The theme of education featured prominently in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. While it most often took the form of moralizing genre scenes set in dissolute households or unruly classrooms, learning was also expressed in allegorical terms. In the context of portraiture a sitter's erudition could be suggested with a still life of books, drawings, prints and antique artefacts such as coins or fragments of sculpture. These objects denote learning on a higher level than that of mere socialization and it is this kind of education to which Bol refers in Portrait of a family, an allegory of education, painted around 1656. These are the children of the elite being taught by the Goddess of Wisdom herself.
Minerva sits on an elevated chair on an elegant balcony overlooking a hilly landscape. A red curtain has been pulled to one side and three children sit at her feet. She appears in full armor in reference to her aspect as the goddess of war who, in her infinite wisdom, fights only for just causes. While the children wear contemporary clothing, the abundant fabric of the boy's cloak at the left and the girl's train at the right lend their dress a classical air. The drapery further serves to extend the width of the composition at its base, emphasizing the triangular structure of the figural group that, together with the primary colors of the drapery, suggests the fundamental nature of the instruction. The girl looks up from a book in which she is writing while the older boy draws in a sketchbook, a skill that from the mid seventeenth century was considered a staple of the gentleman's education. The younger boy looks at the viewer and gestures to the goldfinch that has alighted on his finger. Such birds, bound with strings, often appear in portraits of children from this period and have been considered appropriate attributes for children too young to be preoccupied with weightier matters. However, the taming of birds has also been seen as a metaphor for the education that children need and it is significant that in this painting the bird is not bound by a piece of string but stays on the child's finger of its own accord (Bedaux, 1990, p. 215, n. 5). Minerva's civilizing influence is emphasized in this exchange between child and viewer.
Bol painted other portraits that encompass the theme of education. In a similar composition of around 1663 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), a girl is embraced by Minerva as she leans forward onto the goddess' lap and looks directly at the viewer. She holds her place in a book in order to accommodate the interruption and two putti struggle to bring them another volume. Like Diana, Minerva was a virgin goddess and was, thus, considered a good role model for young women. Often, as with Diana, contemporary Dutch women of a certain class had their portraits painted in her guise. It is significant that in both of these works girls are featured prominently as the recipients of this kind of education, a fact that reflects the progressive philosophy of education in the northern Netherlands at this time. Indeed, it has been noted that literacy among both men and women attained a level that was wholly exceptional in Europe at this time and that did not become normative elsewhere until centuries later (Israel, 1995, p. 686). Already in 1593, the renowned French humanist and scholar Joseph Scaliger was astonished to find that in Holland even servant girls could read. Seventeenth-century Dutch culture was literacy based to a large extent and stems ultimately from the drive to confessionalize the population after the initial stages of the revolt from Spain in the mid 1560s. Pushing the population of the northern Netherlands in the direction of the official Reformed church was intended to counter the efforts of both Catholics and dissenting Protestants in order to widen support for both the new state and the public Church. Enabling citizens to read scripture was at the very heart of this effort and was the cornerstone of primary education.
Bol was a successful portraitist in Amsterdam and by the mid 1650s had shed Rembrandt's example and adopted a style associated with the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck. He painted a range of portraits in historical and mythological dress around this time, among them Family Group as Paris, Venus and Amor (Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht), Johanna de Geer as Caritas with her children Cecilia and Laurens Trip (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), and Three children in a carriage led by putti (Louvre, Paris).