In 2006, the King Baudouin Foundation purchased the Portrait of Jan Vekemans, painted by the famous portraitist Cornelis de Vos (1584/1585-1651), and entrusted it to the Fritz Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp. The acquisition completed an important series of family portraits.
Cornelis de Vos is considered to be the most eminent portrait painter of the Antwerp Baroque period. Influenced by Pierre Paul Rubens and Antoine Van Dyck, he nevertheless developed his own distinctive pictural language, which appealed to the tastes of the city’s bourgeoisie.
In 1624, Joris Vekemans, a very prosperous Antwerp silk merchant, commissioned Cornelis de Vos to make a series of portraits – life-sized and by couple, each looking at the other – of himself, his wife Maria and his children. Unfortunately, Joris Vekemans died the following year, when only three of the portraits – of himself, Maria and Frans – had been completed. The portraits of Cornelia and Jan were unfinished, whilst the portraits of the three other children had not even been started.
In this portrait, Jan Vekemans, the eldest of the siblings, is five years old. He is wearing a costume with a skirt and open dress in green velvet, holds a hat in his hand and reveals the handle of an arm attached to his leather belt. The child’s apparel, typically masculine, demonstrates the boy’s elevated status. Such luxurious clothes were no doubt worn especially for the occasion and were not everyday clothes. In the 17th century, it was usual to dress children in rich finery and indeed adult clothes were sometimes adapted to fit children. The flat, wide, white linen collar is decorated with rounded bobbin lace and fasted with a red silk ribbon. This lace was of a new type and highly fashionable at the time. The cuffs are also in woven linen, but these are enhanced with lace braiding, a more traditional decoration.
The portrait is of exceptional quality and in a remarkable state of conservation. The fact that the portrait is unfinished teaches us much about the genesis of Cornelis de Vos’s portraits.
Four of the portraits were purchased in 1897 by the Antwerp collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh. The fifth – the portrait of the son Jan Vekemans – was until recently part of a private British collection. Thanks to the King Baudouin Foundation, the young boy was able to join the other members of his family, after four centuries’ separation.
Since the creation of the Fritz Mayer van den Bergh Museum in 1904, the collection has remained unchanged. Indeed it was the wish of its founder, Henriette Mayer van den Bergh, was preserve her deceased son’s art collections just as they were for future generations.
Nevertheless, the Portrait of Jan Vekemans undoubtedly deserved its place in the Fritz Mayer van de Bergh Museum and justified an exception being made to the principle of the museum’s founder.