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When a child becomes an emblem

The expression on this child's face engagingly hints that the crisp, rather ceremonial costume in which her parents chose to have her seen by posterity could not altogether disguise a cheerful tendency toward bounce, mischievousness , and even, one suspects, giggling. The impressively named artist - Cesar Boetius van Everdingen - has not failed to fulfill the requirements of his commission: The child is turned into an emblem of family importance. But at the same time her childish individuality somehow escapes the doll-like decorum imposed on her; there is a knowing amusement playing around eyes and mouth.

Presumably Everdingen was working for a client of some social standing and possibly civic importance. It has even been suggested that his subject was Maria Baert, daughter of the burgomaster of Alkmaar, in northern Holland. (It is, however, conceivable that the child is not a girl at all. Small boys were often dressed in skirts, and the peculiar cap - like a much later hunting cap - is not particularly feminine.)

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The picture is dated 1664. Everdingen would have been in Alkmaar at that date. He was born there around 1617 and, after producing some of his best work in Haarlem and The Hague, returned to Alkmaar in 1657, remaining there for the last twenty-one years of his career. A versatile artist, he painted not only individual portraits but historical, mythological, and allegorical subjects. Like Rembrandt he even painted group portraits of militia companies.

He has been described in art history as a ''classicist.'' He liked bright, clear lighting and strong resultant shadows. The world in his pictures takes on a detailed, crystalline appearance. His art is orderly and methodical rather than flowingly cohesive. He shows respect for and interest in the different character of individuals, even in his historical pictures.

One of his most striking, and strangest, paintings is of ''Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man.'' It shows Diogenes in a marketplace (a 17th-century Dutch one, however) ironically conducting his search with a lantern in broad daylight. Everdingen manages to paint this sunlight as hard and revealing: No one could hide in it. The subject of Diogenes' search was popular in Dutch painting, particularly with Calvinists, and in Everdingen's version the people surrounding the austere Greek philosopher - his ''interrogators'' - are portraits, probably of members of a single family. They must have chosen the role of Diogenes' interrogators themselves as an odd form of self-abasement: According to tradition, he denounced them one and all as less than human, as ''men only by name and beasts in (their) deeds.''

Everdingen himself was a Calvinist (unlike most of the classical painters of the time in Holland, who were Roman Catholics). The family he portrayed in ''Diogenes'' is thought possibly to have been one of two prominent Calvinist families. Perhaps the little ''Child Holding an Apple'' also came from a Calvinist family. A rather rigid, doctrinaire approach to life might almost be symbolized by the starched severity of her garb. And this is surely not the only symbolism in the picture. The artist was accustomed to allegories; the apple the child holds in her right hand and the bird perched on her left are hardly there by chance.

The bird seems to be some kind of finch. Everdingen is likely to have been aware that goldfinches, in particular, because of their love of thistle seeds for food, were associated in earlier Italian art with thorns and, by extension, with the agony of Jesus. The child Jesus was often depicted holding a goldfinch. The half-eaten apple, on the other hand, is most usually associated with the story of Adam and Eve, where it was the fruit of the ''Tree of Knowledge'' offered as a temptation by the evil serpent.

It is possible, therefore, that this child portrait, like the family portrait in ''Diogenes,'' was intended as an allegory. According to Calvin's teaching, even a newborn baby was at fault - tainted by Adam and Eve's fall from grace. But Calvin's belief did then allow that a human being could be redeemed. Thus this Dutch child has been made a kind of moral lesson, showing the choice open to all children - the choice between the sin she has unwittingly committed and the promise of salvation: between the bitten apple and the bird.

The child seems about as unconcerned with all this as she (or he) is with social importance; and - who knows? - perhaps the scrupulous artist, as he so splendidly painted the contented nuances of that round, open face, perceived in spite of himself the child's inherent and appealingly natural innocence.

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