Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen I (or Cornelius Johnson) is an artist whose work as a portrait painter in 17th-century England has long been overshadowed by that of his contemporaries Daniel Mytens and Sir Anthony van Dyck. The last published work on the artist was a Walpole Society article in 1922 and no monographic exhibition of his work has ever been staged. However, recently his work has experienced something of a resurgence at auction evidenced by his Portrait of a Lady, dated 1629, which sold recently at Christie's, London, 9 December 2009, lot 213 (£133,250=$219,486).
The son of Cornelis Jonson of Antwerp and Jane Le Grand, who had fled to London to escape religious persecution, he was baptised at the Dutch Church in London on 14 October 1593. His grandfather Peter Jansen originally hailed from Cologne, so the family often used the name Jonson van Ceulen. Cornelis Jonson probably trained as a painter in the northern Netherlands, returning to London about 1618, where he worked for the next 25 years as a portrait painter. In 1622 he married Elizabeth Beck of Colchester, a woman of Dutch origin who bore him two sons.
Although not the most fashionable portrait painter in early Stuart London, he still received many commissions and in addition to original works, he produced copies after other artists such as Mytens. In 1632 he was sworn as 'his Majesty's servant in the quality of Picture drawer' but the arrival of van Dyck in London the same year put paid to his courtly ambitions. Most of Jonson's works during his London period are portraits of people in the higher, but not the highest, social circles and this absence of key patronage is likely part of the reason that his profile has not been more prominent.
The present pair of child portraits exemplify the finest qualities of Jonson's portrait painting. Painted on oak panels, they are in excellent condition and allow us to see the finest qualities of his work. The soft, sensitive modelling of the features and superb attention to detail in the costumes, particularly the treatment of the lace, reveal all the hallmarks for which he is renowned. Both portraits are inscribed with the date '1629' and the respective ages of the sitters in the year that they were painted. The boy's age is given as 6 while the girl's age, very unusually for a portait from this period, is given as 2 years and 10 months. In an era when child mortality rates were especially high, it seems a particularly poignant demarkation whose significance is perhaps hinted at by the gap in the ages of the siblings.
In spite of Jonson's somewhat conservative style, he absorbed the influences first of all of Daniel Mytens and then of van Dyck, particularly in his more ambitious works, such as the three-quarter-length portraits that he painted regularly and the group portrait of the Family of Arthur, Lord Capel (c. 1639; National Portrait Gallery, London), which is strongly inspired by van Dyck. The present works, however, painted before van Dyck's arrival on the London art scene, owe more to Mytens and an earlier tradition of Elizabethan costume portraiture. The slightly anachronistic feel of the present works aligned with their unaffected naturalism only add to their charm.