This is a portrait of Conrad Friedrich Hurlebusch, composer, Kapellmeister and organist, whom Van der Smissen most probably portrayed during his stay in Hamburg, Brunswick or Amsterdam. The identification is based on the reproduction of the portrait which was engraved by Pieter Anthony Wakkerdak (1740- 1774).
Van der Smissen has reduced the face of the sitters to an egg-shaped oval in three-quarter view, applying diminution to one half of the figure’s torso, which is farther away from the viewer. This partial side view, with the head turned to look at the viewer over the shoulder, creates spatial depth and brings the figure to life by avoiding the stiffness of a frontal depiction.
Because the artist chose to highlight the figure from above, a distinct shadow is cast under the tip of the nose, in the shape of a triangle. This is an often recurring and almost ‘signature’-like feature in Van der Smissen’s oeuvre.
Hurlebusch’s garments are of a very high quality and serve to reflect the sitter’s wealth, status and elegance. During this period, gentlemen often shaved their heads in order to facilitate the wearing of a wig, which wouldbe worn with a suit. Here Hurlebusch has been depicted in a luxurious turban-like cap lined with lynx fur, a highly fashionable and expensive material at the time.
Over his shirt, he wears a velvet fur-lined gown adorned with decorative clasps fashioned from silver braid. The elegant informality of his appearance can be seen in his unbuttoned shirt and the unfastened black ribbon hanging from his button hole, which has been artfully arranged into a fluttering drape by the portraitist.
An apparent second version in oil of the present portrait is illustrated in Jan Wolter Niemeijer’s 1970 contribution on Denner and Van der Smissen, and it is mentioned that the painting was signed by Van der Smissen in the lower left corner and dated “Amsterd. 1753”. It cannot be confirmed that it is the same painting as the current version, as there are minute variations, in for instance the pattern of the fur, the manner in which the fabrics are draped, the angle of his right eye and the rendition of the eyebrows. Such deviations can hardly be all explained by the ravages of time or later interventions by restorers. However, the most importance difference is the absence of the autograph inscription Niemeijer mentioned. Notwithstanding minor variations in form and finish, the current version also shows a similar ornate leaf in crewel embroidery beneath the lapel.
Hurlebusch was born in Brunswick, Germany. He received the first instructions in his field from his father Heinrich Lorenz Hurlebusch, who was also a musician. As an organ virtuoso, he toured Europe, visiting Vienna, Munich and Italy.
From 1723 to 1725 he was Kapellmeister in Stockholm; later he became Kapellmeister in Bayreuth and Brunswick, and lived in Hamburg from 1727 to 1742, where he had contact with fellow composers Johann Mattheson and Georg Philipp Telemann. He made his living composing, performing and teaching.
In 1735 and 1736, he is believed to have visited Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, who promoted Hurlebusch’s compositions as the local seller of his sheet music. An appointment as organist in the Church of St. Peter in Hamburg fell through because he refused to audition under the supervision of Telemann. Most of his biographical details before his move to Amsterdam have been recorded and published by his colleague-musician Johann Mattheson in 1740.
On 22 February 1743, he became organist of the reformed Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. He held this post until his death in December 1765. In that same church he was buried 21 December.
The painter Domenicus van der Smissen was born in Altona near Hamburg, the son of the prosperous merchant Hinrich van der Smissen (1662-1737). Dominicus was a pupil of Balthasar Denner (1685-1749), whose sister Catharina Denner (1693- 1778) he married on July 29, 1730. Just like his teacher and brother-in-law, Van der Smissen adhered to the Mennonite belief. The couple had a son, Jacob van der Smissen (c. 1735-1813), who would also become a painter and draughtsman, who ended his career as a professor in drawing in Altona.
Though Dominicus also painted still-lifes (and allegedly some idealised landscapes), he mainly painted portraits. Nagler reports that these are beautiful in their colouring and finely executed. Alfred Lichtwark, on the other hand, thought his colours were paler and duller than Denner’s. It was noticed that some connoisseurs even preferred Van der Smissen’s portraits over Denner’s because of their wittier expression and their seemingly more unstrained drawing.
He imitated his teacher on many levels, and in such a way that their works were sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other. This resulted in both their oeuvres being taken together under art historical consideration, and also in many confounded attributions. However, that their portrait styles are interchangeable is certainly not the case; this could only be concluded after a superficial assessment at first sight.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of contemporary biographies, there is only circumstantial evidence regarding Van der Smissen’s personal life. As such, what is known, has been deduced from those works signed by him of which the provenance could be traced back to the first owner, and/or from information retrieved from documentation on his close contemporaries, such as Denner. Without reaching the fame of his teacher, Dominicus van der Smissen followed in the footsteps of Denner, not only stylistically and in his choice of subject, but also in terms of geography, by working and living in the same locales as those in which his master took up shop: Brunswick, Dresden, Amsterdam and London.
On the basis of George Vertue’s notebooks, which mention Denner’s circumstances in London, it seems likely that Van der Smissen was already part of his large household and studio in London between 1721 and 1728 as Denner’s student and assistant. He married Denner’s sister in 1730 in Altona, and was still active there as a painter in his own right around 1738, after which he became a court painter in Brunswick in 1739/40. In the 1740s he was working in Dresden. It has also turned out that he was a freemason, given his admission to the Leipzig Lodge Minerva zu den drei Palmen in 1747. During the 1750s, at the end of his career, he moved his studio to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and, once again, to London.
Here, Dominicus became affected with gout. He returned to Altona, where, however, his physical ailment increased to such an extent that he remained paralyzed to the end of his life. He died on January 6, 1760.