397 Gabriel Metsu’s Sick child – of state?

Gabriel Metsu’s Sick child in the Rijksmuseum is the poster boy of domesticism in Dutch art. What could be more touching? Schwartz thinks it was also meant to move the viewer in other ways than as an image of maternal care. He thinks he can identify the pathetic little boy as a personification of a high office leading an ailing existence.

Gabriel Metsu, The sick child, ca. 1664-66
Oil on canvas, 32.2 x 27.2 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-A-3059)

The colors are the clue. Read horizontally, from the woman’s left knee to her right, across the little boy’s camisole, they are the famous red, white and blue of the Dutch flag. From above to below, from the boy’s hair and blouse down to his mother’s lap, it corresponds to the Dutch phrase oranje, blanje, bleu – orange, white, blue, short for the Prince’s flag. These were such highly charged constellations in the mid-1660s that Metsu cannot have painted them into his picture without expecting people to notice. To put it starkly (perhaps too starkly, but it makes the point), the fight over the primacy of the one flag or the other was a defining feature of the United Provinces from the start of the Republic to its finish. Red, white and blue were the colors of the State, orange, white and blue those of the House of Orange. The never-ending tug of war between the States and Orangist factions, in constantly shifting permutations, found a symbol in the color of the flag one waved.

Why, then, would Metsu include unmistakable references to both in his Sick child? An answer to that question is provided by a certain act of state in April 1666. But first some background.

The painting is dated to the latter years of what was to be called the First Stadholderless Period (1650-72). The stadholder was the foremost official in the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, derived from a deputy function that was instituted by the kings of Spain when they still exercised remote control over the country. In the Republic (1588-1795) the stadholderate took on dynastic form, being filled successively by William of Orange, his sons Maurits, then Frederik Hendrik, and Frederik Hendrik’s son Willem, who became Willem II. After Willem’s untimely death in 1650, following a dispute with Amsterdam so nasty that he actually attempted, abortively, to take the city by arms, the States General declined to grant the office to his newborn son, Willem Hendrik. In 1654 the States of Holland, the foremost of the provincial governments, passed an Act of Seclusion to keep a member of the House of Orange from ever fulfilling the stadholderate, at that juncture adopting the red, white and blue flag as the Hollandsche vlag. Even then it was taken in two ways, by the politicos as an emblem of the state, by most others as a banner for the people. Over and against both these expressions of anti-dynastic republicanism, supporters of the House of Orange, still hoping for a restoration of the stadholderate, flew the prince’s orange, white and blue flag.

In 1664 another twist took place when the States General tightened the screws and proclaimed the Holland Flag to be the Statenvlag – the official banner of the Republic. By co-opting the red, white and blue for national political purposes it forced the orange flag into a more contentious corner than ever. At that point the cause looked close to lost.

Whew. So what may it have meant when Metsu crossed the two flags over each other and over the mother and her sick son? Well, the tension between the Statists and Orangists played out not only in symbols, in the streets, and in city and provincial governments. It was also highly acute in the negotiations between the House of Orange and the government concerning the status and upbringing of Willem Hendrik. In April 1666 a compromise was reached, in which custody over the prince was assumed by the States of Holland. Willem Hendrik became a Child of State. While the designation fit any minor whose education was paid for by the state, applied to Willem Hendrik it had grand resonance. As part of the arrangement, the boy was to be tutored by no one less than Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt, the arch Statist. To citizens who looked to the sixteen-year-old as a potential liberator from the stifling financial and political might of the regents, this looked promising indeed.

These contingencies, which I have abbreviated I hope not all too fatally, cast a new light on Metsu’s sick child. In current literature the boy’s sickness is said to be the plague, which devastated the country in 1664 and 1665. But in the absence of the boils developed by plague victims, and considering the tender sentiment of the picture, that does not carry conviction. In the hypothesis I launch, the boy’s indisposition refers to the decrepit state of the House of Orange and the shadowy non-existence of the stadholderate, with suggestions of the chronic physical weaknesses of Willem Hendrik, asthma and a poor frame.

My reading: the designated but denied stadholder is being cared for, protected and consoled by the Dutch people. This finds support in the prominent background details, the two objects hanging on the wall. On the left, the delineaments of the map against which the mother’s head juts correspond to the famous zoomorphic image of the Low Countries as a rearing lion, the Leo Belgicus.

