Family Portrait in the Courtyard of a Brussels Palace

On 18 October 2016, the Dorotheum auction house put an astonishing painting up for auction, the "Family Portrait in the Courtyard of a Brussels Palace". This large oil painting on canvas (170 x 225 cm) is signed and dated "L. Volders fecit 1666". Its worth was estimated at somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 euros. The scene depicts a group of people on the terrace of a Brussels palace; the tower of the Town Hall can be recognised on the left.

Informed one week before the sale by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, the Museum of the City of Brussels - Maison du Roi was extremely interested in purchasing this work of art but unable to do so. A race against time began to raise the amount needed to buy it. Brought up to speed and quickly convinced of the importance of this painting for the history of Brussels, the King Baudouin Foundation, through its Léon Courtin-Marcelle Bouché Fund, decided to enter bidding for the painting, on the (obvious!) condition that bidding did not reach exorbitant amounts. For the first time in its history, the Foundation received the support of two sponsors, Marnix Galle, CEO of Immobel, and Patrick Baillieux – both of whom also hoped to bring this piece of heritage back to Brussels. Contacted by the City of Brussels, under whose authority the Maison du Roi operates, the two of them agreed to contribute up to 17,500 euros for this purchase.

A Painting of Reference

Oil on canvas, 170 x 225 cm

This oil on canvas is both a portrait of a home and a family portrait. It features a patrician residence in Brussels, and in the background the Town hall is visible thanks to its tower on the left. The residence is seen from the point of view of the interior courtyard, with a garden visible on the left. A high lookout tower is proof of the noble status of the dwelling. The home itself is made of brick with white stone accents, typical of the traditional architecture of the historical Netherlands, as are its Flemish gables and dormer windows.

The foreground is occupied by 13 subjects, a mix of men, women and children, aristocrats and bourgeois. Five of them are holding stringed instruments (lute, viols, violins). At the centre of the group, a mysterious child is wearing red heels, a clue that he belongs to a royal family.
The location of this palace was identified by a team from the Monument and Sites Directorate of the Brussels-Capital Region, and in particular Stéphane Demeter. It is the Madeleine/Duquesnoy/Homme Chrétien/Eperonniers block. This block was practically wiped off the face of the map by the horrendous bombardment carried out by Louis XIV’s troops in 1695.

The coat of arms is that of the Lefèvre family, but it is likely that this was subsequently painted on top of the original heraldry. This painting offers a rare and extraordinarily minutious glimpse into what a patrician home from the Renaissance and Baroque period in Brussels looked like. This home is one of the rare documented examples of civil architecture, with these styles today being essentially known through religious architecture. This is because the bombardment of 1695 and the classical –then neo-classical – city architecture that subsequently appeared, along with the 20th century’s Brusselization, wiped out all traces of this architectural production. This painting restores part of this forgotten heritage, which in reality was stunning, living up to Brussels’ role as a royal and imperial capital in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Thanks to its great artistic quality and painstaking detail, this painting depicts a host of realia (clothing, architecture, music, etc.). Furthermore, this work is enigmatic from an iconographical perspective, making further study of the hidden meanings that might lie beneath the surface worthwhile.

The Painter

Lancelot Volders (1636-after 1714) is a Brussels painter who was highly renowned in his day and age, having eventually been named as the court painter to Henry Casimir II, Prince of Nassau-Dietz (1657-1696), in Friesland. He also taught Victor Janssens, the great Brussels painter of the latter half of the 17th century. Neither the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium nor the Museum of the City of Brussels owned one of his paintings; only the Church of Our Lady of the Chapel has another, Saint Aya Before the Trinity.

This work is THE painting of reference for Volders’ Brussels period, because it is signed and dated (unlike the Chapel Church’s painting), and because very few paintings from this period have been preserved. What’s more, it is undeniably one of the artist’s best works.