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Jan de Viss­ch­er, Dutch, 1633/34 -1712

Portrait of an Old Woman, c. 1658-60 

Although a print­mak­er by pro­fes­sion, Jan de Viss­ch­er made a num­ber of por­trait draw­ings in the late 1650s before turn­ing entire­ly to print­mak­ing in the 1660s. For this uniden­ti­fied sit­ter, De Viss­ch­er skill­ful­ly applied black chalk on vel­lum to soft­ly model the older wom­an’s dig­ni­fied coun­te­nance and infor­mal dress. This sen­si­tive por­tray­al is one of only nine­teen draw­ings known by the artist today, mak­ing it a rare and sig­nif­i­cant work.

This por­trait offers us an excep­tion­al glimpse into the per­son­al­i­ty of an older sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry woman. Dig­ni­fied yet infor­mal, she appears with­out the trap­pings of pre­tense com­mon to por­trai­ture in the era, yet pos­sess­es a coun­te­nance clear­ly etched with a con­tent­ed­ness and grav­i­tas that only comes with age. That such a nuanced and ani­mat­ed like­ness was long con­sid­ered a work of one of the most cel­e­brat­ed por­trait drafts­men of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, Cor­nelis Viss­ch­er (1628/29 – 1658), comes as no sur­prise. Trained as a print­mak­er, Cor­nelis left behind a cor­pus of 185 prints and over 100 draw­ings before dying pre­ma­ture­ly around the age of twen­ty-nine.1

The Peck draw­ing, how­ev­er, turns out to be a rare and sig­nif­i­cant work by his equal­ly tal­ent­ed younger broth­er, Jan de Viss­ch­er. Like­wise a print­mak­er by train­ing and occu­pa­tion, his small­er and much less­er-known cor­pus of draw­ings has only recent­ly been elu­ci­dat­ed.2

Only around eigh­teen draw­ings by Jan de Viss­ch­er have come to light, to which the present work can be added.

John Haw­ley, who cat­a­logued the draw­ings of both broth­ers, con­firmed the new attri­bu­tion of the present work to Jan de Viss­ch­er.3

Haw­ley’s work in sep­a­rat­ing the oeu­vres of Jan and Cor­nelis was no small feat, since so many of Jan’s draw­ings (not just this one) were long assumed to be the work of Cor­nelis. Some even bear forged sig­na­tures, with Jan’s first ini­tial J. changed to a C., an alter­ation which could have taken place in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, a peri­od when Cor­nelis’s draw­ings were so high­ly esteemed they could reach high­er prices than those of Rem­brandt (1606 – 1669) or Rubens (1577 – 1640).4

Draw­ings like this one sim­ply bear a sig­na­ture of Viss­ch­er with­out a first let­ter. Jan began to sign this way after Cor­nelis’s death in Jan­u­ary 1658, when he no longer felt it nec­es­sary to make a dis­tinc­tion between his and his broth­er’s works.5

The orthog­ra­phy of the name in this case also match­es those in the Viss­ch­er Group” (mean­ing those signed with­out a first ini­tial or name), a term Haw­ley applied to the eight other draw­ings belong­ing to Jan with the same sig­na­ture.6

The broth­ers’ con­ti­nu­ity of styles in their draw­ings from the late 1650s nev­er­the­less remains strik­ing. This is not entire­ly sur­pris­ing since they drew from the same mod­els togeth­er. Jan appears to have intent­ly stud­ied Cor­nelis’s tech­nique, mas­ter­ing his abil­i­ty to soft­ly mod­u­late forms with great con­trol and yet seam­less­ly inte­grate a cer­tain amount of swift line work to keep the image ani­mat­ed. Nev­er­the­less, one can detect slight dif­fer­ences in their approach. A signed draw­ing of a woman by Jan de Viss­ch­er in the J. Paul Getty Muse­um dated 1658 reveals a sim­i­lar treat­ment of cer­tain facial fea­tures and the loose man­ner of rep­re­sent­ing the smooth and cor­us­cat­ing tex­tures of her man­tle and dress Fig. 52.1.7

Jan de Visscher, Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Bonnet, with Her Hands Crossed
Fig. 52.1

Jan de Viss­ch­er, Por­trait of a Woman Wear­ing a Bon­net, with Her Hands Crossed, 1658. Black chalk, with touch­es of pen and black ink (prob­a­bly added later), on vel­lum, 202 × 178 mm. Los Ange­les, J. Paul Getty Muse­um, inv. no. 2004.57.

