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Govert FLinck (1615-1660)
Gerard Pietersz. Hulft (1621 -1656). Signed and dated G. Flinck f. 1654. Inscribed Nil adeo fuit unquam tam dispar sibi (Nothing has ever been more unlike itself). Canvas, 130 × 103 cm.

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv.nr.A 3103. Bequeathed by Baroness Taets van Amerongen, 1930.

The oval portrait of Hulft is propped up on an overloaded desk filled with mementoes of the sitter's interesting life. The bound volumes and loose documents on the upper shelf refer to his tenure as town secretary of Amsterdam from 1645 until 1653, the charts and navigational instruments below to his career at sea. After the seizure by the British in 1652 of a merchant fleet in which he had invested a fortune, he hired twenty-four sailors to fight under him in the fleet of Admiral Witte de Witt. An ambivalent gesture, combining material support with a vote of no confidence. In the painting, the transformation from bookworm to man of action is symbolized by the drawing in the lower center, depicting a caterpillar on a leaf and a butterfly.

The loss of so much money was not Hulft's only problem. In 1653 he also lost his job as town secretary following a conflict with the burgomasters. They requested him to change the wording of a resolution that had been taken by the council, which he refused to do. Again, he took to sea, this time for the Dutch East Indies, with an appointment as director-general in his pouch. However, he was unable to get on with the governor-general, who sent him on a dangerous mission to Ceylon, where he was killed.

Hulft seems to have been the friend and protector of the painter, Govert Flinck, and of the poet Joost van den Vondel as well. Hulft was a member of the Remonstrant church, whose adherents were ejected from all government positions in 1619. Nonetheless, they retained considerable influence, especially in Amsterdam, and were able to re-enter the government there in later years. Flinck became a Remonstrant in 1651, leaving the Mennonite church in which he was born. Vondel too was a non-Calvinist – born Mennonite, he converted to Catholicism in 1640.

Vondel wrote a poem on Flinck's painting, and another on the engraving after the central section, the portrait. The phrase he found to describe Hulft's troubles with the burgomasters was: 'The town hall was too small for such a valiant man.' When the news reached Amsterdam that Hulft had been wounded, Vondel prepared to send him his own portrait, also painted by Flinck, with a poem saying that he dreamt of Hulft being hurt while hunting doves. Before he could get the painting onto an outgoing ship, the report was received of Hulft's death at Colombo. Vondel now interpreted his dream as an omen, 'for Colombo, where the good man died, means dove.'

The poems that Vondel wrote on Flinck's portrait of himself and of Hulft were the first of about twenty that he wrote on the painter and his works, between 1653 and 1660, when Flinck died. This all took place in the period when the new town hall was being decorated, for a large part with paintings by Flinck, based on ideas supplied by Vondel. The burgomasters who were in charge of the project, Cornelis de Graeff and Joan Huydecoper, were also the protectors of Hulft, the ones who recommended him for his position in the Indies. I would interpret all of this to mean that Hulft was helping Flinck and Vondel to get commissions for the town hall decorations. A painting such as this, glorifying a sitter, would be a normal way for a seventeenth-century painter to thank a patron for his help. The unusually rich program for the portrait is the kind of thing that Vondel would have thought up.

For Hulft, see de Balbian Verster 1932 and Rauws 1936-37.

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