Constantijn Huygens was a senior diplomat who spoke several languages and had a wide knowledge of the arts and sciences. In this portrait, he’s caught in action, receiving a message from a young clerk. Interrupted in his work, he wears a riding outfit as if ready to be up and off in a moment on state business.
The items that de Keyser chose to put on Huygens’s table tell of his official duties and his many other interests and talents – there’s a chitarrone (a plucked instrument), architectural plans and a pair of terrestrial and celestial globes.
Huygens was probably the most influential figure in the cultural life of the Dutch Republic. He wrote poetry and designed gardens and knew the scientists and artists of his day, including Rembrandt. De Keyser’s portrait celebrates the spirit of the Dutch Republic in one urbane and brilliant man.
Constantijn Huygens was a true Renaissance man –- someone who spoke several languages, had a wide knowledge of the arts and sciences and was practised in diplomacy. In this portrait, he turns in his chair, eyes wide and aware. He’s caught in action, receiving a message from a young man thought to be his clerk. Interrupted in his work, Huygens wears a riding outfit as if ready to be up and off in a moment on pressing state business.
His full title was Constantijn Huygens the elder, Lord of Zuylichem, and he was Secretary and Adviser to Prince Frederik Hendrik, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic. Huygens travelled often and widely. As a young man, he was in England as Secretary to the Dutch Embassy; at the age of 31, when this portrait was painted, he had already been granted a knighthood by King James I for his service to both countries.
But there is perhaps another reason for his choice of costume. While in England and an inexperienced diplomat, Huygens had written to his parents to tell them how worried he was at the state of his satin courtier’s clothes, damaged from riding. Now able to afford new garments that were the height of fashion, he would have appreciated the fresh look of the fabric and elaborate detail of the decoration -– the lace at neck and knee, the beaded panels, the suede boots – that Thomas de Keyser portrays.
The items de Keyser chose to put on the expensive carpet on Huygens’s table tell of his official duties and his many other interests and talents. These objects include a chitarrone, a plucked instrument with an extremely long neck. Huygens not only played, but wrote songs and sang well himself. Beside the instrument are plans, apparently showing architectural projects, and a pair of terrestrial and celestial globes. Behind him on the wall hangs the Huygens coat of arms and a tapestry showing the Christian Saint Francis with the Muslim Sultan of Damietta in Egypt. This legendary encounter became a model for interfaith discussion that Huygens, a Calvinist but always tolerant of other religions, understood.
Most of all perhaps, Huygens is celebrated as a designer of internationally renowned gardens and as a fine poet and writer. He helped to create the building of the Mauritshuis, the home of Count John Mauritz van Nassau-Siegen, and designed the new gardens there, challenging French supremacy in garden design. His revolutionary ideas for the aristocratic garden found their way to England, especially at Hampton Court Palace. Subsequently, he made the elegant garden at his own summer house, Hofwijck, which can still be visited today.
Huygens was probably the most influential figure in the cultural life of the Dutch Republic. He knew the scientists and artists of his day, including Rembrandt, whose painting he admired greatly for its humanity, psychological insight and new techniques. Yet he chose to commission this portrait from de Keyser, from a generation before Rembrandt. De Keyser used an oak panel as a support on which paint could flow freely, allowing him to show immaculate detail difficult to achieve in Rembrandt’s looser style, but which suited Huygens’s taste at the time. The result is a portrait that celebrates the spirit of the new Dutch Republic embodied in one urbane and brilliant man.
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