Prince of Orange
Prince of Orange
Prince of Orange
Prince of Orange


Prince of Orange

c. 1615 Netherlands

Offered by Cider House Galleries


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Oil on oak panel 30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
Framed size 37 x 32 inches 94 x 81.2 cm

This portrait of William of Nassau Prince of Orange, known as ‘William the Silent’, has emerged from under several generations-worth of old, discoloured varnish and surface dirt as a portrait of considerable power and presence. The characterisation of the face suggests the determination and self-resource for which William was famous, while the painting of the costume details, the rich impastoed gold braid, and the cut silk of the sleeves and skullcap, is so accomplished and so well-observed that the light seems to create a three-dimensional effect where it passes over it, like a piece of still-life painting.

As well as being a visually satisfying portrait, our painting may also be a record of a lost original. William sat to Adriaen Thomasz Key in Antwerp in 1579 (Rijksmuseum), but we know from engravings and copies that he also sat to Cornelis Visscher the Elder for a portrait in armour. Our portrait, and the evidence of an inscription that the portraitist Michiel Janz. van Mierveld added to his posthumous copy (Rijksmuseum), suggests that Visscher also painted a portrait of William in statesman’s robes and that our portrait is an early record of it.

William was the founding father of modern Holland, which under his leadership declared formal independence from the King of Spain in 1581. This has made William a hero in the Netherlands ever since, but this portrait reminds us that at this date he was a hero in England too. The Dutch War of Independence lasted from 1568 to 1648. England herself was at war with Spain from 1587 to 1604, and was politically-divided along pro- and anti-Spanish lines for the opening decades of the Seventeenth Century. Protestants in England identified very strongly with the Dutch, and the best way of expressing this, for patrons who could afford it, was to commission William the Silent’s portrait to hang in their Long Gallery, alongside the usual Royal and ancestral icons.

We believe that our portrait may well have been painted in England because the dimensions of the panel, 30 x 25 inches, become a standard size in British painting at this date. A more vernacular portrait of William painted on a 30 x 24 inch panel is recorded in the British Private Collections survey by the Witt Archive at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Between 1605 and 1608 Thomas Sackville 1st Earl of Dorset commissioned a gallery of modern historical and political worthies for his great house at Knole, including a portrait of William, after Key, and these were all painted on panels measuring 31 ½ x 25 inches.

Other examples of William’s portrait in English collections include the painting in Lord Lumley’s inventory at Nonsuch Palace in 15921, and the portrait recorded in the will of the 2nd Earl of Strafford in 1695, ‘William de Nassau, Prince of Orange, to the waste, copied by Hesket’ [from an original in armour by Visscher].2

Lord Strafford’s will is rare in naming the artist. Contracts between patrons and portrait workshops do survive, but they tend to name agents and middle-men rather than the painters themselves. But although these painters are anonymous, we can reconstruct them in part from the paintings they produced. We believe, for example, that our painter was working in a corridor workshop rather than a Court painter’s studio from the quality of the panel on which the portrait is painted. In raking light one can see the cuts in the panel from the panel-makers adze when it was being prepared and shaped for use. A Court portraitist’s supports would be more smoothed, so a portrait has a hint of the production line. But this is no mere pub sign, which some of the cruder products of the corridor portrait workshops, certainly resemble, such as the portraits of Kings and Queens painted at around this date for William Alleyne (Dulwich Picture Gallery).

Our portrait suggests a workshop producing relatively expensive portraits for high-end patrons, based on faithful copies of an original. A similar case is the high-quality copy of Key’s portrait of William painted for Lord Sackville’s gallery, which again suggests a workshop with access to models close to the original. Patrons were willing to pay high prices for work of this quality. William Alleyne paid 6s 8d per panel for his vernacular corridor portraits commissioned between 1618 and 1620, but, including forty-two portraits, and the decorative painting for the walls and ceiling, Lord Sackville’s gallery at Knole cost £100.
In 1607/8.3

In costume and composition, our portrait derives from a portrait type by the Dutch painter Cornelis Visscher the Elder. At some early date, a previous owner has inscribed Miereveldt on the back of our panel. And the portrait, in costume and composition, follows the portrait by Michiel Janz. van Mierveld (1567 – 1641), the Dutch Court portraitist who worked for William’s grandson Frederick Henry Prince of Orange at the Hague in the 1630s and 40s. Mierevelt’s portrait of William, seated at three-quarter length is very close to ours. But it was painted in 1632, rather late to be the source for our painter, and is inscribed ‘Faciem huius ad principale Cornely de Vischer fecit M. a Mierevld’ – Miereveld painted the face of this man from the original by Cornelis de Visscher.’4 This has been taken to mean that Miereveld based the face of his portrait on Visscher’s original. Our portrait suggests that the whole composition is taken from an original by Visscher, down to the red braid on the doublet, which both pictures depict.

Cornelis Visscher himself was in London in the late Sixteenth Century. He painted a portrait of the London-based Netherlandish merchant Jacques Wittewronghele in 1579 (Private Collection), which shows the same virtuoso treatment of figured black silk. It may be too far to say that our painter had known Visscher or his work personally, but it is a reminder that artists and patrons, in England at this date had strong links with the Netherlands. English painters – from Court painters such as Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger to the anonymous workshop hands – were often Netherlandish either by birth or recent ancestry, and those who could would spend some part of their early training in Holland. We still know too little about the work of these early painters, and so much of their work was destroyed – even by the mid-Seventeenth Century, panel portraits of Queen Elizabeth I were being used as baking-trays in the bread ovens at Essex House5 – that a work like this helps to flesh out our understanding of how they might have worked. We do not know whether our painter was a permanent member of a workshop, or a specialist recruited to fill a large and prestigious order. But their skill in handling a detail like the slashed silk shows they were capable of work of the highest quality, and it easy to imagine that they would have painted sitters from life when commissions were available, or been in demand as a costume specialist in a Court painter’s studio.

1.Catherine Daunt Portrait Sets in Tudor and Jacobean England D Phil Thesis University of Sussex
May 2015 Vol 1 pp.151 – 152
2.Photo verso Heinz Archive, National Portrait Gallery, London
3.Daunt 2015 p.160
4.Rijksmuseum Catalogue A253
5.John Evelyn’s Diary 1662 in Tarnya Cooper Citizen Portrait: Portrait painting and the urban
elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales Yale University Press 2012 p.27


William of Orange, known as William the Silent (Willem de Zwijger) is the founder of Dutch independence. Born in 1533, son of the Dutch nobleman William I Count of Nassau and his German wife Juliana Countess of Stolberg-Wernigerode, he was raised a strict Lutheran, until 1544, when at the age of eleven he became the heir of his Catholic cousin René of Châlon, Prince of Orange in France and owner of vast estates in Germany and Netherlands, which were then under Spanish rule, inherited from the Dukes of Burgundy.

René had died fighting for the Emperor Charles V, and Charles treated William as if he were René’s own son. He was converted to Catholicism, and given an education in diplomacy and warfare befitting a future Habsburg magnate. William was an outstanding pupil. By 1555, at the age of twenty-two, he was already a general, and a member of the Council of State in the Netherlands. When Charles abdicated the Spanish crown in favour of his son Philip II, the gout-stricken Emperor lent on William’s shoulder for support. In 1559, Philip appointed him Stadholder, or governor, of the provinces of Holland, Zealand and Utrecht, followed by Franche-Comté in 1561.

William might have continued a loyal Habsburg subject, were it not for the Spanish reaction to the Protestant Reformation as it took root in the Netherlands. In 1563, William and two fellow nobles from the Council of State, the Count of Egmont, a relative through William’s first wife Anna of Egmont, and the Count of Hoorn, objected to Philip’s attempt to establish the Inquisition in Flanders. Writing his Apology later in 1580, William said that he first decided to act as early as 1559, when King Henri II of France told him in confidence of a plan to rid France and the Netherlands of all Protestants. At the time, William had said nothing – hence his nickname – but inwardly he was appalled, and swore to protect so many innocent people. Rebellions broke out across the country, and nobles joined the Protestants, hoping to end Spanish taxation and direct rule, and the occupation of the Netherlands by Spanish troops. Philip recalled the Inquisition, but in 1566 there was a wave of anti-Catholic iconoclasm across the Netherlands. Philip believed that a show of force was needed to bring the provinces into line, and he sent his greatest general, the Duke of Alba, with an army. William escaped to safety in Germany, but Counts of Egmont and Hoorn were arrested. When Egmont and Hoorn were executed in Brussels in 1568, along with hundreds of other rebels, the Dutch exploded into outright revolt. William, powerful and charismatic, found himself their leader. This was the beginning of the Eighty Years War, which would not end when Spain recognised the independence of the Dutch Republic in 1648.

