Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Painter, his Lover, their Child and the Baron

Hm. I thought I read somewhere that the new series of ‘Who do you think you are’ would be starting this weekend. Apparently not.

If you haven’t heard of it (oh the shock, the horror!) - WDYTYA is a BBC series that looks into famous people’s ancestry. It’s really more fun than it sounds - promise. One of the things I enjoy most about it is that you never quite know what they will unearth this time. It's history shown through ‘ordinary’ people's lives, their heroism, their romance, their hardships. Sometimes even their saucy little scandals. As the producer of the series once described it: ‘Though we don't reveal anything about what's coming up to those taking part, we do always warn everyone that history has a habit of taking surprising twists and turns - and that they might not always like what they find’.

Of course it’s usually the twists and turns that make for great television. I greatly enjoyed the look on Boris Johnson’s face for instance when he discovered he was a descendant of King George II. Priceless. Especially as he had said earlier he thought the aristocratic claims of his ‘Granny Butter’ were probably a load of tosh. She’d have been chuffed to bits I'm sure. Some other celebrities were not so lucky if you want to call it that. They saw stories that had been passed down through generations debunked as mere myth. At times to their ill-disguised chagrin. Told you – GREAT television.

My own family would have some rather interesting legends for this research team to sink their teeth in actually. And I’m not talking about dad's alleged Scottish Connection, although I do still really fancy that castle. As it happens, mum’s ancestors passed down some even taller tales. Dad always did call them a bunch of story tellers (still does as a matter of fact). How I would love it if they turned out to be true. BUT. There's this nagging little voice warning me that the Münchhausen gene ran rampant on both sides of the family. And that our version of Granny Butter probably fell into the category 'hopeful' rather than 'truthful'. Enter Auntie Gussie.  

Auntie Gussie (or ‘Tante Guusje’ in Dutch) wasn’t actually my auntie. She was my grandmother’s aunt, my great grandfather's sister, who almost lived long enough to receive a royal telegram. And a very interesting character she was. Never married, she was once a celebrated concert pianist, with men throwing themselves at her feet in admiration for this tiny virtuoso. At least, according to Auntie Gussie. 

She may have been a slightly eccentric old lady, complete with wonky hats and oversized cardigans, but she had kept her wits about her. Bright as a button, not to mention sharp as nails. Auntie loved regaling us with tales of the past, and not just of her own glory days. She took enormous pride in her ancestry, and could frequently be found boasting of the ‘spark of genius’ she felt ran through our bloodline. I know - don't start. Everyone would smile indulgently as she went off on another one of her ramblings, but she always insisted her stories were not just the imaginings of a silly old bat. Hmm. 

Her favourite tales concerned two of our alleged ancestors. We’re talking BIG names in Dutch history here. In the list of ‘Greatest Dutchmen/women of All Time’ numbers 9 and 32 even. Not too bad eh? Not that that list is sacred in my eyes, considering who was granted first place by popular vote. I still haven't quite recovered from the shock. Never mind about that though. At the risk of doing a Molly Sugden's Bridesmaid, I'd like to tell you the story of number 9. His is a name that even non-Dutch people will recognise. The man could well be the Netherlands' most famous painter. Not the one who cut off (only part of) his ear. Nor the one who since the book and film is thought to have had a penchant for girls with pearl earrings (rolls eyes). 

It's Rembrandt. How's THAT for a tall tale?

(Clears throat) Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) was already a successful painter in his own day, but one whose personal life was marked by tragedy and financial hardships. Of the four children he had with his first wife Saskia, three died in infancy. Even the one son who survived into adulthood, Titus, preceded him in death. Saskia herself died shortly after Titus' birth, aged only 29. The loss this meant to Rembrandt is clearly visible in the paintings he made of her around this time. It didn't stop him from selling her grave when he needed the money though (always thought that slightly bizarre if not disturbing). After quite a lenghty affair with the woman hired as Titus' nurse (a tale with more disturbing facts but let's not go there), Rembrandt fell in love with a young maid who had joined his household shortly before. Insert drumroll. Her name was Hendrickje Stoffels, and she would remain with Rembrandt for the rest of her life, bearing him the one child who would survive him, Cornelia. Now If I can believe dear old auntie Gussie, this Cornelia was my many times great grandmother. 

