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Frans van Mieris I, Dutch, 1635-1681: A Woman Asleep at a Table, c. 1660-70 

High­ly regard­ed in his life­time, Frans van Mieris often depict­ed the lives of women in his paint­ings, includ­ing well-to-do mis­tress­es, work­ing-class maid­ser­vants, and brazen pros­ti­tutes. His genre scenes con­cerned themes of courtship, con­vivi­al­i­ty, love, but some­times despon­den­cy. Here, a woman dozes at a table in a state of semi-undress, per­haps from overindul­gence or idle­ness. Her iden­ti­ty remains ten­ta­tive, but the cur­tained bed niche behind her indi­cates she might be a cour­te­san. Since the draw­ing is on vel­lum, or calf­skin, rather than paper, it sug­gests Van Mieris either pre­sent­ed this sen­si­tive por­tray­al as a gift, offered it to elite col­lec­tors, or placed it on the mar­ket as an afford­able alter­na­tive to his paintings.

Frans van Mieris was a high­ly regard­ed artist in his life­time and one who pro­duced a pro­lif­ic num­ber of paint­ings.1

Sur­viv­ing records and anec­dotes sug­gest that he was also one of the best-paid painters of his day, with astound­ing sums offered by wealthy Dutch col­lec­tors and the upper ranks of Euro­pean nobil­i­ty for his works.2 His known draw­ings, on the other hand, are rel­a­tive­ly few, num­ber­ing just over thir­ty today.3

The major­i­ty of them are del­i­cate­ly wrought, fin­ished works in black chalk on vel­lum like this one, although a few sketch­es and com­po­si­tion­al stud­ies have also been iden­ti­fied.4

Togeth­er with a num­ber of his con­tem­po­raries, includ­ing Johannes Ver­meer (1632 – 1675), Van Mieris built on suc­cess­ful genre for­mu­las that fea­tured the lives of women as pri­ma­ry sub­ject mat­ter. This approach was devel­oped by his teacher Ger­rit Dou (1613 – 1675), who called Van Mieris the prince of his pupils.“5

Van Mieris treat­ed a wide range of women, from fash­ion­able mis­tress­es to work­ing maid­ser­vants to unre­pen­tant pros­ti­tutes, often depict­ing them in sit­u­a­tions revolv­ing around love, courtship, mer­ri­ment, or despair. Some­times they appear alone, as here, but more fre­quent­ly in the com­pa­ny of aux­il­iary char­ac­ters, such as male suitors.

Sur­viv­ing draw­ings by this group of artists are espe­cial­ly rare (no secure draw­ings, for exam­ple, are known by Dou or Ver­meer), mak­ing Van Mieris’s rel­a­tive­ly small cor­pus of draw­ings all the more sig­nif­i­cant. He may have gift­ed or sold many of the fin­ished sheets to the same elite col­lec­tors who could afford his paint­ings, or per­haps he offered them as less expen­sive alter­na­tives to his paint­ings.6

His evi­dent com­mand of the medi­um is not sur­pris­ing given Houbrak­en’s tale of Van Mieris as a boy draw­ing on the walls of his father’s work­shop with char­coal, an act that led his father to place him with his first teacher, the Lei­den draw­ing mas­ter Abra­ham Tooren­vli­et (1600/17 – 1692).7

Van Mieris dis­plays remark­able con­trol of the black chalk in this work, vary­ing the thick­ness of the point to achieve notably dis­tinct tex­tures. One sees this in the fine­ly mod­eled areas of flesh in the wom­an’s hand, face, and exposed breast, con­trast­ed with the loos­er and more vig­or­ous mod­el­ing of her chemise.

Although the exact cause of the wom­an’s sleep is unclear, the motif of a drunk­en woman asleep at a table became a pop­u­lar one among Van Mieris, Dou, and Jan Steen (1626 – 1679) in the early 1660s.8

Their paint­ings drew on a tra­di­tion that had put men (often sol­diers) in this role being mocked, robbed, or even tick­led, but gave the sub­ject a twist of gen­der for comic effect. They invari­ably depict­ed such drunk­en women with a cer­tain amount of disheveled undress or exposed décol­leté. Van Mieris made the asso­ci­a­tion with drunk­en­ness explic­it in anoth­er draw­ing dated 1664, the orig­i­nal of which is now lost but known in copies, and from a print by Hen­drick Bary from 1670 titled De wijn is een spot­ter (Wine Is a Mock­er) Fig. 53.1.9

Hendrik Bary, after Frans van Mieris, De wijn is een spotter (Wine Is a Mocker)
Fig. 53.1

Hen­drik Bary, after Frans van Mieris, De wijn is een spot­ter (Wine Is a Mock­er), 1670. Engrav­ing on paper, 285 × 185 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. rp-p-ob-26.509.

