VAN DER HELST
(Haarlem 1613 – 1670 Amsterdam)
A Young Woman Holding a Sunflower
Signed and dated upper center B. van der Helst f. / 1670
Oil on canvas, 39 1/3 x 29 ½ in (99.9 x 74.9 cm)
Pappelendam & Schouten, Amsterdam 11 June 1889 n. 67; A.P. Fisher Boelger, 1921; Private Collection, Switzerland
E. de Jongh, Kwesties van betekenis, Thema en motief in de Nederlandse shilderkunst van de zeventiende eeuw, 1995, p. 126 reproduced.
Bartholomeus van der Helst moved to Amsterdam in 1636 and within a decade the Haarlem innkeeper’s son surpassed Rembrandt as the most sought-after portraitist in the city. The taste of Dutch patrons shifted away from the rough, introspective style of Rembrandt to a more refined and flattering treatment introduced and popularized by Anthony van Dyck. Van der Helst quickly responded to the new demand for elegant portraits. His virtuoso display of finery and flattering likeness appealed to the wealthy members of society who eagerly commissioned his work. Van der Helst’s sophisticated mix of realism and idealism remained fashionable into the next century.
Painted in the last year of the artist’s life, the present work portrays a young woman dressed in a resplendent white satin dress, complemented by an ostrich feather hairpiece, pearl drop earrings, and a pinky ring. She holds the stock of a large sunflower and with her other hand points to her heart. The sunflower was a popular 17th century symbol of love; as the bloom turns towards the sun, so a lover turns faithfully towards the beloved. Dutch poet and playwright Joost van den Vondel wrote about the association of the sunflower with both love and art in ‘Inwijdinge der Schilderkunste op Sint Lucas Feest’ of 1654:
Just as the sunflower, out of love, turns its eyes towards the heavenly canopy and follows with its face the all-quickening light of the sun who bestows color upon the universe and kindles trees and plants – thus the art of painting from innate inclination and kindled by a sacred fire, follows the beauty of nature.
Our subject’s tender gesture of pointing to her heart makes the meaning of the sunflower clear, signifying devotion to her lover, whom she seems to address by her direct gaze. The motif is extended into the reproduction frame, wherein a sunflower figures prominently, replicating the richly carved frame around Ferdinand Bol’s celebrated Self Portrait in the Rijksmuseum.