17 Feb 2015

Dressed to Impress:
Curatorial Research in the Netherlands

Netherlands calling! My name is Helen and I am the National Gallery Curatorial Trainee, supported by the Art Fund.  I am currently involved in a project to research and redisplay Birmingham Museums Trust’s fantastic collection of 17th century European art and recently undertook research trip to the Netherlands to discover more about the Dutch and Flemish paintings. The visit was generously supported by a bursary from the Pre-1900 European Painting Subject Specialist Network.

Most of my trip was spent at the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History). The RKD has some amazing resources, and much of my time was spent wading through their visual documentation collection (consisting of more than 700,000 photographs and reproductions of Dutch and Flemish painting). 

My primary focus was a single painting from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s collection: Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy’s ‘Portrait of a Woman’, dated 1630 (accession number: 1973P8). As with many Dutch portraits of the period, the identity of the sitter is unknown. However, she was clearly very wealthy: her black dress has fine gold-embroidered sleeves, the ruff is elaborate, she wears gold jewellery and holds an expensive folding fan. I wanted to see what else I could find out about her, and was particularly interested in her dress, known as a Tabbaard, a design that was very rare at this time and might provide some further clues as to who she was…

Image 1
My primary focus: Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy's ‘Portrait of a Woman’, 1630

It quickly became apparent that the lady’s costume was very different to those worn by other women at the time. In Holland, around the 1630s, married women traditionally wore a stomacher, bodice and vlieger (an over-coat) (see image below), making our lady’s fitted all-in-one dress very unusual. In fact, the only examples I found of the dress-type were dated significantly earlier. Yet, the sitter’s costume was far from old-fashioned or conservative; with her costly jewellery and accessories and her red petticoat revealed through the fore-part of her skirt this was definitely the costume of a fashion-conscious young woman. It’s important to remember that it was the sitter, not the artist, who chose their outfit, so why did the woman choose this dress, and what was she trying to communicate about herself and her status?

Portrait Of A Woman Copyright J. Paul Getty Museum 00052701
Nicolaes Eliasz. Pickenoy's ‘Portrait of a Woman’,1632 from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. (Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program).

In the past it has been suggested that the woman might be a young bride, with particular attention paid to the ring she wears on her finger. Yet, my research highlighted that this might be misleading. During the first half of the century brides often put the ring on the first finger or little finger, however, our lady wears the ring on her fourth finger. Nevertheless, there weren’t any strict rules about which finger to wear a ring on – just fashion – so this doesn’t necessarily imply anything about her status. Moreover, even if her dress and headwear could be associated with bridal fashion, brides would continue to wear the wedding dress at festive occasions as long as it was deemed fashionable. As such, this portrait could well be made several years after she married…


Basically, my research left me with far more questions than answers. However, I am pretty convinced that the sitter was a married woman. It was very rare for women to have singular portraits of themselves, even indecent. I think our portrait is a pendant: one of a pair. Pickenoy made numerous paired-portraits of husbands and wives, which were separate but with the figures facing towards each other. I think our lady is one of these, facing towards her husband who’s portrait is now lost.

Pickenoy didn’t just paint single portraits, he also painted large group portraits of Holland’s civic leaders and I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition of such portraits in the Hermitage in Amsterdam; as well as the fantastic collections of the Rijksmuseum and The Mauritshuis – bringing back a few ideas for my own display! The trip has definitely left me inspired and excited for the redisplay, which opens in June at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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Interior of exhibition at the Hermitage, Amsterdam
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Interior of the Mauritshuis, The Hague