As we looked at marital relationships during the early 17th century yesterday, today’s post gives us a glimpse into Dutch family life in the same time period.

Have a look at this portrait — click to enlarge — and see what details you pick up from it. Also think about the messages which the family and the artist want you to absorb.

Portrait of a Family at Midday Meal was painted by an artist of the Flemish School around 1610. I hope that Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts does not mind my linking to their site for the portrait and the fulsome explanation accompanying it.

The division of the family members by sex was common in Flemish family portraits at this time. The boys are near the father whilst girls and infants are with the mother.

The girl in red is a servant. She is carrying a pitcher of small beer and a plate of butter.

As everyone is well dressed, including the servant, we can conclude that the family is reasonably well-off financially. The father might have been part of the burgeoning merchant class of the time.

Note the expensive collars and ruffs everyone is wearing. The historians who wrote the essay accompanying the painting tell us mother’s ruff was considered dated at the time. The other family members are wearing more fashionable collars from the father’s pleated ruff to the latest style of the flat semi-circular collars of the daughter sitting nearest the mother and the servant girl. These are made from fine cambric linen, which was very expensive. The lace on the collars and the mother’s cuff was also costly as are the fabrics which the girls saying grace and the toddler in front are wearing. The red dye in servant girl’s attire must also have been expensive, as certain colours — red, purple and blue — were not commonly worn at the time for this reason.

Also observe the dog’s collar — ornate for the time with its large, diamond-shaped studs.

The historians tell us that the servant girl was likely to have been considered a member of the extended family — a ward of the household, if you will. As such, the father and mother would have felt responsible for her moral and spiritual development.

Death was a common memory for families, and portraits of infants who had died were often commissioned by wealthier families as a memento mori.  We can tell that this family have lost two children because of the two portraits in the background, to the left of the mother.

The curtain recalls a canopy structure under which royalty and dynasties took ceremonial meals. (You can see similar canopies in front of traditional Catholic and Anglican altars today.) Therefore, we can infer that the father wants us to see his household as enduring, prosperous and respectable.

To the left of the curtain is the hearth. You can see a pot suspended over the fire and a cat in front. The sideboard on the far left is sparse, neat and clean, reflecting an orderly household.

The dog is in the forefront and the cat in the background to reflect the dominance of good (dog) over evil (cat). Cats were connected with temptation, witchcraft and Satan. Presumably, the family used the cat as a mouser.

The boy behind the father has his hat in hand. This was a common device of 17th century paintings to indicate respect for authority — doffing the cap, in other words. This is another way for the father to let you know that he is raising well-bred children.

Another indication of the children’s good breeding is the goldfinch which the boy standing in front of the mother is holding. Note that he is smiling and pointing to the little perch on which the bird sits. The historians tell us that goldfinches were common family pets at the time and that they also symbolised virtue. Furthermore, there was also a prevailing notion at the time that birds, animals and children could be trained to be obedient through perseverance and repetition.  So, the little boy is telling us that he and his siblings are being raised in a socially correct way.

The predominance of good over evil is also visible in the small bells on the goldfinch’s perch and in the father’s crossed fingers. Ringing bells were thought to ward off evil as were crossed fingers, which we do today for good luck. (I read years ago that crossed fingers originated as a remembrance of Christ’s cross. The same goes for touching wood for good luck.) The historians say that the portraits of the deceased children show wreaths around their heads comprised of herbs, flowers and flecks of gold — all thought to ward off evil spirits.

The painting also contains biblical references. Observe the open door behind the mother. Outside the door is a tree, which the historians tell us was a frequent family portrait device of the day recalling Psalm 1, particularly verse 3 (emphasis mine):

1Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

 2But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

 3And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

 4The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

 5Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

 6For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

The grapes which the infant sitting on the mother’s lap is holding recall Psalm 128, further accentuating the parents’ fruitfulness and righteousness, in particular the first four verses:

1Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD; that walketh in his ways.

2For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.

3Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table.

4Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the LORD.

5The LORD shall bless thee out of Zion: and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life.

6Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel.

The bounty of food is a further reflection of Psalm 128. (I particularly like the absence of vegetables!) Note the variety of meats. Meat was expensive in those days; many people went without or ate fish, one of the reasons why the Catholic Church decreed fish on Fridays — cheap and humble. The ham in the centre of the table and the pie by the girls saying grace have been cut open to reveal their quality. The father would carve the meat at the table. People used silver and pewter tableware at the time; porcelain would appear in the 18th century in Europe.

Other indications of the family’s wealth include the studded Spanish chairs in which the parents are seated as well as the coral bracelets which the mother and the two daughters saying grace are wearing.

Some readers might wonder about the absence of smiles in portraits and old photographs. My mother told me that people believed that their portraits were likely to last many years, therefore, they presented themselves as serious and considered. A smile would be considered frivolous, perhaps forced. A portrait photographer, Rodney Smith, offers this explanation, followed by a lively discussion:

… America has always had its own perculiar fascination with perception, particularly other people’s perception of themselves.

Somehow along the convoluted way of history, the mass of men and women felt it imperative to be viewed with a smile …

For years when I was making portraits of the chieftains of industry, commerce, celebrity, or politicians, their first inclination in front of the camera was to smile. Interestingly enough this was not the case with poets or writers. I would tell them as I am telling you a smile is a false sentiment. I guess one could even refer to it as sentimental. It is a way of saying to someone (not that I am approachable) but rather quite the opposite, that I have something to hide. That behind this fictitious sentiment something else lurks that I do not want to share with you. Whether they realized it or not, it connotes to go away. Rather than inviting the viewer in, it is standing them off. I feel this is the difference between a casual photograph and a portrait.

History has told them otherwise. Everyone (including their friend’s) smiles in photographs. The truth is no portrait of substance has people smiling. Look at the history of painting, Rembrandt, Titian, Goya, Velasquez, Sargent, Vermeer, DaVinci, etc., the subjects gaze to the viewer is neutral at best, neither inviting nor forbidding. It is there for the viewer to see and feel.

Smiling is like much of American popular culture, superficial and misleading. It is part of our vernacular, but it should be expunged in photographs …

Even Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier is only smiling.

I, too, would like to return to non-smiling photographs. If I know the people and have evidence that they are not very nice people, the smile becomes artificial, if not distasteful in its hypocrisy.

Furthermore, I would like to return to less smiling in general. The French are good at reserving smiles only for people they know well or for someone cracking a joke. Smiles are special to them — a type of social currency they spend carefully. That’s something I picked up from my time there.

In fact, having lived in London and surrounds — the world’s crossroads (as my mother often said) — for over two decades, I have run across too many people from other cultures who smile when they are lying or do so as an aggressive gesture. The baring of teeth is common to men and women of certain countries. It comes across as a smile but is intended to intimidate and put you in your place.

But I digress.

I hope that you have enjoyed this Flemish portrait and its insight into the history of the family. If you look at it again later, you’ll no doubt see more details you might have missed the first time.