The source of the sleep­ing wom­an’s ine­bri­a­tion in Bary’s print is made clear by the wine bot­tle and over­turned gob­let by her hand, while a fool-like fig­ure sym­bol­i­cal­ly (rather than lit­er­al­ly) dumps a cham­ber pot over her head. The lat­ter trope was a stan­dard gag in comic the­ater at the time.10

It has pre­vi­ous­ly been sug­gest­ed that the Peck draw­ing may have been an ini­tial con­cep­tion for Wine Is a Mock­er.“11

This sup­po­si­tion is tem­pered, how­ev­er, by the fact that the woman is not slumped over in a full stu­por but rather seems to be pleas­ant­ly doz­ing. It also lacks any trace of drink, glass, or bot­tle that one typ­i­cal­ly finds in such works, as well as any addi­tion­al fig­ures to cue the view­er toward amuse­ment or mor­al­iz­ing sen­ti­ment. Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty is that Van Mieris intend­ed an allu­sion to the sin of sloth. Sleep­ing fig­ures, both male and female, had long been used to rep­re­sent lazi­ness and idle­ness.12

At the same time, no iconog­ra­phy of neglect is vis­i­ble, such as one finds in paint­ings by Nico­laes Maes (1634 – 1693) from the 1650s show­ing sleep­ing maid­ser­vants who idle amid the objects of their chores.13

Despite being described as a lady” (dame) in an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry auc­tion cat­a­logue, Van Mieris’s clear­ly erot­ic pre­sen­ta­tion sig­ni­fies by default a class some­what below that of the haute bour­geoisie.14

It is not impos­si­ble that she rep­re­sents a pros­ti­tute. Van Mieris made the sleep­ing woman as cour­te­san con­cept unam­bigu­ous­ly clear in a paint­ing in the Uffizi, in which the wom­an’s décol­leté is taken to the extreme, while a man in the back­ground pays the old pro­curess for ser­vices ren­dered.15

Cur­tained bed nich­es, such as the one in the back­ground of this draw­ing, often sig­naled that we might in fact be in the pres­ence of a come­ly cour­te­san in her chamber.

Regard­less of her pro­fes­sion or state of sobri­ety, this draw­ing appears to be the only known instance of Van Mieris specif­i­cal­ly por­tray­ing a woman sleep­ing on her propped arm. Worth con­sid­er­ing is that Van Mieris knew the paint­ing by Ver­meer, A Maid Asleep, in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, gen­er­al­ly dated circa 1656 – 57 Fig. 53.2.16

Johannes Vermeer, A Maid Asleep
Fig. 53.2

Johannes Ver­meer, A Maid Asleep, c. 1656 – 57. Oil on can­vas, 87.6 × 76.5 cm. New York, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, inv. no. 14.40.611.

It was described in a 1696 auc­tion cat­a­logue as A drunk sleep­ing maid at a table” (Een dronke slapende Meyd aen een tafel).17

Since Van Mieris and Ver­meer worked in the rel­a­tive­ly near­by towns of Lei­den and Delft, there is no rea­son to doubt that they took an inter­est in each other’s paint­ings, as Adri­aan Wai­boer has argued.18

One recent­ly dis­cov­ered draw­ing by Van Mieris estab­lish­es that he even might have sketched a quick aide-mémoire after see­ing a paint­ing by anoth­er artist.19

If there is a con­nec­tion between the present Van Mieris’s draw­ing and Ver­meer’s paint­ing, it would be impos­si­ble to say for sure who influ­enced whom, but this draw­ing most like­ly dates a few years later than Ver­meer’s painting

End Notes

  1. See Nau­mann 1981 for the cat­a­logue of paint­ings; updat­ed in The Hague & Wash­ing­ton 2005 – 06, 232 – 39. For Van Mieris’s rep­u­ta­tion, see Buvelot in The Hague and Wash­ing­ton 2005, 12 – 26.

