Published by Professor Marcel Roethlisberger in 1993 as in an unknown private collection in the Netherlands, this beautiful and important pair of portraits has recently re-emerged, having remained out of public view since 1937, when it was exhibited in The Hague. Kept in the same family collection since at least 1917, and possibly from as early as circa 1900, they are Hendrick Bloemaert's 'earliest known portraits, preceded by a decade of fine, personalized heads in religious and genre paintings' (Roethlisberger, loc. cit.). The panel support is typical of Hendrick's portraits before 1663; each of the present pictures is signed and inscribed in an elegant, calligraphic script, and dated 1634.
The male sitter is the painter Gijsbert Gillisz. de Hondecoutre, a member of the artistic dynasty founded in Mechelen by 1585/6 by Nicolaes Jansz. de Hondecoutre I (d. 1609). Nicolaes de Hondecoutre moved his family to Delft by 1601, and from the late 1620s the Dutch spelling of the name (Hondecoeter) was increasingly preferred. The sitter's father, Gillis Claesz. de Hondecoutre, specialised as a landscape and animal painter in Amsterdam and Utrecht. Gijsbert further narrowed this specialisation in his own work, concentrating on appealing paintings of barnyard fowl, a genre of which his celebrated son, Melchior d'Hondecoeter (born in Utrecht, granted citizenship in Amsterdam in 1688), was to become perhaps the greatest practitioner. Like the Bloemaerts, the Hondecoutre family were an important part of the Utrecht artistic community; Gijsbert was a member of the Utrecht Guild of Saint Luke (1626-1632), and his sister Josina married the landscapist Jan Baptist Weenix. This dynastic dedication to the profession of painting may have drawn the Hondecoutres into friendship with the Bloemaerts, who had been established in Utrecht by Cornelis Bloemaert (c. 1540-1593) in the sixteenth century. Weenix may have met Josina de Hondecoutre when he was a pupil in the studio of Abraham Bloemaert, Hendrick's father. Hendrick Bloemaert was only a few years older than Gijsbert, and the frank, affectionate and penetrating character of the present portraits may reflect a particular friendship between the two young painters, both in their early thirties. Hendrick is thought to have painted a self-portrait in the same year (now untraced, Roethlisberger, op. cit., no. H58); the present portrait of Gijsbert is the only portrait of another painter in Hendrick's oeuvre.
The identification of the sitters is recorded in the Amsterdam exhibition catalogue of 1867 and is accepted by Roethlisberger (loc. cit.); it is corroborated by the inscription correctly recording Gijsbert's age as 30 in 1634. Gijsbert married Maria Hulstman, daughter of Melchior Hulstman (whose name would be given to his grandson, the artist) in Utrecht on 6 December 1631 (the wedding contract, witnessed by Gillis de Hondecoutre and Melchior Hulstman, was published by Bredius, loc. cit.). The child held by Maria Hulstman in Bloemaert's portrait must be the firstborn of this marriage, and only about a year or two old at the time of the depiction. The portrait of the infant, tenderly held upright by his young mother, is both carefully individualised and extremely sympathetic, its rosy cheeks and red lips echoing the bright, cheerful red of its sleeve, while Maria Hulstman's serene and gentle expression tempers the respectability of her quiet, collected pose, in contrast to Gijsbert's lively, gesticulating figure.
The pendant pair must have remained with Gijsbert and Maria's descendants for several generations. Although their provenance prior to 1867 is not known, they may be the pair of portraits of these dimensions that were sold from the collection of Sébastian, vicomte de Sousberghe, at Ghent in 1819, the male portrait described as 'd'une execution remarquable'. This praise would be fitting for the portrait of Gijsbert, which in parts is painted with an astonishing freedom-- the thumb of his left hand seems almost to merge with the paints on his palette, in a move which anticipates a similar conceit in Rembrandt's celebrated Self-Portrait with Two Circles (London, Kenwood House). Gijsbert's semi-turned pose, his right hand drawing the viewer's attention to the portrait of his wife, is typical of artist's self-portraits of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which painters would often depict themselves pointing to one of their works. Here it deploys a clever play of ideas on the part of Hendrick Bloemaert. His Gijsbert points to the portrait of his wife and child as he might to one of his creations, as, in a sense, the child indeed is. At the same time, the palette, brushes and Mahlstick grasped in his left hand symbolise his creative role as a painter; by juxtaposition, the child held by Maria becomes an attribute of her creative role as a mother, made comparable to the Art of Painting. Painted by an artist for an artist, the pendants are full both of passages of real pictorial brilliance--from the gold embroidery of Gijsbert's sleeve to the swiftly brushed, downy fur of Maria's mantle, from Gijsbert's tousled hair to the little finger of Maria's hand, peeking out from behind the child--as well as of symbolic poetry which would have had special resonance for the painters and their families. As a pictorial ensemble, the pair constitutes an affectionate celebration of Gijsbert's newly-formed family, a family in which painting was always to remain a central focus of attention--as the excellence of its most celebrated product, Melchior d'Hondecoeter, was to testify.