Brekelenkam painted tailors in their shops many times, as well as depicting weavers, spinners, and seamstresses – all trades which thrived as part of Leiden’s prosperous seventeenth-century textile industry. He repeated the same basic composition of the tailor sitting cross-legged in front of the window with two assistants, but in each painting slightly changed and rearranged the figures and the details of the interior.
Typically, only the tailor glances up from his work to engage the eye of the viewer – as though we are a potential customer, perhaps – while the others continue to work diligently. Although this is an imaginary scenario, there’s no doubt that the basic set up is a standard one. A tailor with a small workshop would have worked with his apprentices in his front room in just this way, and the details of the interior are also lifelike.
This scene, of a tailor and his apprentices hard at work on a platform in front of the window, proved to be a popular one with Brekelenkam’s clients. He painted similar scenes many times, as well as others depicting weavers, spinners and seamstresses – all trades which thrived as part of Leiden’s prosperous seventeenth-century textile industry. At the time, the city, where he lived and worked, was the most important cloth-producing centre in the world. Wool imported from Spain was the most common raw material, but cotton and silk were processed too. At its peak, some 180 different types of fabric were made there – the last manufacturer closed only in 1977.
Brekelenkam used the same basic composition, a tailor sitting cross-legged in front of the window with two assistants, in his tailor-shop paintings. But each time he slightly changed and rearranged the figures and the details of the interior. For example, in some paintings the tailor is an old man with an elderly wife sitting by the fire. In some, as here, the couple are much younger; in this picture his wife is breastfeeding their child. Typically, only the tailor glances up from his work to engage the eye of the viewer – as though we are a potential customer, perhaps – while the others continue to work diligently. Sometimes a small dog is included in the scene, sometimes not.
From the number of different versions, it’s clear that Brekelenkam was creating a series of imaginary, or generic, scenarios, but there’s no doubt that the basic set up is a standard one. A tailor with a small workshop would have worked with his apprentices in his front room, and would have used a raised platform by the window as a way of maximising the available daylight.
The details of the interiors are also lifelike. The bodkin, scissors and chalk were standard tools, and spare thread hangs in hanks below the shelf. Many Dutch homes of the time had a map hanging – or in this case, pinned – above the fireplace. And a still life-painting, a very popular genre of the time, features on the wall of several of Brekelenkam’s tailor-shop paintings. This example (of a jug, a glass, a fish and some spring onions or radishes) is similar to the work of the Haarlem artist Pieter Claesz., but Brekelenkam also produced paintings similar to this, so it is possible that it’s a copy of one of his own.
This painting is not dated, but several of the tailor-shop scenes are; the earliest is from 1653 (Worcester Art Museum, USA) and the latest, 1664 (private collection). It is impossible to know when the version we see here was made, but it is likely to have been between these two dates.
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