Simon Du Bois

Portrait of a Gentleman, probably Arthur Parsons MD

1683

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 769 x 642 x 19 mm
frame: 947 x 822 x 65 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1998
Reference
T07469

Summary

Born in Antwerp, Simon du Bois studied with Philips Wouwerman in 1652-3 and then spent some years in Italy. In about 1680 he settled in Covent Garden in London. Granted British denization (a form of naturalisation) in 1697, du Bois also acted as a dealer in works of art. As well as portraits, du Bois painted battle scenes and pastiches of Italian Old Masters, some of which, according to the antiquarian and engraver George Vertue, were passed off as genuine.

Du Bois's earliest English works, of which this is one, are head-and-shoulders portraits in plain, feigned oval surrounds. They are characterised by strong Italianate lighting, a fuzzy handling of the flesh and an exceptional precision in depicting the fashionable lace cravats worn by his male sitters. They are thus a vivid fusion of Netherlandish and Italian elements. The Tate portrait particularly emphasises the Italianate element in the melting pot of Continental influences that made up late seventeenth-century art in Britain. The work is in excellent condition, and is in an elaborately carved and gilded frame that is probably contemporary with it.

An early twentieth-century label formerly attached to the back identifies the sitter as 'Arthur Parsons M.D. Oxon. B. 1656. Dsp. M[arried]. Mary Jackson.'. The front of the work is inscribed, in the top left spandrel of the feigned oval: 'Nat: xxix Octob: 1653' (that is, 'Born 29 October 1653'), and 'Aetat suae xxx' (indicating that the sitter was either aged 30 or in his 30th year) in the top right one. The discrepancy between the sitter's birthdate as given on the painting and that apparently recorded for Parsons - 1656 - leaves the sitter's identity in doubt.

Parsons was probably the son of Arthur and Agnes Parsons of West Buckland, Somerset. His date of birth is not documented, but when he matriculated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford on 22 March 1672, he was said to be aged 16. He subsequently travelled to the Netherlands to study medicine at the universities of Leiden and of Groningen. At this period, Leiden was the Dutch Republic's most distinguished university and attracted Europe's best foreign students. Its faculty of medicine had a considerable international reputation and, by the 1680s, 'the value of a Leiden degree counted for much, particularly among the upper classes and generally conservative members of the medical profession' (Rousseau, pp.195-6). Returning to England, he was admitted Extra Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians on 17 March 1684. (In Britain at this period, the year was considered to begin on 25th March; thus, Parsons gained his admittance in 1683, Old Style.) He may have commissioned the present portrait, which bears the date 1683, to mark this professional achievement, and his experience of Holland would have made it natural for him to turn for this to a Netherlandish painter. Parsons subsequently practised as a physician at Taunton, in Somerset, and died in 1720.

Further reading:
Richard Jefree, 'Simon du Bois', in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, IV, p.327.
G S Rousseau, 'Science and Medicine at Leiden', in The Age of William III & Mary II, R P Maccubbin and M Hamilton-Phillips (eds),Williamsburg 1988, pp.195-201
Harold J Cook, 'The Medical Profession in London', in The Age of William III & Mary II, R P Maccubbin and M Hamilton-Phillips (eds),Williamsburg 1988, pp.186-94.

Karen Hearn
September 2000

Display caption

The convention of showing sitters as if framed by a stone or marble oval began at the start of the seventeenth century. It echoed the oval format of portrait miniatures and of imported portrait prints. A label once on the back of this picture identified the gentleman as 'Arthur Parsons MD'. Parsons studied medicine at Oxford and in the Netherlands, and may have commissioned this portrait to mark his admission to the Royal College of Physicians.Du Bois was born in Antwerp, trained in the Netherlands and later worked in Italy. He settled in London in about 1680.

Gallery label, April 2007

Technique and condition

Cross sections showed that the shadows of the robe had been built up on the opaque pale red ground using a two layer translucent glaze structure. The canvas is primed with a thin yellow ground which closely follows the topography of the canvas threads. The ground contains yellow, white, black and red pigment particles which are most likely to be yellow ochre, vermilion, bone black and lead white, although this was not confirmed using a dispersion of the pigments. The pale red ground contains large translucent particles, white, black, red and orange pigments. Under UV light in cross section some of the white translucent particles appear fluorescent and globular. This may be an example of a reaction of the medium with a pigment, creating a halo of crystalline material, and will be further investigated at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics, Amsterdam.

The first layer over the base is a semi-transparent glaze, consisting of a red lake pigment, vermilion, burnt sienna, white and yellow particles. The medium of this layer fluoresces with a pale green colour indicating that it contains a significant proportion of a natural resin. Cleaning revealed that the glazes exhibit a dull pink fluorescence when the painting itself is illuminated with UV light, the colour of the fluorescence clearly affected by the transparent lake particles in the layer above imparting a pink appearance. Dubois probably added resin to his paint to give increased transparency to the red glazes of the robe and his technique has been successful. Some of the artists in Rembrandt’s circle also used this technique in the seventeenth century, usually adding small amounts of pine resin varnish to their paint [1].

