By the time he painted these portraits in 1655 (see also lot 23 for the pendant), Bartholomeus van der Helst had become the leading portrait painter in Amsterdam and had superseded Rembrandt as the portraitist of choice amongst the city's regent and merchant elite. He owed his popularity to the prevailing taste for elegance and refinement of technique, and these portraits serve as superb examples of why Van der Helst had risen to this position of pre-eminence. The mid-1650s can be seen to represent a highpoint in the artist's career and from these years come some of his most celebrated works: The Regents of Kloviersdoelen (Amsterdam Historisches Museum) and the Self Portrait (Ohio, Toledo Museum of Art), both painted in 1655, and and the two double portraits, Abraham del Court and his Wife (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam) and Jochem van Aras and his Wife (Wallace Collection, London), from 1654.
The sitters for the present portraits are depicted life-size, in even daylight, seated on a terrace against a balustrade, overlooking extensive landscapes. Haarlem with the distinctive tower of St. Bavo's can be seen on the skyline beyond the gentleman, while a dune landscape with bleaching grounds, presumably also near Haarlem, with a view out to sea beyond, forms the backdrop to the lady's portrait. The couple are richly attired and the artist has taken extraordinary care in describing their costumes, demonstrating to full effect his unrivalled skill at rendering texture and materials. Their posture is self-assured, particularly in the man's case, and their general affluence is subtly emphasised by his wife's jewellery, which is rendered in minute detail; she wears strings of pearls in her head-dress, a pearl necklace and earrings, and two rings. The fan in her left hand, perhaps a gift from her husband, also signals her wealth and position amongst society's elite.
The inclusion and prominence of the landscapes, which are overseen by the couple in a proprietary manner, as if from a country villa, are the most obvious signs of their prosperity, implying landed as well as material wealth. Van der Helst regularly included landscapes in his work around this date, for instance in the pair of portraits, also from 1655 (Paris, Louvre), and the aforementioned Abraham del Court and his Wife. However, while in these pictures the description of the scenery is generic and, in the latter case, emblematic of the notion of 'the garden of love' as an appropriate setting for a double portrait, in the present works the views appear to be topographically accurate and are rendered with an unusual attention to detail. Presumably, for this reason, the painting of the landscapes was delegated by Van der Helst to a specialist. This collaborative element has always been recognised from the time that François Tronchin first documented them in 1777, referring to 'Les fonds de Jaq. Ruysdaal' (see provenance). The detailed brushwork used in the painting of the backgrounds and the luminous, cloud-filled skies do indeed speak strongly of Jacob van Ruisdael, but this has not been established with certainty and there is no evidence to show that the two artists ever collaborated.
The landscapes may provide the best clue as to the possible identities of these sitters. The countryside around Haarlem was a popular retreat for wealthy Amsterdam citizens, many of whom bought land and built houses there. As Judith van Gent has recently shown, 'From the middle of the seventeenth century, these houses were often incorporated into the backdrop of portraits as an indication of the sitters' wealth' (J. van Gent, 'A new identification for Bartholomeus van der Helst's family portrait in the Wallace Collection', The Burlington Magazine, CXLVI, March 2004, p. 166). It is therefore tempting to assume that these sitters must be the owners of the country house which is rendered with precision and positioned obtrusively in the middle distance, directly above the man's open hand. Dr. Pieter Biesboer, to whom we are grateful, has recognised this house as Clercq-en-Beeck which was built on the bleaching operation of Lucas de Clercq and Lucas van Beeck, who were married respectively to Ferijntje and Christina van Steenkiste. On this basis, he has made a compelling case for identifying the sitters for these works as house's owners in 1655, Lucas van Beeck (c. 1602-1657) and his wife Christina van Steenkiste (c. 1602-1669), who had acquired full ownership of the property in 1654 following the death of Lucas de Clercq (see P. Biesboer, Collections of Paintings in Haarlem 1572-1745, in the series Documents for the History of Collecting: Netherlandish Inventories, I, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2001, pp. 216-17). Both would have been aged around fifty in 1655, which corresponds with the apparent age of the sitters. Van Beeck died in Amsterdam in 1657 and his wife was buried at the Westerkerk in 1669. Although there is no trace of these portraits in the inventories drawn up after her death, either for the property in her Amsterdam house at Herengracht 134, or her estate in Haarlem, family portraits were often taken out of inventories, and it remains to be seen whether they are cited in the wills of their son Pieter or their grandson. More problematic perhaps with this identification, as pointed out by Judith van Gent, is the fact that the couple were strict Mennonites (Lucas van Beeck was the deacon of the Mennonite chuch of Het Lam), and it would be highly irregular for a couple of this religious persuasion to be portrayed in such opulent fashion.
