by Robert Anderson
The portrait of the lady sitter - possibly Venus - is the second of the pendant portraits which were commissioned, in all probability, by an Amsterdam couple as a loving momento of their impending marriage.
Showing engaged and married couples in separate paintings is typically Dutch since 17th century townhouses in which they were hung lacked space for larger works. As separate canvases, the pendant portraits could be hung on either side of a fireplace.
The lady wears an elaborate dress with a rather low cut neck-line with the breasts partially revealed which was unusual in Dutch 17th century portraits where scarves were normally worn around the shoulders. She is positioned to the left, faces the viewer and holds a rose in her left hand as she gestures to the gentleman.
The gestures toward one another plus the continuous landscape of pinkish clouds in a dark blue sky which flows from one to the other help to physically and psychologically unite the paintings.
These are known as “pendant portraits.” Dutch society placed great importance on the family, and they loved to commemorate domestic life with portraits; rather than have a couple portrayed on a single canvas, they preferred the pendant style. John Ringling bought the gentleman in 1930; 51 years later, in 1981, the lady’s portrait came on the market and was purchased for the Museum by an anonymous donor. Well-established convention dictates the man be hung on the left, the woman facing her husband.
Since no wedding rings are visible, it is likely the paintings celebrate a betrothal. The couple is painted in the guise of Venus and Adonis, both for the inspiration of those classical lovers - and for the opportunity to show a little high style and cleavage instead of the usual sober Dutch dress. Her pearl earrings may have been lacquered fish bladders, a popular way of imitating large pearls. The spear and the rose allude to the legend which tells us that as a result of being grazed by Cupid’s arrow, the goddess Venus fell passionately in love with Adonis, who was mortal.