A unique confrontation
at MoMu’s Black exhibition

Marten Pepijn portrayed by Anthony van Dyck

The Painter Marten Pepijn by Anthony Van Dijck (Antwerp 1599-Blackfriars 1641) / Linen pleated collar, ca. 1615-35, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Collection BK-NM-13112

It must have been during a social science course at law school in the early nineties when I first heard about the link between protestantism and the color black in 17th century Holland. At the time it seemed a most plausible premise, for wasn’t black an austere color related to negation and piety? For several years, this relation remained unquestioned. Then, an article published by costume historian Irene Groeneweg in the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 1995 changed my opinion for good. Groeneweg broke with rusted prejudice against black and soberness and brought new insight into the use of black as a fashion color in the 17th century.

Suddenly, a new light shone on the numerous contemporary paintings with men and women dressed in black. Not as a proof of religious belief, but as a sign of social standing people chose, not only in Holland but also in other European countries, to wear raven black garments made out of expensive fabrics and often adorned with priceless lace and precious trimmings. Back then, black was regarded as an official color and was undoubtly considered the most appropiate for a status symbol such as a portrait. Therefore, it is not surprising that the well-respected painter Marten Pepijn (1575-1643) was portrayed by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) wearing black on one of the paintings in the BLACK exhibition on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

It is a breathtaking and intense painting in which van Dyck captured the physiognomy of the elder man in the most striking way. Pepijn is probably wearing a doublet, but due to the dark background in combination with the black costume it is not clearly visible. This portrait dates from 1632, a time when, in our regions, the formal close-fitting Spanish fashion was exchanged for the more loose cut of French dress. The white multilayered unstarched collar of the painter is fashionable, but it is rather difficult to say anything on his doublet.

It might resemble the 17th century doublet belonging to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, made of black cloth and trimmed with braided buttons, now in the Black exhibition at MoMu. It is a rare opportunity to see a 17th century dress on show: only few have survived and they mostly are in fragile condition. The presentation of the van Dyck portrait together with the 17th century doublet is therefor exceptional and not to be missed.