Imagine opening an attic of an old house stacked to the rafters with boxes of old letters, notes, papers, recipes, toys, old toothbrushes, egg shells, dried out paint tubes. For some it might seem like an episode from Hoarders when someone is portrayed suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But for others like the Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak it was stepping into a gold mine. Especially since the attic belonged to the Jan Six family, a wealthy magistrate dynasty that made its fortune in the cloth trade in the seventeenth century and became part of Amsterdam’s ruling elite during the Dutch Golden Age.
Tekst: Benjamin B. Roberts
Beeld: Rijks Museum en Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Since August 2016, Geert Mak’s best-selling book, De Levens van Jan Six. Een Familiegeschiedenis [The Lives of Jan Six. A Family History] (2016) has sold more than 100,000 copies. Mak portrays a fascinating family history that starts with the first Jan Six (1618-1700) and ends with the Jan Six who today runs Jan Six Fine Art. With the author’s historical knowledge and flair for narrative, he astutely integrates the family’s history against the backdrop of Amsterdam’s economic and social developments during the last four centuries. The forefathers were Protestant refugees from the area around Kamerijk in the Southern Netherlands, which is in present northern France. Sometime in the last decades of the sixteenth century the family emigrated to the Republic after Protestants, who were considered heretics in France, were expelled by the Roman Catholic monarch, King Henry IV. The title is based on the family tradition of naming the first child (and heir) ‘Jan’. The first Jan became immortalized when he posed for his friend, Rembrandt van Rijn, in his red cape. The iconic painting still hangs in the family home on the Amstel River when not on loan to the Rijksmuseum. In the exhibition ‘Rembrandt and Jan Six. The Etching and the Friendship’, Rembrandt’s etches of Jan Six can be seen until September 3rd, in the Rembrandthuis Museum.
Jan Six and the Nieuwmarkt
In the Dutch Republic, the family fared well in the cloth trade, invested in the Dutch East Indies Company in 1602, and married into wealthy families. One of the discoveries that Geert Mak unfolds is that Jan’s early life took place primarily in the Nieuwmarkt neighborhood. Jan was born and grew up in the block between the Jodenbreestraat and Kloveniersburgwal. In the early seventeenth century it was a dynamic neighborhood with many German immigrants (that worked on the construction of the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht), Jews, and people employed in the marine industry. It was also a neighborhood where many artists resided including Philip Vingboons, Jan Torrentius, and Hendrick van Uylenburg, and later Rembrandt. The Nieuwmarkt was literally and figuratively ‘the heart of the city’.
As the son of an upcoming urban elite, Jan received the best education available. Jan Six attended the Latin School in the Koestraat, which was housed in a former monastery, the Bethaniënklooster. After finishing the Latin school, at the age of 16 Jan enrolled at the University of Leiden. And at the age of 23, he made a grand tour of Europe, which for the European urban elite at the time was considered the crowning of a proper education. The trip often included a visit to France, Germany, and even Italy where young men were exposed to the history and art of the Antiquity and Renaissance.
Mak emphasizes that Jan’s interest in collecting art and books developed through his education and the grand tour. The following generations of Jan Sixes continued the family tradition of collecting and accumulating art. One of the most remarkable collectors in the family was Hendrik Six’s wife, Lucretia van Winter (1785-1845), who came from a family of art collectors and added to the family’s collection, Vermeer’s The Little Street, Jan Steen’s, Girl Eating Oysters, and Rembrandt’s wedding portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, which were jointly purchased in 2016 from Éric de Rothschild by the Dutch and French governments.
Corpse in formaldehyde
Besides investigating the family’s avid hobby of collecting art, which he sometimes suggests as compulsive, Mak also discovered some of the family’s darker secrets including its marriage strategies, marital problems, financial issues, and emotional hardships such as the numerous children that died. The most tragic was after Lucretia gave birth to twins (a boy and a girl) in 1823. The boy died at childbirth and the daughter, Anna Louisa Maria Six lived for five days. The mourning mother immediately commissioned an artist to have a marble statue made of the couple’s infant daughter. Hendrik who was away because he suffered from jaundice was not able to bury the children. Until he recovered, Lucretia decided to have both corpses preserved in a glass jar with formaldehyde. Today the marble statue of Anna Louisa Maria Six stands in one of the side parlors of the Six mansion.
With his compelling narrative spanning almost four hundred years, Mak paints the classic evolution of a merchant family that climbed to fame and fortune in the seventeenth century through hard work and wise business investments, and consequently evolved into the established elite of the Dutch Republic. Thereafter, the following generations of Jan Sixes retired from public life and retreated to their country estates, where they lived off of the interests of their investments. In the following centuries, the family struggled to maintain its elite and aristocratic status through strategic marriages to ‘new money’, the class that made its fortune from the industrial revolution. Mak’s work reads like a cross section between Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks with a hint of the BBC-sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, but then without Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet).