The true face of Roemer Visscher

Mystery of the face behind Sinnepoppen finally unravelled

Roemer Visscher (1547-1620), remembered today mainly thanks to the numerous schools and streets that are named after him, was among the great Dutch poets of the seventeenth century. His influential writings include Sinnepoppen (1614) and Brabbeling (1614) and he was a member of the exclusive Muiderkring literary society. Until recently the appearance of this famous poet was shrouded in mystery. However, cultural historian and researcher Lieke van Deinsen has been able to demonstrate that earlier portraits of Roemer Visscher are based only on the imagination and she has tracked down the portrait that actually represents him. The results of her research have just been published in Oud Holland, the academic journal of the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History.

Arnoud van Halen, Portrait of Roemer Visscher, 1700-1720, 11 x 9.5 cm, private collection
Arnoud van Halen, Portrait of Roemer Visscher, 1700-1720, 11 x 9.5 cm, private collection

Imaginary portraits and the Muiderkring

Since the nineteenth century portraits of Roemer Visscher have consistently shown an elderly man sporting a full head of hair and a beard. The poet appeared next to seventeenth-century literary giants such as Vondel and Bredero in numerous paintings and prints as well as posters made for educational purposes. Most of these images place him in the Muiderkring or Muiden Circle, which consisted of the literary friends of P.C. Hooft. The group regularly convened at Muiden Castle, the famous country seat of Hooft. In her article in Oud Holland, Dr Lieke van Deinsen presents a new image of the poet based on a portrait that was thought to be lost.

The true face revealed in a cabinet of writers' portraits

The persistent image of Roemer Visscher as an old man with much hair is one of the last remaining myths of the Muider Circle. This group of seventeenth-century artists became the embodiment of nineteenth-century values including patriotism, solidarity and tolerance. The discovery of Roemer Visscher’s true portrait shows that historical accuracy was not deemed important. For revered ancestors who were ‘faceless’ a portrait was simply invented, apparently without qualms. The discovery of Roemer Visscher’s actual face in the Panpoëticon Batavûm, an early eighteenth-century cabinet that served as a repository for a collection of portraits of writers, shows that inventions of this kind could quite easily become part of the canon. The compiler of the Panpoëticon, Arnoud van Halen (1673-1732), was one of the few artists who had access to reliable sources. As it happens, Roemer Visscher had a short beard and went bald at an early stage.

Oud Holland

The article Achter het masker van de Muiderkring: Een nieuw portret voor Roemer Visscher (1547-1620) (Behind the mask of the Muiden Circle: a new portrait for Roemer Visscher [1547-1620]) is published in Oud Holland – Journal for Art of the Low Countries, volume 131, no. 1 (2018). After 130 years of appearing on paper, Oud Holland is reinventing itself this year. The editorial board has been strengthened with the addition of more scholars and an online platform for reviews and back issues is under construction. Oud Holland covers art from the Low Countries from 1400 to 1920.