Emanuel de Witte is best known for his pictures of church interiors, but he had begun his career as a figure painter and later in life started painting portraits. This is one of them. We know from contemporary documents that this is a portrait of one of his patrons, Adriana van Heusden, and her daughter. Adriana was the wife of de Witte’s landlord and patron in Amsterdam, Joris de Wijs.
As well as presenting a wealthy woman out shopping, the painting is interesting in the way it uses striking perspectives – a technique which de Witte had developed in his architectural pictures. The diagonals and upright lines created by the struts and supports of the fishmonger’s stall frame the two women with dramatic effect, and give the picture a strong sense of depth. This effect is enhanced by the wet slippery fish, complete with gills, roe and entrails, which dominate the foreground.
Emanuel de Witte is best known for his clear-lined, light-filled paintings of church interiors – for example, The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, during a Sermon. But he had begun his career as a figure painter and after more than 20 years of painting churches he – on occasion – painted portraits. This is one of them.
There are two reasons to assume that this is a portrait. Firstly, the woman on the left is presented in a very prominent way – she fills much of that side of the painting and is turned towards us as she makes a confident, even imperious, gesture to the fishmonger. The impish little girl peering out at us from behind her skirts also has the air of a closely observed individual, rather than a generic character.
More importantly, there’s documentary evidence – records of a complicated legal dispute over four pictures – which strongly suggests that this is a portrait of one of de Witte’s patrons, Adriana van Heusden, and her daughter. In 1658 de Witte moved into the Amsterdam house of a lawyer called Joris de Wijs, who was Adriana’s husband. In return for a salary, accommodation and board, de Witte agreed to give de Wijs all the paintings he made during the five years he lived in the house. One of these is recorded as a portrait of Adriana and her daughter at a fish market.
The records show that when de Witte moved out in 1663 he took this picture and three others with him, apparently in contravention of the agreement. After de Wijs had died, Adriana’s new husband, Johannes van Heden, sued for their return; de Witte had already sold them to pay off debts, and did not immediately comply with the court order to return them. After further sales, intrigue and deception, the pictures were finally returned to Adriana and her husband. This picture must be the one mentioned in this dispute – out of several fish market scenes painted by de Witte it’s the only one to include a little girl. We can also date it between 1661, when the new Haarlemmersluis fish market opened in Amsterdam, and 1663, when de Witte left de Wijs’s house.
The portrait is an informal one. Adriana hasn’t dressed up in her finest clothes, as you might expect for a woman of her wealth and social status when having her portrait painted; she’s dressed as she might have been on a trip to the fish market. True, she wears a costly fur-trimmed jacket, but the skirt with an apron over it and the simple white headscarf are typical of what we see worn by woman in other paintings of such scenes.
The painting is also interesting in the way it uses striking perspectives – a technique which de Witte had developed in his architectural pictures. The diagonals and upright lines created by the struts and supports of the fishmonger’s stall frame the two women with dramatic effect, and give the picture a strong sense of depth. This effect is enhanced by the wet slippery fish, complete with gills, roe and entrails, which dominate the foreground.
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