Sadly there are no known portraits of Cornelia. Bit odd that. There are however quite a few paintings that are said to represent Hendrickje. There is a chance I'm just being sentimental here, but of all Rembrandt's works, these are the ones that touch me the most (apart from the heart-breaking Jewish Bride). Not because I can say there's any marked family resemblance. After 350 years that would have been a bit too much to expect anyway. I do feel she's much prettier than Saskia though - obviously. The portraits show a woman with a gentle expression on her face and large, somewhat sad eyes. Even when she is portrayed in the nude, she keeps her modesty, always displaying a quiet dignity.  

Rembrandt now would not have been the easiest man to live with. He had the temperament as well as the (lack of) financial savvy of most artists in those days. Putting it mildly. His constant lack of money meant he could never marry Hendrickje, as he would have lost access to a trust set up for Titus if he had. Sadly, Hendrickje was the one who had to pay the price. When she was pregnant with Cornelia she was summoned before the church council, and forced to admit in front of those sanctimonious gentlemen that she had 'committed the acts of a whore with the well-known painter, Rembrandt'. She was then banned from receiving communion. And where was the great painter during all this? At home behind his easel. Hm. Not too impressed with you there, granddad.

All difficulties aside, Hendrickje remained Rembrandt's constant and loving companion, always trying to keep his creditors at bay. Her death in 1663, age 37, is said to have been a great blow to Rembrandt, whose self portraits now show a man old before his time. He had one more loss to bear. Titus died in 1668, shortly after his marriage. Rembrandt died the following year, leaving Cornelia an orphan at age 14. Poor thing. As young as she was, she had tried to take care of him the way her mother had. Only two years later her guardian married her off to another painter, Cornelis Suythof. She bore him two sons before dying an early death in the Dutch East Indies, the present day Indonesia. It was there that some time later, her blood line is said to have mixed with that of my mother's family. 

Is there ANYTHING to corroborate this story I hear you ask. Er. I asked the same thing of my grandmother once. She told me it had apparently already been a party favourite long before her aunt was even born. It would be! 'Here's a drink, here are some nibbles and oh by the way, did we ever tell you one of the most famous painters in the world was our ancestor'. I can picture it now. Of course, mum's family is said to have been present in Java for centuries and is therefore likely to have come across the Suythofs. The Dutch community in Batavia couldn't have been all that big in those days? All the same, nan had never seen or heard any real 'proof', like a family tree. So if auntie Gussie wasn't the one entitled to proudly bear the name of Münchhausen, one of our other ancestors still might. 

I suppose it would go a bit far to head over to the Westerkerk with a crow bar and a shovel to collect some DNA. Especially as both Rembrandt and Hendrickje lie in an unmarked grave so there'd be quite a bit of ground to cover. Oh alright - and it would be a bit creepy to dig up the grandparents. I did however manage to look up Cornelia's two sons on the web (Rembrandt and Hendrick - named after both her parents, doesn't your heart just break) and could only find their dates of birth. So unless I'd start a serious search through whatever records may still remain, I can't prove or disprove our family legend. 

Chances are not entirely in our story's favour. Surely with a man as famous as Rembrandt, someone would have already tried to find out if he had any living descendants. Like the hopefuls in my family for instance. And we'd have heard of the results somehow. So if I'd do some serious digging (no pun intended), I might just find our claim has no basis in truth. Which would rob us of a fantastic story. At least now we can say: 'we're not sure if this is just a family legend, BUT ...'

So alright - I'll admit it. I would quite like it to be true. I do really think Rembrandt is one of the greatest painters of all time. And as you can probably tell, I'd be no less proud of claiming Hendrickje for my ancestor. Unfortunately, the Baron at this moment seems a more likely candidate. Oh well. At least my forebears weren't boring. Where did I hear that before - was it Fiona Bruce? 

There is one tiny glimmer of hope though: not every tall tale passed down in my family is necessarily a fabrication. If she couldn't shed any light on the truth about 'number 9', my grandmother was convinced of our descent of 'number 32'. Did she show me any records to prove it? What do you think.

Still, it makes quite a story. A tale of high politics, the wrath of a man who would be king, and gruesome murder.

I'll save it for another day.


