Becoming a Virtuoso Painter: Cornelis Ketel's portrait of Adam Wachendorff and Homo Bulla

Barbara Schoonhoven and Arie Wallert, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Cornelis Ketel's Portrait of a Man, on the verso a Putto blowing Bubbles is dated 1574 and known as the earliest piece by Ketel painted in London.[1] The imagery is related to the contemporary tradition in medals: a portrait on one side and an allegorical figure, together with a learned motto, on the other. The tondo is 43 centimetres in diameter and has an engaged gilded frame. The man presented is Adam Wachendorff, Secretary of the Steelyard. The bearded man, dressed in black, is standing beside a desk. In his right hand he has a letter. The left, on which he wears a signet ring, is on his hip. On the desk is a pen, ink, paper and a watch: objects which suggest that administration was of prime importance for this man. Wachendorff's family coat of arms can be seen on the inside lid of the watch on the desk. To the left and right of the head is the text: 'ANO DNI 1574/AETATIS SUAE 35 CK'. Written on the frame is the text 'SERMO DEI AETERNUS CAETERA OMNIA CADUCA'. On the reverse is a putto blowing soap bubbles set against a stormy sky. Above this Homo Bulla is the Greek motto, 'Man is a soap bubble'. Click here to view images.

The Homo Bulla is quite well preserved; the portrait shows more damages and discoloured retouchings. The varnish has yellowed quite severely. The tondo did not undergo conservation treatment, but the Tudor Research Project provided the opportunity to study the painting more carefully.

The panel support is covered with a conventional calcium carbonate / glue ground. This off-white ground is applied with a broad brush; relief is visible following the circular support along the edge. The composition was first sketched in black on the white preparation. A preparatory drawing in a dry material, possibly graphite, is visible in infrared.[2] The lines in general are thin and searching to define the contours. Small changes are made in the position of Wachendorff's arms and hands, and the thumb, holding the letter, was replaced. The letter was made bigger and (partly) painted over the background. The Homo Bulla, landscape and clouds on the reverse are under drawn in thin, searching lines. His proper left arm was originally planned higher and there are many searching lines to define the contours of his legs.

Elemental analyses (ED-XRF) and light microscopy (PLM) provided more information on the paint composition. Several cross-sections were taken to study the build-up of paint layers with microscopy in reflected light (BF) and UV-fluorescence. Three different goldgrounds were used by Ketel to apply the gilding. The gilding on the edge of the frame around the portrait is applied on top of a reddish mordant applied in two layers of slightly different composition, mainly containing earth pigments.

Examination of the inscription over the 'golden' background of the portrait gave unexpected results. First of all the warm golden yellow background turned out to be painted in ­ severely discoloured ­ smalt. The background behind the portrait of Wachendorff, now of a golden yellow tone, was originally blue. The paint layer contains mainly smalt particles with some lead white. The smalt particles appear either pale greyish blue or colourless in cross-section. This smalt appeared to be a particularly potassium-rich cobalt glass. The presence of cobalt, nickel and a trace of arsenic indicates that the cobalt ore to make this glass blue comes from cobaltite [(Co, Fe)AsS, cobalt iron arsenic sulphide] and associated minerals (gesdorffite, skutterudite, erythite). The discoloration of the medium, which looks brown in cross-section, is consistent with smalt degradation phenomena in which large amounts of the K-flux plays an important role.

The method of application of gold for the inscription over this, originally blue, background, was distinctly different from the gilding on the engaged frame. This was accomplished with a peculiar reddish mordant. On top of the smalt containing background layer, there are three red paint layers of different composition containing red lake and earth pigments, showing up very differently in ultraviolet light. Many losses indicate that the gold leaf did not adhere to this mordant very well.

The gilded Greek inscription next to the Homo Bulla on the verso is applied on top of a single mordant that seems to blend seamlessly with the paint of the sky containing azurite and smalt. The composition of this mordant seems to resemble the final reddish mordant layer used in the inscription on the front. The black jacket of Wachendorff is very thinly painted in black over a purplish underlayer of azurite, black and red lake. The flesh tones are applied in two opaque layers. In cross-section we see two thin layers of vermilion, red lake and lead white, each layer in different ratios, directly applied on the white ground.

Only a few years later Ketel painted three portraits on panel in a very different technique. In his portraits of Alice Smythe, née Judde, Robert Smythe, and Joan Fanshawe, née Smythe dated 1579 the flesh tones show an entirely different build-up. In this and other later paintings, a grey priming or undermodelling was applied to create bluish half tones in the faces. No underdrawing was detected; instead the contours of the feature and shading of the head were sketched in roughly on top of the grey underlayer with very thin, light brown oil paint.[3] We see a similar technique applied in his 1588 militia piece The Company of Dirck Jacobsz. Rosecrans and Lieutenant Pauw executed on canvas in Amsterdam.[4] Again,a single layer of flesh paint is applied directly on top of the grey ground, sometimes only lightly scumbled over, allowing the grey ground to shine through in the shadows.
Could it be that Ketel learned this new technique in England where he was influenced by Holbein and other important court painters: English or 'émigré'/foreign artists? When he returned to Holland in 1581 and settled in Amsterdam his manner had changed. When he first started as a painter in England, his technique was more traditional, using a light ground and opaque paint layers. In Amsterdam he used dark grounds and a simple build-up of mainly single paint layers applied in a free manner as can be seen in the Militia piece of 1588 and which was first presented in his English portraits of the Smythe family.

Van Mander in his Schilderboeck praises Ketel for his innovative and experimental character. It may very well be possible that the major innovations and developments in his style and technique, took place in the 1570s in London.

1 Cornelis Ketel, Portrait of a Man, on the verso a Putto blowing Bubbles, oil on panel, 43 cm. in diameter, signed and dated: CK Ano DNI 1574, RMA inv. no. SK-A-4046.
2 Infrared photography was done with a Sony DSC-F828 camera equipped with a Schneider Kreuznach B+W IR-filter - c. 800 to 1100 nanometer.
3 Rica Jones, "The Methods and Materials of Three Tudor Artists: Bettes, Hilliard and Ketel", in: Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, edited by Karen Hearn, London 1995, p. 238-239.
4 Cornelis Ketel, The Company of Dirck Jacobsz. Rosecrans and Lieutenant Pauw, oil on canvas 410 x 208 cm., 1588, RMA inv. no. SK-C-378.