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Dutch girl, interlude

The girl sits on my easel. She doesn’t look very bright, but then, when I was nine and was forced to sit still for a long time, I didn’t look any smarter then her. I am trying to read her face, since there is nothing in the background that would give me a clue about who she was. What was her life like? Based on statistics, in a way, she was lucky. She must have been the daughter of a rich merchant or a successful craftsman – having a portrait painted was an expensive matter. The 17th century Dutch were much more progressive and egalitarian towards women then their French or German neighbors, and she would be allowed to go on a date without chaperone and pick her own husband, a nice Protestant boy as marriages across religions were not tolerated. If she survived into the adulthood. Her life expectancy was less than 50 and most likely she never knew her grandchildren.

I find it fascinating that she is still here. Born around 1640 in Delft, Holland, her name is forgotten, her life unknown, her bones turned to dust long time ago, but she is still here, looking at me with her big eyes. I am so fixated on her face that I almost expect her to speak to me.

“Who are you?” I ask her, as I take a small cotton swab and dip it in acetone in order to remove the old varnish and bad previous in-painting. A girl of well-off parents, having her portrait painted by a well-known local artist. Hendrik Cornelisz van der Vliet was born in Delft around 1611. He was a portrait painter who later turned to architectural paintings. His pictures of church interiors are full of light and life. His church is more like a covered promenade where people stroll leisurely, work and go about their business, than a sanitized place of worship. He was a contemporary of Rembrandt van Rijn and I amuse myself with a thought of the two of them meeting and exchanging observations about light and perspective. Who knows? This is as close as I can come to touching a grand master.

A strong urge to own this girl overcomes me and I have a fleeting thought to sell our Volkswagen to buy her. I even go as far as picturing her over the mantelpiece in our living room, fantasizing that my husband would be equally enchanted and wouldn’t notice the missing family car. With a big sigh I let the dream die. I have a similar dream about almost every other painting that comes through my door. They are often so beautiful, and they all have stories to tell, interesting owners to gossip about. I put on my face mask and refocus on her lacy apron, cleaning off a small rectangle. It is a mistake of many of my profession, past and present, to start cleaning a portrait painting directly on a face only to discover that the wrong solvent was used and the original has been irreversibly damaged. In my case, the original oil paint is so old and solid, it is insoluble by acetone, so it is a pretty safe cleaning. Suddenly, my cotton turns black, a sign that I removed not just varnish but paint as well. It can only mean one thing and it is usually bad news for the owner.

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