  1. Rembrandt is one of my favorite painters too, and i think it would be great if that story about your family was true. There are a lot of similar stories around my family too, but unfortunately we have proof they are all true. I say unfortunately because this makes some of my family members to turn up their noses. So silly.
    And I would love to see that show! we don't get bbc anymore in Italy, I wonder why. I loved it. That accent!

    1. Oh, that IS silly isn't it? It's not as if because you've had a famous or accomplished ancestor, you're automatically entitled to deference and special treatment... as if it makes you special too somehow. People should be judged on their own merits.

      So... who are your famous ancestors? Artists? I would immediately say Michelangelo or Leonardo but I think their (assumed) sexual orientation would probably leave them out... Hmm. A composer perhaps - Verdi? Or or or... one of those famous noble families? Sforza, Este, Visconti? Medici?? Oh, wait, please tell me you're a descendant of the Borgia pope!! ;-D

  2. My grand mother was related to the king of Spain, and to Leopoldo o'Donnell. She was a countess. And Spanish. My super - milanese great grand mother was a descendant of an important family in Milan, but not historically famous as those you mentioned, she lived next door to Teatro La Scala and she was about to marry Arturo Toscanini. But the family didn't approve, so he left for the States heartbroken (family legend? true story?...we'll never know.) and she married someone of a higher rank. My aunt has the letters Toscanini wrote to my great grandmother trying to convince her to go against the family and marry him. I have also Irish blood, and there is a castle and a statue of one of my ancestors (don't
    remember the name, I should ask my aunt, she is like wikipedia when it comes to our family roots) somewhere near Dublin.
    When I was a little girl my aunt used to tell me: 'you've got spanish eyes, irish freckles and a strong milanese accent'. That sums it all up.
    On my father side I have Arpitan and Austrian blood, but nothing noble about them: they made wine. So much better than being noble in my opinion.

    1. Ahh, impressive Spanish connection! And the Leopoldo o'Donnell link explains the Irish roots - didn't he have Irish ancestors (with a name like that you'd assume so!)? Not the gentlest of characters he was though! ;-)

      Toscanini! What a great story! Well, not great, but touching, you know what I mean. But not the most even-tempered man, so perhaps she did make the right choice after all? Of course one must make some allowances - the man was brilliant. Plus he recognised the talent of Renata Tebaldi. Sigh - I would looove to go to La Scala for an opera performance.

      Spanish eyes, Irish freckles and a Milanese accent - you could do worse! ;-D (mind you, I have NO clue what a proper Milanese accent sounds like).

      My family background is really very diverse - thank God! There are (confirmed) aristocratic links on both sides but plenty of roots with good strong 'ordinary' folk as well - so no fears of inbreeding (though we have always had our share of 'typical characters' I have to say!);-)

  3. Yes Leopoldo o'Donnell did have irish roots, but our own irish roots are more recent, it was my great grand father that was from Dublin.

    I have made a work stage at La Scala during school - you know I wanted to be a costume designer - and saw a lot of operas. My grand father, who had a large influence on me, was an engineer but also had a degree has a cello player and tenor from the academy of music, and opera was always big in my family. You may know that in Verona there is one of the most important opera festival in the world, that is really a must see for an opera lover!

    1. Sounds like you need to plan a trip to Dublin some time and do some exploring! I dated an Irishman quite some time ago - but never made it to Ireland. It's on my list! ;-)

      I'm green with envy that you actually worked at La Scala. And costume design - sounds like something you would take great delight and therefore excel in! Just imagine making something like those incredible costumes of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes... But I guess you worked on and saw some amazing pieces at La Scala too.

      First thing I thought about actually once I found out whereabouts you lived was the opera at Verona. How I'd love to see Aida - or any great opera there. Oh and how I wish I would have learned to play the cello - or the violin, even better. Hmm... I say those things a bit too often, should (will!) start doing some of the things I always planned to do - some time!

  4. One of the more recent US WDYTYA was with Brooke Shields, I won't spoil it as it must be on iplayer somewhere but turns out she's related to someone who lived in the Louvre when it as a royal palace and not an art gallery...............

    1. Which one?? Not Louis XIV surely??

  5. Well the program build's it up nicely and it's well worth watching, I'll try and dig you out a link but suffice to say Yes!! to Louis XIV and then some ;-)

  6. Well, I didn't see that one coming! But then I guess neither did she!! Thanks for sending me the link - haven't had time to look at it yet but have a feeling I will enjoy this one! ;-)

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