have means enough to have their portraits painted as the sitter is wearing all of her valuable accessories to flaunt her wealth. The portrait depicts her as the woman of the household. She is meant to be viewed as a modest and good wife at her husband’s side, based on how she is covered up and tilted towards where her husband’s portrait would have hung on the wall next to her.
odern-day fashion designers have continually been influenced by 17th-century Dutch fashion. For his 2009 Dior Couture Spring collection, John Galliano was inspired by the Flemish paintings of Vermeer and his contemporaries, such as Rembrandt (Fig. 11). The influence soon found its way into many other collections including Valentino’s Pre-Fall 2014 collection (Fig. 12) and reappearing in the Fall 2016 collection (Fig. 13). Lace collars and cuffs on a black foundation garment became a classic look in itself, owing much to the austere and minimalist qualities of Dutch fashion.
- Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Emily Cunnington. Handbook of English Costume in the Seventeenth Century. Boston: Plays, Inc, 1972. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/755269282.
- Liedtke, Walter A. Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Dutch_Paintings_in_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art_2_vols_.
- “Ferdinand Bol | Portrait of a Woman | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed March 16, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435689.
- “Genoese Lace.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed March 16, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/art/Genoese-lace.
- Isis. “Madame Isis’ Toilette: The 17th Century ‘Spaniel Ears’ Hairstyle.” Madame Isis’ Toilette (blog), December 1, 2014. http://madameisistoilette.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-17th-century-spaniel-ears-hairstyle.html.
- Meij-Tolsma, Marijke van der. “Bol, Ferdinand.” Grove Art Online. 12 Apr. 2018. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000009672.
- Yarwood, Doreen. European Costume: 4000 Years of Fashion. New York: Bonanza Books, 1982. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/8171068.