Jacob Huysmans

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Known For:Portraits

The Flemish artist Jacob Huysmans (sometimes called Houseman) originated from Antwerp, and from an early age, became immersed in the artistic milieu of the Low Countries, having been born into a family of established painters. According to the registers of the guild of St. Luke in Antwerp, Huysmans apprenticed with the Flemish Baroque painter Frans Wouters from 1649 to 1650, who worked under the Dutch artist, Sir Peter Paul Rubens.[1]

It is believed that Huysmans moved to England sometime shortly after 1660 in order to train as a portraitist. The Restoration of King Charles II engendered a flourishing of culture, in particular artistic patronage. Sirs Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller were at the very height of their supremacy, and many continental artists migrated to England in a bid to win patronage from the monarch, prosperous courtiers and powerful statesmen.

An intriguing extract from Samuel Pepys’s diary implies that by August 1664, Huysman’s artistic reputation had gained significant momentum. He describes visiting the studio of a ‘one Huysmans’ whose talents are ‘said to exceed Lilly (Lely)’, declaring his portrait of Queen Catherine of Braganza ‘as good pictures, I think, as ever I saw’.[2]

Huysmans’s exuberant style was particularly favoured by Charles II’s Portuguese wife, Queen Catherine. He often depicted female subjects in the guise of religious or classical figures and laid particular emphasis on the interplay of light, colour and contrasting textures; crumpled satin against porcelain skin, or glossy ringlets interwoven with jewel-like flowers, for example, Lady of the Court of Catherine of Braganza, [previously with Philip Mould & Company].

This style reached England via the religious paintings of the Baroque era active in southern Europe, particularly in the Catholic superpowers Italy and Spain. Huysmans’s handling of paint and application of colour, often manipulated to prettify his female subjects, is redolent of the Italianate, Van-Dyckian style. His hand can often be identified from his high-keyed colours, reddish lights prevailing in the flesh tones, and smooth, glossy finish. Furthermore, his work displays a similar poise and grandeur - evident in the art of Italian Guido Reni and the seventeenth-century Bolognese school - which so appealed to the Catholic taste of Queen Catherine.[3] Huysmans especially relished painting the rich colours and textures of sumptuous courtly attire, favoured by the most fashionable at court.

In 1683, Catherine commissioned several portraits from Huysmans, along with an opulent altarpiece and cupola of the Queen’s Chapel in St James’s Palace, London. His portraits of Queen Catherine as a Shepherdess (c. 1664) and Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond (c. 1664), both in the Royal Collection, epitomise his penchant for using costume and props, theatrical settings and allegorical symbolism to add interest and another dimension to his portraiture.[4] Besides portraiture, Huysmans is also known for his religious and historical paintings, although these works are rather more sober in style.

Although he spent the majority of his career in London, Huysmans did spend time in Chichester in Sussex following the Great Fire of 1666, perhaps to escape the threat of anti-Catholic sentiment pervading London at this time. He died in Jermyn Street, London, in 1696, and was aptly laid to rest in St. James's in the presence of his royally commissioned altarpiece.

[1] Wouters enjoyed the position of court painter to the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, and the Prince of Wales, later King Charles II of England.

[2] B. Coward, A Companion to Stuart Britain, (Oxford, 2003), p. 203.

[3] E.K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain, 1530 to 1790, (Hong Kong, 1994), p. 104.

[4] N. Fisher, That Second Bottle: Essays on the Earl of Rochester, (Manchester, 2000), p. 84.