We don’t know their names, but this was undoubtedly a wealthy, fashion-conscious family, almost certainly from Antwerp where the artist, Gonzales Coques, was based. Group portraits such as this were popular among the city elite and artists incorporated gestures, looks and activities to bring the scene to life and to suggest the character of the individuals and their relationships to each other.
Here the father, serious and slightly preoccupied, looks down to his left. His son – dressed in skirts, which were commonly worn by boys – is distracted by the antics of a tame bird, but looks the same direction. The wife and daughters, however, look on a contrasting diagonal. This sequence of figures forms a graceful arc, linked and contrasted by looks and gestures.
The eldest daughter stands alone, slightly outside the group. The roses she gathers are symbolic of love and marriage – this and her position may indicate that she is about to marry and leave her immediate family.
We don’t know their names, but this was undoubtedly a wealthy fashion-conscious family, almost certainly from Antwerp where the artist, Gonzales Coques, was based. Perhaps they were local nobility, or possibly lace merchants or producers. Their clothes are trimmed with copious amount of exquisitely decorated lace which was a speciality in the city in the seventeenth century. Some estimates suggest that about half the population was involved in the industry.
By the 1660s, when this painting was made, family group portraits had been popular in the Low Countries for decades, though different styles were popular in different cities. In Antwerp the fashion had moved from a fairly static arrangement of parents and children to a preference for more animated compositions. Artists like Coques incorporated gestures and activities to bring the scene to life and to suggest some of the relationships between the individuals, their roles in the family or particular talents they might have.
There are some interesting subtleties in this painting. The father, who stands slightly detached from his wife and daughters, looks serious and slightly preoccupied, his eyes cast down to his left. His son, preoccupied in a different way – by the antics of a tame bird – also looks in this direction. His skirts may seem feminine to us but it was the style of the time; his loose hair and hat signal his masculinity. The bird may allude to falconry, a suitably elite and manly activity for the heir to the family name.
The wife and daughters all look out on a contrasting diagonal. The three eldest catch the viewer’s eye, as does the youngest who looks slightly bemused in her baby-walker (then called a loopstoel). We can see from her lute or cittern that the second eldest must have had musical talent, while the sister next to her would rather be playing with her brother and his bird.
So this sequence of family figures forms a graceful arc, both linked and distinguished by different looks and gestures. However, though she smiles warmly at us, the eldest daughter stands behind the rest of the group, slightly outside the arc. It may be that she is about to marry and so leave her immediate family. She is gathering roses – one of the attributes of Venus – and these are often symbolic of love and marriage. Perhaps this portrait marks the last months of the family’s time together.
The architecture and stone sculptures which frame the painting are also typical elements in group portraits of this kind. They almost certainly represent artistic fantasy rather than a real scene, and are intended to hint at wealth and fashionability. Similarly, the landscape in the distance, which may have been painted by an assistant or collaborator, is often an allusion to a landed estate. You might have spotted the parrot too, just to the right of the rosebush. This, like the two dogs wrestling in the foreground, was probably a family pet. Parrots often appear in paintings of this time – they were expensive and highly coveted in the upper echelons of Flemish society.
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