The Painter's Family1621 - 1622. Oil on canvas, 181 x 187 cm.
This attractive group portrait, one of the most interesting of the 17th-century Dutch school on account of its bourgeois spirit with aristocratic leanings, is an extraordinary skilful depiction of the artist´s close family. Jordaens portrays himself with his wife Catharina van Noort and their first child Elizabeth, born on 26 June 1617, whose age allows us to date the work approximately. Catharina sits sturdily on an armchair; she is easily recognisable for her slightly almond-shaped eyes, prominent nose and fleshy, slightly drooping lower lip. Their daughter -dressed in popular style in accordance with her age, with a coral necklace from which hangs a cross and a basket of flowers in her right hand- is charmingly depicted, with an appealingly childlike expression; indeed, she sat for her multifaceted father on various occasions. Jordaens is personified by a dashing man standing upright, with his right hand and foot leaning on another armchair, the former on the back and the latter on the lower crosspiece, while his left hand holds a lute. It is not known whether he played musical instruments, though it would not have been unusual in a man so devoted to the arts and linked to a cultivated society. However, this object may also be a symbol of family harmony. The couple are elegantly dressed in black, not without a certain amount of ostentation, and display spectacular white ruffs, the wife´s larger and Jordaens´ more discreet. They both sport lace cuffs and Catharina´s dress has an embroidered bodice. She wears a small turban in the form of a bonnet, an elaborate jewel in her hair and earrings in her ears. Apart from their little daughter, the couple is accompanied by another woman, probably a servant to judge by her attire and position in the centre of the composition behind her master and mistress, set back from the foreground. Her clothing, richer in colour, contrasts with the sober distinction of theirs. She holds a basket of grapes, her head is framed by a high lace collar and she wears a high-crowned hat. This distinctive group is surrounded by a garden in which a few features stand out, though on the whole the setting is subordinate to the overall effect, without any predominant details. This has led art historians to believe that the painting belongs to a long tradition dating back to the medieval period of including the protagonists in a typical jardin d´amour. Rubens brought this socio-aesthetic custom to culmination in works such as the Garden of Love (P1690) and the tradition attained its height of development thanks to the 18th-century lyrical taste of Watteau (1684-1721) and his brilliant fetes galantes. The intertwining grapevines behind the couple are related to the idea of the indissolubility of the matrimonial link established by man and woman. Other great masters who employed this delightful allegory are Rubens and Frans Hals: the Flemish artist in his Self Portrait with Isabella Brandt, painted in 1609 or 1610 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and the Dutchman in the Portrait of Isaac Messa and Betriz van Laen, executed in 1622 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). These and many other examples suggest that the formula was frequently employed in painting of the period. A fountain in the form of Cupid mounted on a dolphin can be seen in the upper left corner. This was a feature of the gardens of love and Cupid, the son of Venus, the goddess who was born of sea foam, is identified with Love itself. The parrot behind them, a motif found in a few works by Rubens and by Jordaens himself, may have various meanings, though here it is identified with the virtue of marital faithfulness. The fruit that the little Elizabeth holds in her left hand is also a symbol of love, just as the flowers in her basket represent innocence and purity. Lastly, the dog peering out from behind the artist´s legs, the faithful animal par excellence, alludes to faithfulness as the basis of the close union that all spouses should preserve throughout their existence (Text drawn from Luna, J. J.: From Titian to Goya. Great Masters of the Museo del Prado, National Art Museum of China-Shanghai Museum, 2007, p. 371).