The top layer is a more transparent glaze of the red lake, with occasional vermilion and white particles. The medium appears quite fluorescent but with a pink colour, indicating possibly that the layer in cross section is illuminated by light coming from the resinous layer below, mimicking the effect seen on the paint surface. Varnish has soaked into the upper part of this glaze resulting in a green fluorescence towards the surface and it may have quite a porous texture. Thin horizontal lines of fluorescent material can also be seen inside this glaze, which are possibly interfaces between brushstrokes of the same paint and may be evidence that Du Bois applied a thin film of oil between painting sessions, so-called oiling out. The fluorescent channels contain dark material, possibly dirt trapped in between successive applications of glaze.

Dispersed samples of pigment from the upper glaze layer were examined using a polarising microscope. The major component of the glaze proved to be a red lake on an alum (aluminium hydrate or hydroxide) base. EDX analysis corroborated this observation, showing aluminium as a major element present in the sample. The lake particles showed a range of sizes, many of them quite large. The intensity of the colour varied from a pale pink to a bright crimson, the brightest particles being smaller in size. Some particles showed an uneven coloration across their surface. The dyestuff is likely to be of scale insect origin, kermes, cochineal or lac. The particles do not show the characteristic fluorescence of madder and a brazilwood lake would probably be more faded [2]. Occasional bright red birefringent particles were identified as vermilion and fairly large transparent isotropic particles were identified as ground glass. They do not show any colour at all and are thus unlikely to be very pale or faded smalt. Glass (as well as smalt) was recommended as a drying agent to be added to paint containing poor drying pigments such as red lake[1][3]. Tiny anisotropic chalk particles were identified and coccoliths were found, identified by their characteristic display of a stationary cross under crossed polars. The chalk was difficult to differentiate from small lake particles as it appears pink in meltmount due to its low refractive index. However well-separated particles were observed to ‘twinkle’. Dubois may have added chalk to his glaze to impart body to the paint – the surface of the glaze still retains grooves from his brush so it must have been of a pasty consistency when applied. Chalk was used by Rembrandt in this way as it did not affect the colour of the glaze and also gave extra translucency [1]. Some rounded transparent grains of a brown earth pigment were identified in the dispersion clinging to the base of the upper glaze. These probably originated in the lower glaze layer but were not separated enough from other material to allow proper analysis.

Certain passages have been painted using an interesting technique or unusual materials which warranted further investigation.

The Deep Red Shadows of the Robe.
Even with the naked eye, pale patches or inclusions of glittery material could be seen within the translucent glazes forming the deep red shadows and contours of the sitter’s robe. This could be more clearly seen when the grey scabby overpaint was removed from the grooved texture of the darkest shadows. Their appearance initially brought to mind scraps of gold or metal leaf. Under magnification the patches of material were revealed to be quite large and in worn areas of paint they broke the surface, appearing to be clumps of a pale yellow or white crystalline material. However in these areas they might have been affected by the reagent responsible for the damage. It was difficult to tell if the inclusions were incorporated into the transparent red glaze or lying along an interface on top of the opaque base colour. The surface was photographed under high magnification.

Glittery Patches

The cross-sections reveal that there are roughly horizontal bands of glittery material embedded above the interface between the upper and lower glaze. These bands are not flat and appear to be a conglomeration of pale particles within the glaze. It could be hypothesised that these are clumps of unblended pigment which sank towards the bottom of the glaze once applied. The reflectance of the clumps may have been increased if the gaps between the particles are filled with air. Orpiment was suspected to be the pigment forming the glittery patches but this pigment was not identified in any of the dispersions.


Yellow Lapel

The lapel of the sitters robe also appeared to be composed of a light yellow glittery pigment. This was examined and photographed under high magnification. This area was eroded, age cracks in the paint layer had been eaten away, presumably by ill chosen solvents used to clean the painting in the past. Samples of this paint were also taken (T07469/1 & 6). EDX analysis was carried out, identifying arsenic and sulphur as elemental components of the pigment and therefore confirming the identity as orpiment, arsenic trisulphide.


Notes

  1. Kirby and White, Rembrandt and his Circle: Seventeenth Century Dutch Paint Media Re-examined, National Gallery Technical Bulletin,
  2. Kirby and White, The Identification of Red Lake Pigment Dyestuffs and a Discussion of Their Use, National Gallery Technical Bulletin,
  3. Talley, M.K., Portrait Painting in England: Studies in the Technical Literature Before 1700, 1981, Chapter 6 the De Mayerne MS, pp.94-6.

Helen Brett
May 2001

Catalogue entry

Simon du Bois 1632–1708

Portrait of a Gentleman, probably Arthur Parsons MD
1683
Oil on canvas
762 x 635 mm
Inscribed ‘S. du Bois. Fecit 1683’ lower right; ‘Nat: xxix Octob: 1653’ top left; ‘Aetat suae xxx’ top right.
Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1998
T07469

Ownership history
…; acquired from a private house in London in the 1970s by Malcolm Stevens Esq?, from whom purchased by the Patrons of British Art for Tate.

