October 22, 2011

Bartholomeus van der Helst: Portrait of Gerard Andriesz. Bicker (1639); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Rembrandt's major opponent in the - highly profitable – field of portrait painting was Bartholomeus van der Helst. Van der Helst (1613-1670) was immensely popular in his days as portraitist of the rich and famous. Especially his portrayals of the Amsterdam elite were so influential that some of Rembrandt’s pupils even chose to adapt Van der Helst’s successful smooth technique, instead of the interesting, but less accessible, style of their master.
This portrait of Gerard Bicker is a pendant, with Gerard’s father Andries as its counterpart. But whilst the two paintings are similar in form, the appearance of the two men is quite different. Andries, then mayor of Amsterdam, is depicted as a lean, severe burgher, while Gerard comes across as a fashionable, dandyish member of the wealthy class. Amazingly, despite his young age of only seventeen, Gerard already held many responsible offices when he was portrayed by Van der Helst in 1639.
When one stands in front of the painting, the most striking aspect of the portrait is not Bicker's almost morbid obesity, but the smug look in his eyes. Understandably, the combination of these characteristics made it a popular frontispiece for books about the "decadent" Golden Age in the Republic.

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