The Utrecht artist Gerrit van Honthorst limned two royal children in this double portrait. It may not be immediately clear to the modern viewer, but the sitters are a boy and a girl. At the left is the three-year-old Prince William III of Orange, who in his apron carries flowers for his eleven-year-old aunt, Maria, princess of Orange. William’s father, Prince William II, was Maria’s oldest brother and she was the youngest child of Stadholder Frederik Hendrik and Amalia of Solms. The two children were only eight years apart and were portrayed together on commission for Amalia.
Even though we know that in the seventeenth century boys wore skirts up to a certain age, in this portrait William II looks particularly like a litle girl. This is also because of the wide, open neckline of his red satin costume. Attached to his shoulders are broad leading strings trimmed with gold brocade. These strings were used to guide a child in learning how to walk. Since the young prince could already walk unassisted, the strings here are merely decorative. Van Honthorst had also portrayed the boy in the same ornate costume a year earlier. Perhaps William was still a bit unsteady on his feet at that time, for in this portrait he is held in his mother’s arms.
The somewhat older Maria is dressed in a more adult fashion. Her blue satin dress is fantasised and meant to give the portrait a timeless aura. She weaves a wreath of flowers. Gathering flowers and weaving them into wreaths fit into the pastoral theme that became popular among chiefly Utrecht artists around 1620. Van Honthorst made many paintings including shepherds. Although the flower wreath and the arcadian landscape in the background of this double portrait give it an unmistakeable pastoral tone, William III and Maria are not depicted as diminutive shepherds. On the contrary, the rich clothing and expensive jewellery leave us in no doubt as to their royal status.
(this is a reworked version of a text published in: L. van der Vinde, Children in the Mauritshuis, The Hague 2007, pp. 54-55)
Gerrit van Honthorst (Utrecht 1592 - 1656 Utrecht)
Double Portrait of Prince Willem III (1650- 1702) and his Aunt Maria, Princess of Orange (1642-1688), as Children
130.7 x 108.4 cm
Signed and dated
lower left: GHonthorst / 1653 GH in ligature
Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, Huis ten Bosch Palace, The Hague; probably by descent to Prince William V, The Hague; transferred, in or before 1841