The child in this painting seems to be sound asleep. It is wrapped in white cloth and on its head - resting on a large white pillow - is a close-fitting cap trimmed with delicate lace encircling the face. The curtain at the left suggests that the infant is lying in a box bed. However, the straw at the lower left indicates that the child is not slumbering, but is in fact dead. A child with such splendid lace clothing and bed linen would never have slept on a paltry heap of straw, though. The explanation for this is that straw was used in laying out small children to ward off evil spirits. Upon closer scrutiny, the infant is very pale indeed. The unknown artist responsible for this panel added a subtle dab of colour to the baby’s cheeks and lips to soften the disquieting pallor. After all, the painting was meant to be a cherished memento for the grieving parents.
This kind of portrait confirms that the loss of a child was also mourned in the seventeenth century. Even though the child mortality rate was alarmingly high and most children did not live beyond their first year of life, the loss of a newborn must nevertheless have been a very emotional event. People derived great comfort and strength from their faith; a deceased child naturally went to heaven, far removed from sinful life on earth. Still, numerous documents reveal the profound struggle parents experienced in dealing - time and again - with the loss of a beloved child.
Only moneyed parents were in a position to have a death portrait of their child painted. Most people could only preserve an image of their lost child in their memories. Presently, there are close to thirty extant seventeenth-century Dutch portraits of children on their deathbed. It is difficult to estimate how many such portraits once existed. One thing is certain, the parents of this dead child wished to preserve the memory of their baby for eternity.
(this is a reworked version of a text published in: L. van der Vinde, Children in the Mauritshuis, The Hague 2007, pp. 60-61)