This painting depicts a woman in front of her daughters. Their strong and pious personalities are conveyed by their serious expression as well as their clothing which is conservative for the period. The group is clearly a wealthy family. Their velvet-trimmed brocade jacket and lace cap are of the highest quality. The elaborate linen milestone ruff collars are starched and supported by concealed wires.
The mother’ white lace cap and the collars are carefully depicted, as the artist sought to project not only their detail but also their translucence. Note how the design in the black jacket is articulated with great care. The forms of the women’s head are built up in planes of light that are accented with firm strokes in the highlights and shadows. The fleshy tones have been built up in an idiosyncratic but highly effective way, applying an intricate network of crisscrossed, feathery brushstrokes with a distinct and confident hand.
The original painting would have been much larger than this, possibly the composition spanning several panels, and has been cut down and would have been commissioned as a donor portrait.
The originally painting would have depicted the whole family gathered closely around a religious scene. For donor scenes the patriarch and matriarch of the family kneels at the front either side of the main figure with their sons or daughters just behind them. It can be assumed that originally the main figure, likely to be Christ, is to the left of the group, given the positioning of the women’s bodies.
The donor family would have wished to have associated themselves with the apostles, as believers who experienced Christ’s everyday and real presence in their lives. The donor image would have evoked the biblical passage that underscores Christ’s presence among his followers, such as John 1:14 “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” or Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Donor portraits are very common. in religious works of art, especially paintings, of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the donor usually shown kneeling to one side of the foreground image. The purpose of donor portraits was to memorialise the donor and their family, and especially to solicit prayers for them after their death.
Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569–1622) was a Flemish painter, son of Frans Pourbus the Elder and grandson of Pieter Pourbus. He was born in Antwerp and died in Paris. He is also referred to as “Frans II”.
Pourbus worked for many of the highly influential people of his day, including the Brussels-based Spanish Regents of the Netherlands, the Duke of Mantua and Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France. Works of his can be found in the Royal Collection, the National Museum in Warsaw, the Louvre, the Prado, the Rijksmuseum, the Royal College of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and many other museums.