Nicolaes Visscher, Map of the province of Holland, with vignettes of Holland towns and people, 1648
Engraving on paper, 46 x 55.5 cm
On the website oudelandkaarten.eu (presumably reproduction of a facsimile, though accurate; it’s the best image I could find on Internet)

Gabriel Metsu, The sick child (detail of Rijksmuseum image, brightened in Word)

The form of a lion is plain to see in Metsu’s wall hanging. The map intended may be a complete Leo Belgicus, but it may also, as I am inclined to think, be a Leo Hollandicus, a zoomorphic map of the county of Holland, surrounded by vignettes of the cities of the mightiest province of the Republic and its citizens – we recognize farmers, merchants, seafolk, milkmaids. Originally published by Claes Jansz Visscher in 1622, it was reissued in 1648 by his son Nicolaes Visscher. A map of Holland, with images of its inhabitants, would be the perfect fit for the story as I tell it. It was the States of Holland that took custody of the Orange heir in 1666, and it was Holland commoners who were especially attached to the House of Orange. Not by chance, Nicolaes retained the dedication to Stadholder Maurits van Nassau, who died in 1625, in his edition of 1648. This would be a sign of mutual respect between the House of Orange and the States of Holland. Metsu placed his large signature on the top of the map. If this were the Leo Hollandicus, the signature stands where the mapmaker engraved Hollandt.

Equally unmistakably, the painter inserts himself into the composition in the painting or drawing above the child’s head. It is an image of a Christ on the Cross, with the Madonna, Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist at the foot of the cross.

Gabriel Metsu, Christ on the Cross, 1664
Oil on canvas, 73 x 56.8 cm
Rome, Pinacoteca Capitolina

Gabriel Metsu, The sick child (detail of Rijksmuseum image, brightened in Word)

Although the angle of the cross is different, the composition is that of Metsu’s own Christ on the Cross, dated 1664. The choice of this iconography is significant in a number of ways. Superposed above the sick child, it suggests that Willem Hendrik was the victim of an unjust trial, but also that the murdered stadholderate could come back to life. It is moreover a subject that was favored more by Catholic than Reformed collectors. Metsu was married to a Catholic woman and seems to have been converted himself. These circumstances too fit the state of affairs, as Dutch Catholics tended more to the Orangist than the States side. However, it may well have been to mask his sympathies while expressing them that Metsu sketched the map and the Christ on the Cross so summarily that you have to strain to see them.

If this interpretation of the Sick child is correct, Gabriel Metsu was more of a prophet than he will have wanted to be. His painting speaks of reconciliation more than confrontation. That is not how things were to be. When six years later the stadholderate was indeed resurrected, with the ascension of Willem Hendrik to the restored function, the people overthrew the sitting government and murdered its leaders, Jan de Witt and his brother Cornelis. A Child of State no longer, the 22-year-old Willem Hendrik went on to become the last Dutch political leader, even mounting the throne of England, to play a dominant role in Europe. The sick child recovered – and how!

© Gary Schwartz 2021. Published on the Schwartzlist 22 July 2021. With essential contributions by Jean-Marc van Tol.

Finally, on Friday July 2nd Loekie and I were able to see the exhibition of which I was guest curator, Rembrandt’s orient: west meets east in Dutch art of the seventeenth Century. I was not disappointed. The museum asked me to perform an online guided tour as a parting gesture and a special attraction for the last visitors. The tour was conducted on 15 July, and the 18th was the last day of the exhibition.

It was recorded, and can be seen on Youtube.

That was the third stop on our ten-day drive through Germany, our first trip together since March 2020. All the more enjoyable were our visits to: the 200-soul village of Roppershain, where we enjoyed the warm hospitality of Roel and Rita van Straten; Weimar, for a lunch with buddies from the university of Jena and Klassik Weimar, in the restaurant next door to Goethe’s house, Zum weißen Schwan; Berlin, for dinners with friends in Diener’s and the Literaturhaus, from a very nice room in MotelOne on the Kantstrasse. I interrupt the itinerary to tell you that there are two Kantstrasses in Berlin, and your gps might bring you, as ours did, first to the one an hour away from the one you want, at Zoo. From Berlin we drove to Landshut, for dinner with the sponsors of my new book; Munich, for a publisher’s lunch with our dear friend Lothar Schirmer and a memorable research afternoon in the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte. From there to Bonn, to see the owner of a painting I published in 2013 and I think is by Rembrandt. In Bonn and on the road we were barraged by downpours that presaged the tragic floodwaters that were to come a few days later. At the Bundeskunsthalle we marveled at the full-size display of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne.

Our trip turns out to have taken place in a narrow window of covid-light opportunity that is about to come to an end. After having dropped restrictions on visitors from the Netherlands at the end of June, Germany is about to reinstate them, on account of the horrifyingly high infection figures here. Our smug satisfaction after receiving our second Pfizer shot on 4 April has made way for new nervousness, now that the inoculated are increasingly falling prey to the virus. We don’t expect to get sick, but we are sickened by the possibility that we contribute to the spread of infections among young people who might contract long covid.