References
Tate Report 1998–2000, 2000, p.95.

An early twentieth-century label which was formerly attached to the back identifies the subject as ‘Arthur Parsons M.D. Oxon. B. 1656. Dsp. M. Mary Jackson.’. The Latin inscriptions on the front of the work, however, indicate that the sitter was born on 29 October 1653 and that at the date of this portrait he was either aged thirty or in his thirtieth year. The discrepancy between the sitter’s date of birth as given on the front of the painting and that apparently recorded for Parsons may leave the sitter’s identity in doubt.

Arthur was probably the son of Arthur and Agnes Parsons of West Buckland, Somerset.1 When he matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, on 22 March 1672 he was said to be aged 16.2 He graduated as a Bachelor of Arts from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1675 and subsequently travelled to the Netherlands to study medicine at the universities of Leiden and of Groningen.3 At this period, Leiden was the Dutch Republic’s most distinguished university, and attracted Europe’s best foreign students. Its faculty of medicine had a considerable international reputation, and by the 1680s ‘the value of a Leiden degree counted for much, particularly among the upper classes and generally conservative members of the medical profession’.4 A printed copy of Parsons’s Leiden University thesis on kidney disease is now in the British Library.5 Returning to England, he was admitted Extra Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians on 17 March 1684 (1683 Old Style). He may have commissioned the present portrait to mark this professional achievement, and his experience of Holland could have made it natural for him to turn for this to a Netherlandish painter.

Parsons subsequently practised as a physician at Taunton in Somerset before moving to nearby Bishops Hull. The date of his first marriage – presumably to the Mary Jackson named on the paper label – is not recorded, nor is the date of her death. On 15 October 1713 he remarried and his wife Elizabeth subsequently became his executrix. He died in 1720, leaving bequests to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, ‘where I had the hon[ou]r to be educated’ and to the church of St Magdalen, Taunton.6 He seems to have left no children of his own, and his will hints at some family disharmony: ‘To my nephew William Caspey of London I do forgive his two sitters Betty and Mary all the disrespect and ill usage I have had from them’.

Born in Antwerp, the son of the painter Hendrik du Bois, Simon du Bois studied with Philips Wouwerman in 1652–3 and then spent some years in Italy. In about 1680 he settled in England with his brother Edward, living in Covent Garden in London and, according to the antiquarian Horace Walpole, ‘heaping up money’.7 His most important patron was the distinguished lawyer John, 1st Lord Somers, who became Lord Chancellor, and was later to act as the artist’s executor.8 Granted British denization (a form of naturalisation) in 1697, du Bois also acted as a dealer in works of art, and assembled a collection of paintings, prints and antiquities in conjunction with the marine painter William van de Velde, whose daughter he married in 1706. As well as portraits, du Bois painted battle scenes and pastiches of Italian Old Masters, some of which, according to Vertue, were passed off as genuine.

Du Bois’s earliest English works, of which this is one, are head-and-shoulders portraits in plain feigned oval surrounds. They are characterised by strong Italianate lighting, a sfumato, or cloudy handling of the flesh and an exceptional attention to detail in the depiction of the fashionable lace cravats worn by his male sitters. They are thus a vivid fusion of Netherlandish and Italian elements. The present portrait, of considerable charm and subtlety, particularly emphasises the Italianate element in the melting pot of Continental influences that made up late-seventeenth century art in Britain.

This portrait is in very good condition, and is set in an elaborately carved and gilded frame of a flower and acorn design. This frame is probably contemporary with the painting, and may be original to it.

Karen Hearn
May 2006

Notes

1 Philip Hocking of Somerset Archive and Record Service, letter to the author, 28 May 1998.
2 Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1500–1714, Oxford [not dated], vol.3, p.1122; W. Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 1861, vol.I, p.432.
3 R.W. Innes Smith, English-Speaking Students of Medicine at the University of Leyden, Edinburgh and London 1932, p.178.
4 G.S. Rousseau, ‘Science and Medicine at Leiden’, in R.P. Maccubbin and M. Hamilton-Phillips (eds.), The Age of William III & Mary II, Williamsburg 1988, pp.195–6.
5 Arthur Parsons, De Calculo Renum et Vesicae, 1678, British Library 1185.i.17 (18.).
6 His will was not proved until February 1735 (PROB 11/574, sig 142).
7 Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol.III, London 1763, p.119.
8 ‘when Dubois Dy’d by his will. he left his Lordship all his books of prints which were considerable for a man of his station. likewise his Fathers & Mothers picture painted by Vandyke’. See Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol.I, London 1929–30, p.125. On the association between Du Bois and Somers, see Carol Gibson-Wood, ‘Jonathan Richardson, Lord Somers’s Collection of Drawings, and Early Art-Historical Writing in England’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.52, 1989, pp.167–76. Du Bois’s posthumous sale on 2 February 1709 contained 379 lots of paintings (British Library Harley 5947).

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