By 1613, the year this picture is dated, Cornelis van der Voort was one of the most renowned portraitists working in Amsterdam and a key figure in the genre’s development in early 17th-century Holland. This work is one of the earliest known portraits in three-quarter-length format from van der Voort’s artistic maturity. With little record of his output before 1600, it is not until 1614 that we find an uninterrupted series of works that continue to his death (R. Ekkard and Q. Buvelot, Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals, The Hague, London and Zwolle, 2007, p. 27). The artist is particularly celebrated for introducing the life-size, full-length format to Dutch portraiture with his paintings of Cornelis Bicker van Swieten and Artgen Witsen of 1618 (both sold Sotheby’s, London, 5 July 1995, lot 8).
In the early 17th century, portraiture in the Dutch Republic was at a crossroads between religious restrictions on self-expression and a new liberation of the individual in society, propelled by the Republic’s military struggles and monumental rise as one of the greatest economic and maritime powers in the world. The genre flowered with the demands of both nobles and a new elite mercantile class, who looked to it as a means of shaping and immortalising a personal and collective identity. As a forerunner to the portrait tradition in Amsterdam, van der Voort built on the work of his predecessors, Pieter and Aert Pietersz (the latter his presumed teacher) and Frans Pourbus the Elder, while his three-quarter and half-length works show the influence of his contemporaries Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt and Jan Anthonisz. van Ravesteyn.
Positioned facing to the left, this portrait may originally have been paired with a portrait of the sitter’s husband, painted to commemorate their marriage or a significant event. While the identity of the present sitter has been lost, much can be gleaned from her costume. Poses in portraits of this type were generally taken from pre-existing models, however archival sources indicate that patrons often wished their garments and jewels to be depicted with great fidelity and precision, so would frequently leave them with the artist to be copied (M. de Winkel, Fashion and Fancy: Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s Paintings, Amsterdam, 2006, p. 21). Sartorial ornamentation was one of the most prominent features of portraits at this date, attesting to a growing interest in fashion. Netherlandish variants of Spanish dress were in particular vogue, as seen in this sitter’s open-fronted gown, or vlieger, which developed from the Spanish ropa and was a trademark of wealthy married women of the Dutch urban elite. There was a prevailing trend for black in contemporary costume, suggestive of modesty and austerity. In the present picture, the black material accentuates the costume’s jewels, embroidery and lacework with dramatic effect. Every stitch of the stomacher glistens in a rich impasto, giving the flower motif a tangible quality. These pictorial attributes reflected the sitter’s wealth, power and social status. The intricacy of detail in this portrait is comparable to that in van der Voort’s masterful Portrait of Brechtje Overrijn van Schoterbosch of 1614 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Inv. No. SK-A-124), the design of which is equally sumptuous, though the palette is a little more monochromatic. While her identity remains a mystery, this portrait typifies an important shift in the style of Amsterdam portraiture and displays an elegance that moves beyond the typical sobriety of images of affluent Dutch society.