The Mauritshuis has acquired a portrait of Jakob Omphalius, painted by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder. This reunites a husband and wife who were separated at an auction almost 125 years ago.
The Cologne painter Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (1493-1555) immortalized Jakob (a prominent lawyer and scholar in Cologne) and his fiancée Elisabeth shortly before their marriage in 1539 in two panels that together form a diptych. The acquisition of the panel is an important addition to the Dutch public art collection since the reunited couple represent Northern European portrait art at its highest level.
Jakob appears behind a stone parapet, which he leans on with his right arm. The parapet continues through into the portrait of his fiancée Elisabeth Bellinghausen, strengthening the visual unity of the two portraits. Jakob has a folded letter in his hand, while Elisabeth holds a sprig of bittersweet as a token of her love. The braids that protrude from her pearl-encrusted cap indicate that she was not yet married when the portrait was painted. The details of the clothing have been magnificently rendered: the red velvet sleeves, the soft fur of his cloak and the embroidery on the shirt. Together with the striking turquoise background, red and gold form the most important colors in the paintings.
The portrait of Elisabeth’s husband was lost in 1896, when the diptych was sold at an auction in London. In 1912 her portrait ended up in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, which in 1951 gave it to the Mauritshuis on long-term loan. Which is where Elisabeth hung alone, the identity of her husband and whereabouts of his portrait no longer known. Twenty years ago, however, Ariane van Suchtelen, curator of paintings at the Mauritshuis, uncovered an old photograph of the portrait of Jakob Omphalius at the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History. Also at the RKD was the catalogue from an 1896 auction, which contained sketches of the family coats of arms that appeared on the back of the paintings. Clever detective work led to Jakob and Elisabeth being linked via these coats of arms. But Jakob’s whereabouts continued to be a mystery. Until May 2019, when he turned up in a small auction house in Paris as a ‘portrait of an unknown man’. Galerie De Jonckheere in Geneva purchased the portrait, unaware of the sitter’s identity. It was only when a curator from a German museum tipped off a curator at the Rijksmuseum that the Mauritshuis too became aware that Jakob had been found and an effort to reunite the couple could be launched. After Jakob was first on view at TEFAF in Maastricht, he was finally reunited with Elisabeth after 125 years.
New frames for the portraits of Jakob Omphalius and Elisabeth Bellinghausen have been made, based on another example by Bruyn. As a result, the portraits once again look like a diptych as they were originally intended (the original frames had been largely lost). The portrait of Elisabeth has previously undergone extensive conservation treatment at the Mauritshuis. The ‘diptych’ will be displayed in the museum until 4 October, after which time the portrait of Jakob will also undergo extensive treatment in the museum’s conservation studio. The paintings, which now both form part of the Dutch national art collection, will then once again be on view as a diptych in the Mauritshuis.
The purchase of the portrait of Jakob Omphalius was made possible with the support of the BankGiro Lottery, the Vereniging Rembrandt (thanks in part to its Schorer Romeijn Grothe Fonds and its Themafonds Middeleeuwen en Renaissance) and a private donor.