"Portrait of Three Children as Ceres, Ganymede, and Diana" by Nicolaes Maes

Allegory and symbolism in the Dutch Golden Age

Portrait of Three Children as Ceres, Ganymede, and Diana (1673) by Nicolaes MaesHaggerty Museum of Art

Dutch painter Nicolaes Maes was born in Dordrecht in 1634. He relocated to Amsterdam in the 1640s to study with Rembrandt van Rijn, returning to Dordrecht in 1653. Maes initially painted biblical histories and domestic scenes. By 1656 he had shifted his focus to portraits, which were often commissioned by wealthy Dutch merchants.

Arnold Houbraken, in his 1721 biography of the painter, attributed Maes’ stylistic change during the 1660s to market pressure, stating that Maes “learned the art of painting from Rembrandt, but lost that way of painting early, particularly when he took up portraiture and discovered that young ladies would rather be painted in white than in brown.”

"Portrait of Three Children as Ceres, Ganymede, and Diana" was completed in 1673, the same year that Maes moved to Amsterdam. It integrates elements of traditional portraiture and “history painting,” which refers to subjects taken from the Bible, ancient history, literature, or myth.

Here, the artist depicts the sitters as mythological figures in a landscape setting, which was considered fashionable at the time and would have been attractive to the artist’s patrons.

Dutch history painting was considered the highest form of art because it came uyt den gheest—from the mind. That is, to create or appreciate a painting like this required both knowledge of the figures represented and an understanding of the conventions and symbols of art.

The eldest child in this painting is depicted as Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. As a fertility deity, Diana was also invoked by women to aid conception and delivery.

She carries her attributes — a bow, quiver and arrows.

She is accompanied by a hunting hound, which enters the frame at her left.

The child at the center of the composition is depicted as Ganymede, a figure from Greek mythology.

Legend has it that this Trojan prince of notable beauty was abducted by Zeus disguised as an eagle.

Maes painted several portraits of children as Ganymede, some as single figures and some, as in the present portrait, as part of a group with other children. These can all be dated to the late 1670s and early 1680s. The late Dr. Werner Sumowski, professor emeritus of art history at the University of Stuttgart, suggested that the portrayal of a child as Ganymede indicated that the child had died, and that his soul had ascended to heaven.

The youngest child is depicted as Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture, the harvest, and motherly love.

Here, as in the comparable paintings just mentioned, the figure clutches the leg of Ganymede as if to pull him back from the heavens to earth.

Seventeenth-century Dutch painting was rife with moralizing messages and symbols coded with meaning. It is possible that this bowl of fruit is a status symbol, as only the wealthy could afford such lavish items.

It is more likely that this fruit bowl, with its early signs of rot, is meant as a memento mori or “reminder of death.”

This spaniel is another common symbol. While these dogs were popular house pets and companions at the time, they often appear in seventeenth-century Dutch portraits because a trained dog was considered an apt metaphor for raising and educating children.

A dog whose natural tendencies had been properly reined in could be useful, as could a well-raised, obedient child.

The withering flowers here might serve a similar function, reminding the viewer that life is fragile and fleeting, and compelling them to a righteous and moral path.

This painting serves not only as a family portrait, but also as an allegory about cycles of life and death. Why was Maes compelled to revisit the same subject matter and composition —down to the specific mythological figures he represented—several times during the 1670s?

According to the 1799 publication “A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases...” by Noah Webster, The Netherlands (as well as several other European countries and America) experienced successive years of illness and death during the 1670s. He writes: “Notwithstanding the barrenness of my materials, this pestilential period may be very clearly distinguished, by the measles from 1669 to 1672 with the small-pox, the catarrh of 1675, the subsequent malignant fevers and affections of the throat, and finally the pestilence of 1678.”

It is possible that in his "Portrait of Three Children as Ceres, Ganymede and Diana," Nicolaes Maes deployed mythology and symbolism to memorialize one family’s loss of a child and to speak more broadly to the fragility of health, and the accompanying moral imperatives, in seventeenth-century Holland.

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