William led an army into Brabant in October 1568. The opening battles of the war were indecisive, but in April 1572 a group of Dutch naval rebels known as The Sea Beggars captured the port of Brielle in William’s name. A wave of enthusiasm swept through the Netherlands. Most cities in Holland and Zeeland opened their gates to the rebels and declared for William, with only Amsterdam and Middleburg remaining in Spanish hands. Surviving Spanish counter-attacks, William won at decisive victory at the Battle of Mookerheyde in April 1574 – in which his brothers Louis and Henry were killed – and broke the Spanish siege of Leiden by breaching the dykes and flooding the fields around the city.

William, who had become a Calvinist, entered into negotiations with the Spanish in 1576 but the peace was broken in 1577 when unpaid Spanish troops sacked the city of Antwerp. Until then the rebel provinces had been a loose confederacy. William formalised them as signatories to The Pacification of Ghent in November 1576, which the new Spanish governor, Don John of Austria, Charles V’s illegitimate son, recognised with The Perpetual Edict signed in February 1577. Queen Elizabeth I promised to support the rebels with troops and £100,000 if the Edict was broken, as it soon was when Don John took the city of Namur that same year. This was a great coup for William, who was triumphantly welcomed into Brussels.

At this point the territories loyal to William comprised not only modern Holland but much of modern Belgium too. However, divisions between the Catholic and Protestant provinces split the rebels, and the southern territories decided to return to Spanish rule with the Treaty of Arras in January 1579. The northern provinces signed the Treaty of Utrecht later that same month, which remained the de facto Dutch Constitution until 1797. In July 1581, the Dutch province signed the Treaty of Abjuration, a formal declaration of independence from Spain. This was the birth of Holland as an independent state. Searching for allies, the Dutch welcomed the French Duke of Anjou, Queen Elizabeth I’s former suitor, known as a defender of Protestantism, but he was militarily unsuccessful and an unreliable ally. Frustrated that the Dutch would not make him their overall leader, he tried to seize Antwerp by force in 1583. The ‘French Fury’ as it become known was defeated, his troops were massacred and he was forced to flee the country.

As Stadholder of Holland and Zeeland, William was recognised as the first person in the new Dutch state, though his position was one of primus inter pares rather than sovereign. His support for Anjou had weakened his position with his more radical allies, whilst others – such as Queen Elizabeth – would not support his elevation to the rank of hereditary ruler.

King Philip had already declared William to be a rebel and an outlaw, with a price of 25,000 crowns on his head. In July 1584 William was assassinated at the Prinsenhof in Delft by Balthasar Gerard, a Burgundian fanatic who had arranged an appointment under false pretences. Gerard has the dubious distinction of being the first person in history to kill a head of state with a handgun, and of being put to death with truly medieval barbarity. William’s last words were, ‘My God have pity on my soul; my God have pity on this poor people.’

William married four times. After the death of Anna van Egmond, he made a diplomatic but unpopular and unhappy marriage to Anna of Saxony, whom he divorced to marry Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier, a love match. At her death he married Louise de Coligny, a wise and popular woman, who warned William against meeting Gerard, and who raised his children by his previous wives after his death. Louise was the mother of Frederick Henry Prince of Orange, a great general who would complete his father’s work and win the final victories of the Eighty Years War. A year after Frederick Henry’s death in 1647, King Philip IV of Spain formally recognised Dutch independence. William the Silent’s descendants include the present Dutch Royal family, as well as King William III of England who was his great-grandson.

We are very grateful to James Mulraine for researching this painting.

Height 30.00 inch (76.20 cm)
Width 25.00 inch (63.50 cm)
External Height 37.00 inch (93.98 cm)
External Width 32.00 inch (81.28 cm)
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Cider House Galleries

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