This picture is one of five portraits painted by Dirck Santvoort of the daughters of the Spiegel family showing the girls as personifications of the five senses. Here, the four-year-old Geertruyt Spiegel represents Touch and holds a finch that pecks her finger. Santvoort, a friend of Rembrandt, specialised in portraits of children. He could be a rather stiff painter, but in this picture he seems relaxed, charmed by the little girl. Her family’s wealth is evident in her fine clothes, the pearls in her hair and her gold jewellery, but what catches the eye is her open gaze and amusement at the bird’s antics. She too is a bird-like creature, a child of nature.
Finches, and the goldfinch in particular, were a traditional emblem of the soul, especially in Renaissance painting, so one wonders if there was a reason her parents chose the bird for Geertruyt. Perhaps she had a soulful personality, or perhaps she kept one of the birds as a pet.
In 1639, the Dutch painter Dirck Santvoort was commissioned by Elbert Dircksz. Spiegel and Petronella Roeters to paint portraits of their five daughters as personifications of the five senses. This portrait of Geertruyt Spiegel (born in 1635) holding a finch that pecks her finger shows her as Touch. The other portraits of her sisters show Rebecca holding fruit as Taste; Elizabeth with a recorder as Hearing; Margaret holding a dog in front of a mirror as Sight; and Petronella with a floral wreath as Smell.
Images of women as the senses were quite common in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, so for the Spiegels it was a clever and natural way to depict their five daughters. While four of the girls hold the emblems traditionally associated with each particular sense, the bird held by Geertruyt was one of several possibilities often used for Touch: hedgehogs and ermine (rough and smooth) were frequent alternatives.
The family’s wealth is evident in Geertruyt’s fine clothes, the pearls in her hair and her gold necklace and bracelet. Santvoort’s portraits could often be rather stiff and formal, but in this picture, the girl, with her ruddy cheeks and smile, is a lively presence and she is amused rather than disturbed by the bird’s gentle peck. Finches, and the goldfinch in particular, were a traditional emblem of the soul, especially in Renaissance painting, so one wonders if there was a reason her parents chose the bird for Geertruyt. Perhaps she had a soulful personality, or perhaps, as was not uncommon, she kept one as a pet.
Santvoort specialised in portraits and became known for his depictions of children. He came from a family of painters and probably trained with his father, Dirck Pietersz., also known as Bontepaert, who also taught his brother, the landscapist Pieter Dircksz. Santvoort (the brothers adopted the surname). Dirck was part of Rembrandt’s circle, and although there is no evidence he was a pupil he probably came into contact with him in the early 1630s when he occasionally worked for Hendrick Uylenburgh, the art dealer cousin of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia. Santvoort was close enough to the great man to name his son Rembrandt.
Santvoort had a relatively short career as an independent artist, the majority of his works appearing between 1635 and 1645, after which there are no known dated paintings. He became a member of the Amsterdam painters’ guild in 1636 and even once he appears to have stopped painting he remained active in the guild, being appointed hoofdman or dean in 1658 and working as an appraiser of paintings until at least 1678, two years before his death.
This portrait of 1639 comes at the midpoint of his career (the date has been damaged but the last digit can be read in infrared photographs and is almost certainly a 9). It seems that he was far from jaded by the array of faces he had to paint and indeed was charmed by this fresh-faced little four-year-old.
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