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9 thoughts on “397 Gabriel Metsu’s Sick child – of state?”

  1. Brilliant interpretation and a deep, analytical, yet deep empathic understanding of the politics of the Dutch Republic. The sick child, indeed, recovered. The Republic, alas, did not. Why? (I know it’s rhetorical, but the competing rationales are not solving this paradox).

    1. All my thanks, Hans. Your question is not merely rhetorical. The fate of the Republic was probably built into its founding. Unresolved conflicts of all kinds that they were able to sweep under the carpet for two centuries. Oh well, that’s becoming my motto too. As long as you can live in denial, everything’s hunkydory.

  2. Interesting idea, Gary. One thought, though. You suggest (if I read this properly) that the office of stadhouder (I use the Dutch spelling) was held by a single person in the United Provinces. I believe it was an individual provincial, not a states general, office, so each of the seven constituent provinces could have its own stadhouder. Several stadhouder positions were often held simultaneously by the same person, but others (notably Friesland and Groningen) didn’t necessarily conform. This is complicated, perhaps, but rather important because even when a single person occupied the majority of the stadhouder positions simultaneously, the union was a purely personal one, and the power of the office remained divided. (I readily acknowledge, though, that being stadhouder of Holland was what really mattered, with Zeeland as runner-up.)

    1. Of course you’re right, Ivan, thanks for the explication. This is one of the shortcuts I had to take, out of mercy for my readers and fear of losing them, that I hoped were not fatal. About the spelling of the title, I can only say that I’m relieved it doesn’t keep me awake at night. I would most prefer, like you, to use the Dutch spelling stadhouder, but if I did I would feel obliged to italicize it as a foreign word, while the partially translated stadholder has been accepted for centuries as an English word. What annoys me is the Germanistic stadtholder. I’m not going to mount a campaign against it, but a while ago I did try to get the Rijksmuseum to drop it from its labels. On my next visit I’ll check to see if they have, but I’m not hopeful.

  3. Thank you, Gary, a very good observation and fun to read, many congratulations!

    The only proverbial spanners might be 1. the degree to which the child wears ‘orange’ rather than ochre, and 2. the ubiquity of this or similar styles of dress. Ther was a regular use of these primary colours (red, blue) by artists in the dress of maids and others, by the likes of Van Ostade, Maes, Vermeer, and many more – all the way to Chardin in the 18th century! Very many of the peasants depicted in the Van de Venne album in the British Museum wear red, white and blue-clad peasants (though in 1626, much too early for the particular political situation you outline) and I had to look into that when I wrote the 1988 book on it. Have a look at:


    https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-2344 ?

    And do we now have to suppose a political allegory in this? It could be rather exciting:

    Is it possible that people actually just dressed in these colours, and if so, did they do it to show an allegiance, at this level of society? And/or that artists just liked using these colours?

    Like all the best observations, the one you have made prompts new questions, too; and of course I have only made a cursory, surface scratch here off the top of my head, but inspired by your elegant text – thanks again (nearly typed ‘a gin’, which seems like a tempting idea…).

    Best wishes,


    1. Indeed👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
      Actually, my jaw dropped when I was reading Mr. Schwartz’ hypothesis. But I can’t deny it was a very amusing one.

  4. Usual Schwartzian finesse. Would it not be useful to make a comparison with the pro-Orange message (hanging from ceiling/) of a ceremonial (christening??) tavern scene of c. 1660 by Jan Steen, Catholic like many others of the religion and analyzed in its political context by Lyckle de Vries in his book on Steen? I can’t find my copy of the book, in my state of severe biblio-divestment, but I remember roughly what he said, quite a lot, about popular pro-Orange sentiment, on the occasion of the young prince’s birthday. The painting (in the Rijksmuseum) is singled out by Zumthor, Daily Life in Rebrandt’s Holland p. 231.. My guess is that there are other examples of such patriotic sentiment in painting.

    1. I’m sure you’re right, David. Indications like these have not only been overlooked in the past, they were often pertinently denied. In an unforgettable exchange with Joos Bruyn about my book on Rembrandt of 1984, he said to me in so many words: “Printmakers concerned themselves with current events, painters didn’t.”

      I had to think of your illuminating take on the political dimensions of Bruegel’s Massacres of the Innocents, in From Criminals to Courtiers, when I heard that similar conclusions were being drawn in the recently closed Bruegel exhibition in the Bonnefantenmuseum. I haven’t seen the catalogue, but II hope they did justice to your pioneering work.

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