If these portraits were indeed commissioned to convey the couple's pride in ownership of their country property, they also functioned as a potent symbol of their mutual love and respect for each other. Although they cannot have been conceived as marriage portraits (the sitters are too advanced in age), the pictures are composed exactly according to the conventional formula used for marriage portraiture, with the man on the right and both figures turning inwards slightly to face each other. He gestures to her openly while she wears a wedding ring conspicuously on the little finger of her left hand. It appears to be a square-cut diamond of the kind that Jacob Cats considered the ultimate symbol of the bond of marriage, patience and the power of man (see J. Cats, Hovwelick, Dat is Het gansch Beleyt des Echten-Staets, Middelburg, 1625, pp. 17-18). Their togetherness is further emphasised by elements rich in symbolic meaning. The grapevine and the ivy growing up the walls refer back to early seventeenth century emblematic prints accompanied by mottoes, that made clear the association between evergreen ivy and enduring love, and its dependence on a tree or stone on which it could flourish and grow. With reference to other works, Pieter van Thiel has affirmed 'The overgrown wall has long been a symbol of love, marriage, mutual trust, interdependence and friendship' going further to suggest that 'The wall is the husband; the ivy, supported by it and growing into it, is the wife' (P. van Thiel, 'Marriage symbolism in a musical party by Jan Miense Molenaer', Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, II, no. 2, 1967-68, pp. 90-9).
These portraits were first documented in the collection of Jean-Robert Tronchin Boissier (1710-1798), one of the leading political figures in mid-eighteenth century Geneva. He became Procureur-Général in 1760, having earned a reputation as a politician of exceptional integrity and selfless devotion to public duty. Tronchin achieved lasting fame in 1762 for the publication of a pamphlet entitled Lettres écrittes de la Campagne, in which he presented a carefully argued defence of the actions of Geneva's executive council (Petit Conseil). This made a strong impression on the public and inspired a highly polemical and controversial rebuke from Jean-Jaques Rousseau in the Lettres écrites de la Montagne.
Tronchin withdrew from politics soon afterwards, retiring with his wife Elisabeth-Charlotte Boissier to her estate at La Grande Boissière to concentrate, amongst other things, on his library and his collection of pictures. His preference for Dutch paintings was probably influenced by his cousin François Tronchin (1704-1798) whose passion for collecting, primarily Dutch paintings, was unparalleled in 18th century Geneva. His best pictures were sold in 1770 in a negotiated sale to Catherine the Great, but he immediately afterwards set about building up another collection, the main body of which was dispersed after his death in a sale in Paris in 1801. The present works together with a group of thirty paintings from François Tronchin and others from his father's collection were inherited to form the Cabinet de Bessinge at the Tronchin estate outside Geneva. The picture collection was acquired en bloc with the estate in 1938 by Xavier Givaudan, in whose family the Van der Helsts have remained until now.
We are grateful to Dr. Pieter Biesboer for proposing a possible identification of the sitters and to Dr. Judith van Gent for her continued assistance. The portraits will be published in the latter's forthcoming monograph on the artist due for publication in 2011.