Around 1660, Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606–1683), a highly regarded and popular Baroque still life painter, created an ornate garland image full of Dutch royal symbolism, perhaps in honor of the tenth birthday of William III, the sovereign Prince of Orange. William III had held the title from the moment of his birth, as the result of his father’s untimely death just days before he was born (He grew up on his guardian's summer residence at Soestdijk, which the Prince would eventually purchase). What is unclear is whether the painting always featured the portrait or if it was originally just a garland painting, very much in De Heem’s style – without the portrait of the young prince – with the prince added later by another artist. De Heem was not particularly known for his portraits, but he was incredibly sought-after for his garlands and still-life images. The painting has various similar titles, but is generally known as The Portrait of William III of England, aged 10, in a flower garland, with House of Orange symbols.
Just as the title varies, so does the attribution. The version considered to be the original is now at the Museum of Fine Art of Lyon in France. They list only De Heem as the artist, whereas others have suggested that the Prince of Orange was added by Jan Vermeer van Utrecht (no relation to Johannes Vermeer), who bought the painting for the for the at the time astronomical sum of 2,000 guilders. The truth is that there are a number of differing opinions as to whether Vermeer van Utrecht was involved in the painting at all, or if he bought it complete.
Aside from the portrait itself, the painting makes several references to William’s royal heritage, both Dutch and British. William, known as William of Orange, was the sovereign Prince of Orange and would go on to be Stadtholder (national leader) of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from the 1670s, and King of England, Ireland, and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. He was the only child of William II, Prince of Orange, and Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, the daughter of Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland.
De Heem developed a reputation as one of the greatest painters of still lifes in the Netherlands. He spent most of his time in Utrecht, Leiden and Antwerp. His work was in high demand during his life, from both the general public and from other artists and collectors, witness the price Vermeer van Utrecht paid for it. He taught many students and further influenced the Dutch style of still life painting. His younger brother also became an artist, as did his son (Cornelius de Heem) and his grandson (David Janszoon de Heem). All of the De Heem painters were successful, but none reached the true greatness and continued recognition of Jan Davidszoon de Heem, a true Golden Age master who took still life to new levels.
For more about the mystery around the attribution of the portrait and the royal symbolism, read Issue 52, of Dutch the magazine.
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