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From sulking babies to shy toddlers: Jan Sluijters and the Nolet family

When you think of Jan Sluijters Sr. (1881-1957), vibrant luminist landscapes, female nudes, and dark still lifes likely come to mind, but perhaps not his child portraits. These depictions of newborns and bashful toddlers were a lucrative source of income for Sluijters, who was fairly popular as a 'society painter.' One such well-known child portrait is Liesje her birthday (1929), permanently displayed at the Noord Brabants Museum (Sluijters' birth city). It features the painter's daughter, who turned five. Nowadays, there is little interest in this genre. Contemporary art collectors are not inclined to hang portraits of anonymous sulking babies. There is certainly something to be said for this viewpoint, yet I couldn't resist buying a Jan Sluijters baby portrait.

Jan Sluijters, Liesje is jarig, 1929, Collectie Noordbrabants Museum
Jan Sluijters, Liesje her birthday, 1929, Collection Noordbrabants Museum.

Sluijters and the Family

Last year, a drawing from an art collection from The Hague caught my attention with the inscription 'for Leen Nolet from Jan Sluijters' in the top left corner. Determined to uncover the baby's identity, I bought the work for a modest sum. After Sluijters' so-called 'Wild Years', experimenting with fauvism, cubism, and symbolism, he settled into his moderate expressionist style around 1915. With the birth of his first child, Jan, in 1914, he began to focus more on his immediate surroundings, stating, "The whole world for my inspiration lies within a radius of twenty-five meters around me." It became his family, his wife Greet van Cooten, their children Jan, Rob, and Liesje, and later his grandchildren, whom Sluijters began to paint. He gained recognition for his intimate portraits. During this period, he was increasingly asked to paint the families of friends, either individually or as a group portrait. Successfully so, as portrait requests for babies and children from unfamiliar quarters also found their way to Sluijters. Sluijters often immortalized these children with their favorite toys or dolls, not only for the visual appeal but also to reassure the children during posing for such an imposing figure as Sluijters.

Babyportret Jan Sluijters senior familie Nolet
Jan Sluijters sr., Baby portret of Clementine Nolet, watercolor, 25 x 30 cm, sold.

The Nolet Family

The text in the top left corner of the drawing led me to suspect that Sluijters was friends with Leen Nolet. After some research in the RKD database, several other works featuring members of the same Nolet family came to light. The Nolet family was a Catholic household from Nijmegen. Anthony Nolet (1867-1961), the head of the family, made his fortune in the wine trade and was an art collector. He lived with his wife Helene (Leen) Nolet-Vonk de Both (1883-1967) on St. Annastraat 113. The family was friends with Jan Toorop, through whom they met Jan Sluijters and became close. Sluijters made several portraits of Anthony, his wife, and their three children. One of the interior photos in the RKD archive of their heavily furnished living room shows three Sluijters works. In the top left, an oil painting of Anthony as a cellist from 1920, top right, a full-fledged painting of his daughter Cara in 1926, and bottom left a baby portrait; the portrait in question of Clementine Nolet, the youngest daughter born in 1916. The inscription suggests that the drawing was commissioned or perhaps given by Sluijters as a gift upon Clementine's birth.

De woonkamer van de familie Nolet in Nijmegen
The living room of the Nolet family in Nijmegen, Photo: RKD.

Due to financial reasons, Anthony sold his art collection after World War II. Some works found their home in museums after a long journey, such as a portrait of Helene Nolet that has been part of Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen since December 2000. Other works by Sluijters and Toorop ended up in private collections, including the baby portrait of Clementine, purchased by a collector in The Hague.

With that, the provenance is complete, the baby's identity revealed, and the artwork enriched with a family story. Despite the limited commercial significance of these portraits, they embody all the qualities expected of a Jan Sluijters artwork, such as his typical line work. In this light, the purchase of a Sluijters baby isn't so strange after all.


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