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Egbert van der Poel, Dutch, 1621-1664: Family in an Interior at Night, c. 1650-55 

Hav­ing just fin­ished breast­feed­ing her child, a woman warms her­self by a small fire togeth­er with her hus­band. Her older child stands par­tial­ly obscured by the wood­en par­ti­tion at the right where farm­ing tools and out­door appar­el rest, indi­cat­ing a rural set­ting. A sin­gle lamp hang­ing from a post on the table illu­mi­nates the quiet scene and reveals the fam­i­ly’s indi­gence. No food is vis­i­ble, and the pitch­ers, plates, and bas­kets appear empty. A rare draw­ing by Egbert Lieven­sz van der Poel, and his only extant inte­ri­or scene in this medi­um, it demon­strates the artist’s com­mand of light in a night­time set­ting, but also his sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the hard­ships of rural work­ing-class people.

This work by the Delft artist Egbert Lieven­sz van der Poel dis­plays his pen­chant for explor­ing the sub­tle light­ing effects cre­at­ed by fire and lamp­light at night. Draw­ings by the artist are exceed­ing­ly rare, per­haps num­ber­ing no more than ten sheets.1

In this signed and fin­ished draw­ing, strong light emanates from a lamp hang­ing from a post set on the table, cre­at­ing a study in reflec­tions across fig­ures and objects. The man, woman, and one of their chil­dren have their hands spread out to warm them­selves over a mod­est fire placed in a bra­zier on the floor, while a sec­ond child can be seen in the shad­ows to the right. Farm imple­ments estab­lish the rural set­ting and the occu­pa­tion of the hus­band, and the over­all image is one of com­pla­cent har­mo­ny among sim­ple sur­round­ings. Their com­pla­cen­cy, how­ev­er, seems col­ored by a cer­tain hard­ship. The fam­i­ly sits in a cold room in tat­tered clothes, with only a sparse pile of kin­dling by the farmer’s feet. No obvi­ous food or food stores are in plain sight, but rather a num­ber of sug­ges­tive­ly empty pitch­ers, plates, and bas­kets. Enhanc­ing the poignan­cy of the scene is that the moth­er has just fin­ished breast­feed­ing her tod­dler son, who hud­dles for warmth between her legs, hold­ing his hands above the fire in imi­ta­tion of hers.2

Although he remains under­stud­ied today, Van der Poel was a rel­a­tive­ly pop­u­lar artist in Delft, join­ing the guild there in 1650 after hav­ing already been active as a painter for about a decade.3

He appears to have known Johannes Ver­meer (1632– 1675) and his fam­i­ly quite well, although they shared dif­fer­ent artis­tic con­cerns.4

Van der Poel began as a devot­ed painter of pro­sa­ic inte­ri­ors, farm­yard scenes, and coastal moon­lit land­scapes. His sub­ject mat­ter took a dra­mat­ic turn later in his career to scenes of dis­as­ter, espe­cial­ly those with burn­ing build­ings.5

He repeat­ed­ly paint­ed images of the famous gun­pow­der mag­a­zine explo­sion (the great Delft don­der­slag, or thun­der­clap”) that took place on Octo­ber 12, 1654, killing numer­ous inhab­i­tants and destroy­ing a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the city.6

The most famous vic­tim was Van der Poel’s neigh­bor and col­league, Carel Fab­ri­tius (1622 – 1654). Far more sig­nif­i­cant­ly for Van der Poel, the explo­sion appears to have claimed the life of one of his daugh­ters, direct­ly after which the artist and his fam­i­ly moved to Rot­ter­dam.7

Schol­ars nat­u­ral­ly spec­u­late about the degree to which we can impute trau­ma as a rea­son that he repeat­ed­ly returned to paint­ing that dis­as­ter, along with a host of other fire scenes both real and imag­i­nary. What­ev­er the case, Van der Poel’s bran­t­jes (lit­tle fire scenes), as they were called in con­tem­po­rary inven­to­ries, proved pop­u­lar enough that in 1698 the Rot­ter­dam chron­i­cler Ger­ard van Spaan called him the best painter of fire in the Nether­lands.” 8