  2. For the prices of Van Mieris’s paint­ings and those of his con­tem­po­raries, see Paris, Dublin & Wash­ing­ton 2017 – 18, 268 – 69.

  3. The basic cat­a­logue of draw­ings is Nau­mann 1978; updat­ed in The Hague & Wash­ing­ton 2005, 239 – 41.

  4. For his sketch­es and stud­ies in gen­er­al, see Pot­tasch 2005, 65 – 67; and I. van Tuinen in Wash­ing­ton & Paris 2016 – 17, 251 – 53, no. 114. For descrip­tions of some notable exam­ples of his fin­ished draw­ings on vel­lum, see, among oth­ers, New York & Paris 1977 – 78, 101 – 02, no. 69; Broos & Schapel­houman 1993, 115 – 19, nos. 84 – 85; Lon­don, Paris & Cam­bridge 2002 – 03, 210 – 11, no. 92; and New York 2012, 170 – 71, no. 72.

  5. The inter­ac­tions among these artists are the sub­ject of Paris, Dublin & Wash­ing­ton 2016 – 17.

  6. In at least one instance, we know that a high­ly fin­ished draw­ing on vel­lum was for one of Van Mieris’s major patrons, the Paets fam­i­ly; for which see Van Gelder 1975; Nau­mann 1978, no. 12; and The Hague & Wash­ing­ton 2005, no. 36. For Van Mieris’s major patrons, see Bakker 2017a. For the sug­ges­tion that his fin­ished draw­ings could serve as less expen­sive alter­na­tives to paint­ings, see W. W. Robin­son in Lon­don, Paris & Cam­bridge 2002 – 03, no. 92.

  7. Houbrak­en 1718 – 21, vol. 3, 2.

  8. E. Schave­mak­er in Paris, Dublin & Wash­ing­ton 2017 – 18, 179 – 83; For sleep­ing fig­ures gen­er­al­ly in sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Dutch art, see Salomon 1984.

  9. For the lost orig­i­nal and a drawn copy, see O. Nau­mann in Wash­ing­ton, Den­ver & Forth Worth 1977, 82 – 84, no. 79; and Nau­mann 1978, no. 24. For the numer­ous paint­ed copies of the draw­ing, see Nau­mann 1981, vol. 2, 155 – 56, no. C62. For what might be a coun­ter­proof of the lost draw­ing, see Vevey 1997 – 98, 120 – 21, no. 66. One of the main rea­sons to posit that the orig­i­nal was a draw­ing instead of a paint­ing is that Bary’s print specif­i­cal­ly says F. van Mieris fig­u­rav­it instead of pinx­it

  10. E. de Jongh in Ams­ter­dam 1997, 337 – 40, no. 71; see also Ams­ter­dam 1976, 246 – 49, no. 65.

  11. Nau­mann 1978, 31, no. 25.

  12. For a full-length study of the sleep­ing fig­ure iconog­ra­phy, see Salomon 1984.

  13. See, for exam­ple, Nico­laes Maes, The Idle Ser­vant, 1655, oil on panel; The Hague & Lon­don 2019 – 20, nos. 84 – 87, no. 9. For Maes’s other sleep­ing fig­ures of men and older women, see idem, nos. 10, 11, 13.

  14. Een beval­lige Dame, zit­tende te slapen…” (An attrac­tive Lady, sit­ting asleep…). See the prove­nance notes in the present entry for the Van der Dussen sale, 1774.

  15. Sleep­ing Cour­te­san, 1669, oil on cop­per, Gal­le­ria degli Uffizi, Flo­rence. See Nau­mann 1981, vol. 2, 89 – 91, no. 75; and Nau­mann 2005, 39 – 40.

  16. While the lit­er­a­ture on Ver­meer’s Maid Asleep is sub­stan­tial, see espe­cial­ly Kahr 1972; New York & Lon­don 2001, 369 – 71, no. 67; and Liedtke 2007, vol. 2, 868 – 77, no. 202.

  17. Mon­tias 1989, 364, no. 8, in doc. 439.

  18. Wai­boer 2010.

  19. Wai­boer in Paris, Dublin & Wash­ing­ton 2017, 18 – 19 (and fig. 9), cit­ing an unpub­lished essay by Otto Naumann.