Jan de Baen (1633-1702)
Portrait of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, the ‘Brazilian’
Grey chalk, heightened in white, brown ink frame, on blue paper, 380 x 291 mm
Verso a Portrait of a seated Scholar, annotated in graphite by a later hand C. Hughens and in brown ink Bart van der Elst
-Anonymous sale, Huybrechts & Carré, The Hague, 26 March 1817, no. 60, Kunstboek C as ‘Het portrait van eenen geleerden; breed en krachtig met roet, door de Baan.’ (verso)
- Private collection, Munich
This newly discovered drawing, the verso of which is first mentioned in a catalogue of 1817, is directly related to the famous portrait by De Baen. Rather than being a preparatory drawing, it probably served as a studio example for the production of painted copies. One of the most respected and searched after portraitists of his lifetime, Jan de Baen’s fame ran parallel to the apex and decline of the Dutch Republic. The turmoil of the rampjaar (the disaster year of 1672) did not come without effects for the artist. His studio was overrun by rioters who were after images of the De Witt brothers, the respected statesmen who had been lynched shortly before by the mob. The present drawing has a repair probably dating from shortly after this event, which thus might have caused the damage.
One of the most respected and searched after portraitists of his lifetime, Jan de Baen’s fame ran parallel to the apex and decline of the Dutch Republic during the First Stadtholderless period (1650-1672) and the decades that followed. International acclaim had started around 1660 with portrait commissions from German, French and English courts. The turmoil of the ‘rampjaar’ (the disaster year of 1672), when the Dutch were being besieged on three fronts, did not come without effects for the artist. His studio was overrun by rioters who were after images of the de Witt brothers, the respected statesmen, who had been lynched shortly before by the mob. The present drawing has a repair probably dating from shortly after this event, which thus might have caused the damage.
De Baen’s portrait of Johan Maurits is certainly his best known and most widely praised work, not in the least because of the sitter’s stature. The Prince of Nassau-Siegen had been appointed Governor-General of Dutch Brazil in 1637, a position he held for six and a half years. Under his rule an extensive group of artists and scientist, among them Frans Post, Albert Eckhout and Georg Markgraf, depicted and researched the colonized country and its inhabitants. Upon his return to Europe, Johan Maurits had the Mauritshuis, his The Hague residence and kunstkammer, decorated with objects and paintings he brought back from Brazil. Unfortunately, many of these were later given to the Danish King Frederick III in exchange for the Order of the Elephant or sold to Louis XIV to pay for all his building activities.
Johan Maurits appears ghost-like, the white heightening of his face working evocatively against the blue background. The sheet is one out of five surviving drawings by Jan de Baen, two of which are in the collection of the Amsterdam print cabinet. The only signed drawing is a finely finished sheet depicting Diana and her nymphs. Most congruent in style are the portrait of Cornelis de Witt and an early self-portrait on blue paper, last offered at Sotheby’s in 2015. Another drawing representing Johan Maurits, at three-quarter length, copied after the portrait by De Baen, has incorrectly been attributed to the artist.
Johan Maurits obtained the position in Brazil because of his family connection to stadholder Frederik Hendrik, who had succeeded his half-brother Maurits. The colony consisted of a coastal area in the north-east of Brazil that admiral Loncq had captured from the Portuguese for the WIC in 1630 (for a portrait of Loncq see Uit Verre Streken, November 2015, no. 4). The Portuguese had set up a lucrative sugar industry there, with sugar cane plantations and sugar mills that were reliant on the labour of enslaved Africans. ‘Dutch Brazil’ became the first large Dutch plantation colony in the Atlantic area.
At first, the Dutch regarded slavery as an ‘unchristian’ act perpetrated by their Catholic Spanish and Portuguese enemies. But with the arrival of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in ‘the East’ and the WIC in ‘the West’, the Dutch too started to use slave labour outside the borders of the Dutch Republic. There were a number of Dutch individuals in the early decades of the 17th century, including pastors but also administrators, who spoke out against inhumane slavery, but the beckoning profits silenced their criticism.
Johan Maurits occupies a central role in this history. After his arrival in Brazil, he revived the plantation economy by providing loans to the Portuguese to run the (abandoned) sugar mills. The governor was reliant on the Portuguese who had stayed behind – there were too few Dutch able or willing to take over their work. Another problem was the hard-daily labour: the mills had to run around the clock and who was going to do that? As early as 1637, the governor equipped a fleet tasked with capturing the Portuguese trading post Elmina Castle (Ghana) on the west coast of Africa.
Three years later, Johan Maurits sent another fleet and the city of Luanda (Angola) was captured from the Portuguese. These locations were among the most important slave depots at that time. As such, Johan Maurits, under the orders of the WIC, brought the Dutch into the slave trade.
Johan Maurits often is regarded as an enlightened ruler, with respect for Catholics, Jews and the Indigenous population. However, we should not overestimate Johan Maurits’s tolerance which was more pragmatic in nature than it was ethical: he needed the Portuguese Catholics and Jews to keep sugar production going and the indigenous peoples as allies and to provide the settlement with food.
We are grateful to the Mauritshuis in The Hague for background information and image of the oil-painting above.