In anticipation of the upcoming webinar program on Belmont’s Portrait of a Young Girl with Fan presented by our paintings conservator Perry Hurt, I post a reprint of my 1999 article as backdrop to the discussion:
Though a shadow of its former self, the seventeenth century Portrait of a Young Girl with Fan always occupied a place of honor in the house at Belmont, the last home of the distinguished American painter Gari Melchers. Thousands have filed past her curious image, and there’s hardly a one who hadn’t speculated about her true identity and that of the artist who immortalized her in paint. Thanks to a recent face lift, new information about the painting has finally come to light.
No record of the painting’s acquisition survives but it must have been a costly purchase and a particular favorite of Gari and Corinne Melchers. Not only does it appear in photographs the artist made of his home in Holland (see above), but it also figures as a painting within another painting executed by Mrs. Melchers, an artist in her own right.
One can’t help wondering at the significance, symbolic or otherwise, of a third appearance in the background of Gari Melchers’ own portrait, painted by his friend James J. Shannon.
The Northern European art tradition to which Gari Melchers was exposed during his early years abroad was crucial to his own artistic development, and his personal collecting taste was heavily weighted in that direction. It’s not surprising, then, that the Young Girl with Fan was singled out to provide a decorative backdrop in his own portrait, for it is certainly one of the finest old master examples in his collection and is the worthy trophy of a distinguished painter and erudite collector.
Until last summer, when the portrait was packed and sent off to a conservator, paint loss and discoloration significantly concealed the picture’s exquisite craftsmanship. The wood panel on which it was painted was completely split in two, horribly compromising the presentation of this unique treasure.
Happily, conservation not only restored the original brilliance of the portrait, but also revealed an inscription in the upper left-hand corner, providing the first definitive facts about the subject: “Æ Tatis suæ 4./ Ano Do 1626,” translating to “ in the fourth year of her life, year of our Lord 1626.”
Over the years various experts assigned the picture a date of about 1600, based on the style of the subject’s gown and stiff lace collar, a point which is now confirmed by the discovery of the period inscription. Young Girl with a Fan is thought to be a product of the Franco-Flemish portrait school, and the Flemish painter Wybrand de Geest is a name that has been suggested more than once. Because he was active from the 1620s until his death in 1643, it is quite conceivable that he was, in fact, the painting’s creator.
It is not known whether de Geest ever served as painter to a royal household, a point which makes this attribution less reliable, for the painting is almost certainly an example of the style of the portraiture associated with the court of James I of England (1603-1625).
Full-length costume pieces with an emphasis on the formality of court etiquette and richly elaborated pattern were the most characteristic form of portraiture produced in England from 1590-1625, but more often than not, were the products of several closely associated Flemish workshops in the employment of the crown.
Whoever the artist, his vision stems from a Northern tradition older than that practiced by his more illustrious cotemporaries, Rubens and Van Dyck. The Young Girl with Fan has none of the relaxed air and sense of humanity projected by their portraits, nor does she inhabit the expansive naturalist vistas that typify the grand manner of their work. Instead, her figure is confined with a dark, shallow and dramatically spot lit stage. In the place of personal style and a sense of immediacy, qualities that characterize the emerging Baroque, we instead have a painting whose charm lies in the formal decorative effects of the past.
The inscription also puts to rest the generally held notion that the young lady in the portrait was a dwarf, a frequent subject of court portraiture. Before conservation, the girl’s countenance conveyed an oddly mature aspect incompatible with her diminutive stature, accentuated in part by her magisterial isolation and the rigid design of her costume.
With cleaning, the sensitively modeled face and hands more closely resemble the soft fleshiness of a four-year-old, and even though her eyes directly address the spectator, her youthful timidity is still more apparent.
She may not be a particularly handsome child, but she was rendered in the most exquisite manner, right down to her ostrich fan, which she proudly displays for our admiration. The Portrait of ta Young Girl with Fan is well worth a detour to Belmont, just to experience the visual allure of her restored loveliness and the enigma of her inner life.