I came across these triplets in our local museum and took some time to study them. Three healthy children stand on a black and white tiled floor, and all three look at the painter. The three toddlers strongly resemble each other; however, you can tell them apart. Either their mother or their wet nurse feeds them well; they have big, rosy cheeks.
Obviously the painter has made use of a dress doll. The bodies of the triplets look stiff and their hands seem amateurish. Yet the anonymous painter must have had great portrait skills, because the faces are beautifully rendered.
Unfortunately, I know little about fashion history. I can’t tell if there are three boys or three girls or some of each. In the Netherlands, and probably elsewhere, young boys wore dresses when they were young. I tried to find some significance in how the children are positioned. I guess that the two toddlers at the left are girls, because together they hold a piece of fruit, and the toddler at the right is a boy.
The toddlers are exquisitely dressed. They wear the most beautiful lace and linen, and wonderful head caps. One might hope these were their Sunday dresses, because, understandably, playing in those clothes wouldn’t be allowed. To order a portrait of these triplets at such a young age, and so exclusively dressed, shows we are looking at triplets from a rich family.
It is the year 1660 and these triplets have lived for about two years – maybe more. For all three children to survive to this age must have been worth celebrating, and thus a portrait. It is the year 1660 and this triplet has lived for an estimate of 2 years or maybe more. That is a marvel, considering that carrying three babies full term must have been risky, not to mention the likelihood of premature labour and the uncertain first year for any child born then. I can understand why the proud parents wanted to commission a portrait painter to celebrate their lovely triplets.
What are the toddlers saying? On the face of it, very little. We have to search for symbols. They hold flowers and fruit. We must have a good look at how they hold these floral symbols and what they mean. By examining the flowers and the gestures they make with the flowers and fruit, we might be able to tell the story of this portrait.
Allow me freedom to interpret the floral message of this painting. I’m no professional, but this is all about interpretation, and building a story. Art historians who have studied the meaning of botany in paintings through the ages might give you another story. I’m eager to hear them.
The toddlers are holding up flowers and have berries hanging down. The painter could have chosen to let the triplets to hold up all flowers and berries, but he or she didn’t. Which flowers are dangling downwards, then? One branch of berries and a branch of holly berries are dangling down. Cherries and red berries contain red juices, and so symbolise blood. Having them hanging from their hands might refer to incarnation, the lifetime a person spends on earth. Or do the blood-coloured berries symbolise bloodshed?
The solitary child holds up what seems to be a rose. Roses have carried a message of rebirth, renewal and love for centuries. This seems to support the meaning of the dangling berries: we need to celebrate the lives of these triplets. We love all three of them.
Most remarkable is the position of the two young children who together hold a peach. The flower that is held above the peach is almost invisible. The best I can make of it is that it is an iris.
In the Golden Age peaches symbolise the trinity, as they could be divided up into flesh, shell and pit. Whether it is the Holy Trinity that is referred to or an allusion to the triplets, I’m not sure. Peaches are fruit, and fruit also symbolises abundance and health.
The iris was mostly symbolic of the Virgin Mary: it is said that the iris was an attribute of the sorrowing Virgin. Why is the child who holds the iris holding her skirt as well?
If the peach means trinity and the iris, arising above the peach, symbolised the sorrowing Virgin Mary, there could be a message directed at the Holy Mother or at the mother of the triplets.
If a fluttering white curtain hints at the splendour of the holy and divine word that reveals itself, and the child positioned in the middle makes a gesture as if to lift the white ‘curtain’ of her dress, maybe the mother has died? Could it be that this painting shows that the toddlers have survived the mother? The whole painting seems to present a group of healthy but subdued toddlers. The colours aren’t vibrant and the toddlers do not look happy. They aren’t carrying toys, symbols of youth and playfulness.
Taking in to account the mood and the colours of the painting, one could say that this painting is formal and dignified. The greyish and white colours, and above all the stiffness of the three children, give this portrait a solemn mood.
So it wouldn’t surprise me if the father of the triplets had commissioned this painting to thank God for his adorable children. Let us picture the father and mother together admiring the portrait of their rosy-cheeked beauties.
A big Thank You to my dear and art loving friend, Gerwyn Moseley, for editing this post.