Willem de Heer (1637/38–1681)

Willem de Heer (1637/38–1681)

Willem de Heer (Leeuwarden 1637/38 – 1681 Amsterdam)

Peasants Dancing and Making Merry outside a Tavern

Pen and brown and grey ink in several shades on vellum, partial brown ink framing lines, 336 x 259 mm (13.2 x 10.2 inch); laid down on a 19th-century collector’s mount with framing lines in gold leaf and pen and grey and brown ink

Private collection, Rhineland, Germany


Willem de Heer was born in either 1637 or 1638, as he was recorded as being 39 years of age in May 1677.1 He was the son of Gerrit Adriaensz. de Heer (c.1602–after 1652), a painter from Friesland, who worked in Amsterdam. Like his father, Willem, or Guillam, as he is also known, worked in Amsterdam, where he eventually died. Gerrit Adriaensz. drew portraits and scenes of merrymaking peasants, vagabonds and gypsies, virtually without exception done in a minutely detailed style in pencil or pen and ink on vellum. Franklin Robinson has observed how Gerrit’s drawings are reminiscent of works by Benjamin Gerritsz. Cuyp and Pieter Quast. Both father and son frequently depicted gypsies, synonymous with heathens in the 17th century, and rarely depicted in the art of the period.

Willem was trained by his father and was strongly inspired by his  refined drawings. The works of father and son are often impossible to distinguish – the issue is completed that Willem occasionally signed as Guillam, ‘G. de Heer’, and his father Gerrit used an identical signature.2 Willem was the nephew of Margareta de Heer (c.1603–c.1658), Gerrit’s sister, who specialized in highly refined bodycolours on vellum.

Unlike most drawings produced in the 17th century, the De Heers specialised in drawings made exclusively for sale and display. Vellum was more durable than paper – and more expensive – and the ‘picture drawings’ were generally framed and displayed as paintings, rather than kept in albums. Such was for instance the case with the ‘boere bruijloft’ (peasants’ wedding) by either Gerrit or Willem listed in an inventory of the possessions of the Amsterdam lawyer and town secretary Joan Roeters (1614–1667), drawn up in January 1668, where the drawing was displayed in the ‘Saal’, the most prominent room in the house.

Both father and son used an extremely refined technique, with a great variety of hatchings, cross-hatchings and in particular distinctive minute dots, indicating shade and adding sensitive modulation, which can also be observed in the present drawing. They furthermore used several shades of ink, lighter for background foliage and figures, a medium hue for the middle ground, and the strongest shade for the foreground. Because of the early appreciation of their drawings as independent works of art and the consequent long exposure to light, the drawings of Gerrit and Willem have more often than not faded considerably, but despite this our drawing is in excellent condition.

Our highly finished ‘picture drawing’ is a typical example of the large genre scenes generally given to Willem. It can be compared to the Village Wedding Feast in the British Museum, London (see fig.).3


1. For the artist, see the biography in Saur Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon: die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, Munich 1992- , vol. 71, p. 38. See also Jaap Bolten (ed.), Old Master Drawings from the Print Room of the University, Leiden, The Hague/Amsterdam 1986, pp. 113-16.

2. One of the best discussions of the difficulty of distinguishing between father and son remains F.W. Robinson, Selections from the collection of Dutch drawings of Maida & George Abrams: a loan exhibition, exh. cat. Wellesley (Wellesley College Museum) 1969, under cat. no. 23.

3. Pen and brown ink on vellum, 429 x 353 mm; Department of Prints and Drawings, inv. no. 1846,0509.206.

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Willem de Heer (1637/38–1681)
Willem de Heer (1637/38–1681)
Willem de Heer (1637/38–1681)
Willem de Heer (1637/38–1681)
Willem de Heer (1637/38–1681)
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