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Jan Davidsz de Heem

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Jan Davidsz de Heem Biography


Utrecht 1606 – 1683/84 Antwerp


Jan Davidsz. de Heem was born in Utrecht to a family of Flemish descent, at Easter time 1606, which would have been the last week of April. His father, David Jansz. van Antwerpen, was a musician and not, as most early literature would have it, a painter. He died in 1612 and de Heem’s mother remarried a year later to a bookbinder and book dealer of German origin. In the spring of 1625 the family moved to Leiden, where the artist’s mother had been born. There, the painter started to use the surname de Heem, and there his artistic career kicked off. However, the first mention of the young artist can be found in the records of the orphanage board in Utrecht, from which we learn that in February 1625, still registered as ‘Jan Davidtsz. van Antwerpen’, he was planning a journey to Italy. The funds for that trip, however, were not granted, probably out of fear that his virtually bankrupt stepfather would usurp them before they could be put to their proper use.


Who trained the young de Heem in Utrecht has not been recorded, but in all likelihood it was the still-life painter Balthasar van der Ast (1593/4-1657). De Heem’s earliest paintings were clearly inspired by van der Ast’s compositions, and the fact that he liberally borrowed motifs from recent works by that master during his early years suggests that he must at least have had intimate knowledge of van der Ast’s production around 1624.


In December 1626, Jan Davidsz. de Heem married  Aletta van der Weede, a girl from his native city, Utrecht. They had several children, and the baptism in April 1631 of their son Cornelis, the later still-life painter, is the last sign of de Heem’s presence in Leiden. Probably due to debts, he must have left the city shortly after, without further notice. Probably he moved to Amsterdam – his work from the following years shows an affinity with that of Jan Jz. den Uyl, who was working there, while several of his friends, among them Pieter Potter (1597/1600-1652) and Rembrandt (1606-1669), moved to Amsterdam around the same time – but there is no record of him there.


Some five years later, by March 1636, de Heem had settled in Antwerp, enrolling as a master painter in the local guild of St Luke some time during the administrative year 1635-1636, and registering as a poorter (citizen) on 28th August 1637. Around that time, Jan Lievens (1607-1674), with whom de Heem was acquainted from his Leiden years, drew his portrait (fig **).


During the following years de Heem’s artistic career started to flourish, certainly from 1640 onwards, but biographical details remain scarce. During the 1640s he painted a substantial body of work and registered several pupils with the Antwerp guild. In March 1643, Aletta van der Weede died and a year later the painter remarried. His new wife, Anna, was a Catholic and a daughter of Antwerp’s foremost harpsichord maker and a prominent citizen, Andreas Ruckers. The couple had four daughters and two sons, of whom Johannes, born in 1650, is supposed by some to have become a painter, but if so, no examples of his work are recorded.


In 1658 Jan Davidsz. de Heem was registered by the Antwerp council as a buitenpoorter (citizen outside of town). This indicates that he retained his civil rights, but was no longer a permanent resident. Most probably already around that time he spent considerable amounts of time in his native city, Utrecht. He must have moved there permanently by the early 1660s, even though only from 1665 onwards his presence in Utrecht is actually documented. Indirect proof of his move to Utrecht before 1660 is the apprenticeship of Maria van Oosterwijck (1630-1693) with de Heem, which was referred to by contemporary biographers. She is recorded to have moved from Leiden to Utrecht in May 1660. Another pupil during de Heem’s Utrecht years was Abraham Mignon (1640-1679). Mignon was first trained by Jacob Marrel (1613/14-1681) in Frankfurt am Main, but according to the biographer Arnold Houbraken his teacher brought him to Utrecht to work with de Heem when he was twenty-four years old, which age he reached in 1664. Mignon would remain active in Utrecht until his death in 1679. Another pupil, Elias van den Broeck (1651/52-1708), engaged as such for two years in 1669, appears to have followed his master upon his return to Antwerp in 1672. In that year, the French invaded Holland and the Dutch became embroiled in the third English War, and as a result the economy came to a virtual standstill. De Heem must have decided that the chances of selling his paintings in Antwerp were higher than they were in Utrecht. From his work and activities, de Heem comes across as an energetic personality who moved around a lot to follow artistic and financial opportunities, and as someone who seemed to have negotiated his way between the Catholic and Protestant factions in the Netherlands. He was raised a Protestant, but later moved freely in Catholic circles in Antwerp. He received and accepted commissions from the pious Archduke and Prince-Bishop Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels. But also, many of his still lifes from the Utrecht period – and the following years – include prominent oranges, as a plain reference to the Protestant House of Orange. During the 1660s, factions propagated the return of the Stadtholder and William III of Orange was restored to that position in 1672. De Heem appears to have been closely associated with these Orangist sympathisers.


Very little is documented of the artist’s life after his return to Antwerp. Only two documents from that period, dealing with property issues and dating from August and September 1683, are recorded. After 1675 he appears to have painted only a few still lifes. The only mention in the ledgers of the Antwerp guild is the payment of his death dues, sometime during the financial year 1683-1684, perhaps in April 1684. No burial records have been traced, however, neither for Jan Davidsz. de Heem nor for his wife, Anna Ruckers.


Fred G Meijer


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