A com­par­i­son of the two artists’ por­trait draw­ings also reveals Jan’s ten­den­cy to rep­re­sent his sit­ters in a more relaxed (or at least less pierc­ing) man­ner than Cor­nelis, which at once makes them more per­son­able and, arguably, bet­ter appre­hend­ed as indi­vid­u­als. Jan exe­cut­ed most of these drawn por­traits in the few years after Cor­nelis’s death, a peri­od dur­ing which the Peck draw­ing can also be assigned. Jan appears to have shift­ed his atten­tion entire­ly to print­mak­ing in the 1660s, a decade from which no draw­ings by him are known, and only made a few other por­trait draw­ings later in life. He per­haps sought to fill the demand for such fine­ly ren­dered por­trait draw­ings in the first few years after his broth­er’s sud­den death.8

These works evince Jan’s own con­sid­er­able pow­ers as a por­traitist, and it is a shame that he did not pro­duce more.

As with so many por­trait draw­ings by the Viss­ch­er broth­ers, the iden­ti­ty of the sit­ter remains a mys­tery. The seem­ing­ly inti­mate nature of the por­tray­al of this woman might sug­gest that she was a fam­i­ly mem­ber of the Viss­ch­ers’, or some­one close to them, but such assump­tions can prove fraught. This woman bears no resem­blance to the so-called Viss­cher’s moth­er” etch­ing by Cor­nelis, which was almost cer­tain­ly intend­ed as a tron­ie, or a sort of char­ac­ter study rather than a por­trait Fig. 52.2.9

Cornelis Visscher, Head of an Old Woman
Fig. 52.2

Cor­nelis Viss­ch­er, Head of an Old Woman (the so-called Viss­cher’s moth­er”). Etch­ing, 143 × 92 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. RP-P-OB-27.439.

The present work was pre­vi­ous­ly described as a tron­ie as well, a descrip­tion like­ly based on the wom­an’s out­ward glance, as opposed to look­ing direct­ly at the view­er, a far more com­mon pose at the time.10

There are excep­tions to this rule, how­ev­er. Her dig­ni­fied aspect and the vel­lum sup­port both strong­ly indi­cate a por­trait func­tion. The same woman is depict­ed in a draw­ing in the Lou­vre, a work that at first glance appears to be a loose copy Fig. 52.3.11

Possibly Jan de Visscher (or copy after), Portrait of an Old Woman
Fig. 52.3

Pos­si­bly Jan de Viss­ch­er (or copy after), Por­trait of an Old Woman, c. 1658 – 60. Black chalk on vel­lum, 125 × 101 mm. Paris, Musée du Lou­vre, inv. no. 23119.

Its live­li­ness, how­ev­er, espe­cial­ly around the eyes, and cer­tain other dif­fer­ences sug­gest it was a prepara­to­ry study or even a vidimus to show to the sit­ter in advance of the final work. The three-quar­ter view of her face would have been unusu­al at the time, and inten­tion­al­ly rem­i­nis­cent, per­haps, of an older style of portraiture.

End Notes

  1. For Cor­nelis Viss­ch­er, see Haw­ley 2015, which includes a cat­a­logue of his drawings.

  2. See Haw­ley 2014 for Jan de Viss­cher’s drawings.

  3. Email cor­re­spon­dence with the author, 28 June 2021.

  4. Haw­ley 2014, 72.

  5. Haw­ley 2014, 75 – 81. The form of the sig­na­ture on the present draw­ing led to Haw­ley’s ini­tial sug­ges­tion that it might be the work of Jan instead of Cor­nelis, whose author­ship he reject­ed (see Haw­ley 2015, 295 – 96, no. R – 95) based on an auc­tion cat­a­logue photo.

  6. For the orthog­ra­phy of the sig­na­ture, see Haw­ley 2014, 79. Haw­ley notes that Jan de Viss­ch­er appar­ent­ly only signed his sur­name with a long s fol­lowed by a short one (the form found on the present draw­ing) in the years 1658 – 59, thus just after the death of Cor­nelis. His broth­er had signed in the same way, then later adopt­ed a form with both being long. For the other draw­ings in the Viss­ch­er Group, see idem, 83 – 84, nos. B1 – B8.

  7. Haw­ley 2014, 82, no. A2.

  8. Haw­ley 2014, 81; see also idem, 94 (note 66) for com­ments about Jan poten­tial­ly assert­ing a sort of brand iden­ti­ty” just after Cornelis’s death by sign­ing Viss­ch­er with­out a first initial.

  9. Holl­stein, vol. 40, no. 171.

  10. The draw­ing was list­ed under the cat­e­go­ry of tron­ies in Haw­ley 2015, 295 – 96, no. R – 95.

  11. Haw­ley 2015, 296, no. R – 96.