Amsterdam Cromhouthuis: drawings by da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt

When wealthy business tycoon Carl Joseph Fodor died in 1860, he left his art collection to Amsterdam. Now a selection of absolute highlights from Fodor’s collection can be admired at a small Amsterdam canal-house. In the period house, visitors are treated to drawings by world-famous artist like da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt.

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Eighteenth century family portraits in an Amsterdam canal house

No, Adriaan de Lelie never lived at this canal house. But the house’s first tenant was indeed a Dutch painter: Ferdinand Bol. The curator who welcomed our small group, told mr Bol took the then owner of the house to court. The 17th century paper trail shows Mr Bol paid rent for this canal house, its garden, its coach house. Only: the latter was still under construction. And let’s be honest: you would also protest at having to pay rent for an unfinished garage!

Mr Bol is long gone. The coach house is long finished. Another family now owns the property at the Keizersgracht. They turned part of it into Museum van Loon. On a warm summer day, there is nothing better than to sit in its small garden having tea or coffee after visiting the house. But this time, a cold autumn drizzle hung over Amsterdam. Just as well I had not come to visit the garden!

No, a few days earlier, a small exhibition on late 18th and early 19th century family portraits by the Dutch painter Adriaan de Lelie had opened in the coach house. So after a warm welcome in one of the canal house’s rooms, the curator took our group through the drizzle to the coach house. This houses the small café and usually a few family coaches. The café is still there, but the coach house now also contains five areas full of paintings of family groups. Each area concentrates on a different theme.

Of course the first one gives some background information on Adriaan de Lelie. He is now hardly remembered, but once monopolized the Amsterdam market for family portraits when photography had not yet been invented. The room shows examples of de Lelie’s predecessors and genres he painted in.

The second area contrasts aristocracy and de Lelie’s clientele. Where Dutch aristocracy preferred foreign painters, Dutch middle classes preferred the cheaper de Lelie. Many paintings actually include items referring to a family’s source of income. As this was the era of the French revolution which influenced Dutch politics, as well as the early Industrial Revolution, there are also references to these.

One painting shows the rich owner’s paper mill or printing presses. Another client specifically demanded an English iron works as background. The curator explained the painter was probably sent an engraving or sketch to realise this desired background. The result is pretty impressive: one nearly experiences the filth, sooth, heat of the furnace.

The third area shows family portraits used as a kind of propaganda. Real or desired lineage is stressed in portraits to support claims to titles. Continuity is shown by including portraits of generations long gone, as well as the younger generation. There is one touching painting: a family mourning the mother who died giving birth to the latest family addition.

The fourth and fifth area are quite interesting. These show how taste and style changed. Some families were painted when the French Ancien Régime still reigned, others wear Empire style clothes. Interior design changes, as well as landscape styles. Families walk through formal French gardens, or English landscape ones.

However, do not be fooled: some backgrounds are not what they seem. As with some title claims, some interiors are fabrications. No family rich enough to order a painting would live in a house with a front door directly opening into the garden. Then there is the painting showing a family walking through an existing English landscape garden – they do not own.

Of course, one of the most interesting de Lelie paintings is the one showing members of the van Loon family. The painter actually worked on this painting twice and it is full of symbolism. But you had better have a look at it yourself. Provided you are in Amsterdam before the exhibition terminates; for “Adriaan de Lelie, 18th century family portraits at Museum van Loon” runs till the 19th of January 2015.

For the museum website: Museum van Loon