This draw­ing com­bines Van der Poel’s early inter­est in rural work­ing-class genre scenes with his later focus on the illu­mi­na­tion effects of fire and arti­fi­cial light in a night­time set­ting. Among Van der Poel’s few draw­ings, this remains his only known inte­ri­or scene, a set­ting more often found in his paint­ings. Anoth­er draw­ing for­mer­ly on the art mar­ket that shows two men with torch­es lead­ing a heav­i­ly laden don­key was pos­si­bly made around the same time since it has sim­i­lar dimen­sions and the same early prove­nance.9

The motif of a woman breast­feed­ing can be found in a paint­ing of an inte­ri­or scene by Van der Poel dated 1657.10

In the late 1650s, images of breast­feed­ing women appear to have become pop­u­lar among other artists, such as Van der Poel’s for­mer Delft col­league, Pieter de Hooch (1629 – 1684).11

Van der Poel’s draw­ing might plau­si­bly date to around the same peri­od, and there­fore short­ly after his move to Rot­ter­dam, where he pro­duced many of his other night­time scenes. It was also around this time, as Wayne Fran­its point­ed out, that Dutch physi­cians began pro­mot­ing mater­nal breast­feed­ing as a vital and health-giv­ing activ­i­ty, prefer­able to using live­stock milk or employ­ing a wet nurse, not only to pro­vide the best pos­si­ble nour­ish­ment to the chil­dren, but also to impart (so it was believed) some of the moth­er’s per­son­al­i­ty traits to them.12

End Notes

  1. For other draw­ings by or pos­si­bly by Van der Poel, see Moes 1895, 189, nos. 38, 39; Gold­schmidt 1922, 64; Bock & Rosen­berg 1930, vol. 1, 211, nos. 3126, 11909, vol. 2, pl. 138; Bernt 1957 – 58, vol. 2, no. 465; and De Roth­schild & Mor­ris 1980, no. 9.

  2. Although the tod­dler might seem a bit old for breast­feed­ing by mod­ern stan­dards, see, for exam­ple, the sim­i­lar­ly aged child breast­feed­ing in Pieter van Slin­ge­landt’s Carpenter’s Fam­i­ly (Wind­sor Cas­tle); see White 1982, 119 – 20, no. 184; and Fran­its 1993, 116.

  3. The basic study remains Gold­schmidt 1922. For Van der Poel’s pop­u­lar­i­ty as mea­sured in sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry inven­to­ries of paint­ings, see Mon­tias 1982, 257, table 8.5.

  4. For Van der Poel’s depic­tions of the gun­pow­der explo­sion and its after­math, see MacLaren & Brown 1991, 306 – 09, no. 1061 (with a list of fur­ther ver­sions); Ver­hoef in Rot­ter­dam 1994 – 95, 128 – 29; Delft 1996, 94 – 98; and Rüger in New York & Lon­don 2001, 326 – 28, no. 51.

  5. Ver­hoef in Rot­ter­dam 1994 – 95, 128 – 29.

  6. Van Spaan 1698, 422 (“den besten Brantschilder van gan­sch Ned­er­land”); as cited by Ver­hoef in Rot­ter­dam 1994 – 95, 128.

  7. De Roth­schild & Mor­ris 1980, no. 9: A Night Scene with Two Fig­ures Walk­ing by the Light of a Torch, pen and brown ink and wash over traces of black chalk, 143 × 214, present where­abouts unknown. The sheet shares two of the same col­lec­tors’ marks on the recto: Lugt 513 (unknown col­lec­tor, for­mer­ly thought to be Comte Gelosi) and Lugt 1440 (Jean-Marc Du Pan).

  8. Sothe­by’s, Lon­don, 31 Octo­ber 2002, lot 49, present where­abouts unknown.

  9. For exam­ple, A Woman Nurs­ing an Infant with a Child and a Dog, c. 1658 – 60, Fine Arts Muse­ums of San Fran­cis­co; for which see Dul­wich & Hart­ford 1998 – 99, 120 – 21, no. 16; and Sut­ton 1980, 83 – 83, no. 32. Nico­laes Maes pro­duced a paint­ing of a nurs­ing moth­er dated 1655, present where­abouts unknown; see Fran­its 1993, 120.

  10. Fran­its 1993, 113 – 18.