5 Aug 21

‘Who was this talented Maria Margaretha la Fargue?’

Dutch writer and curator Charles Dumas introduces us to a skilled young artist from a family of painters, who struggled to assert her identity in the male-dominated world of eighteenth-century Dutch art. We are delighted that the NGV now represents the work of Maria Margaretha la Fargue through the generosity of Andrew and Geraldine Buxton.

In 2017 the National Gallery of Victoria purchased an enchanting eighteenth-century genre scene, The shrimp seller, 1776, by the female Dutch artist Maria Margaretha la Fargue, with funds kindly donated by Andrew and Geraldine Buxton. In a corridor the lady of the house is buying a bowl of shrimps from a kneeling seller at her doorstep. By her costume and hat the seller can be identified as a fisherwoman from Scheveningen, a coastal village close to The Hague. Through the open door is a view of houses along a canal. Although the depicted buildings are most probably an invention by the artist, they were surely meant to represent her home town of The Hague. In the foreground we see a maid servant from the back, who is carrying a young boy as well as a bucket. On the corridor floor, with its white and middle blue marble tiles, a cat is playing with an insect. To the right stands a white painted wooden bench, above which hangs a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting in a black ebony frame. The two ladies and the child (with a silver baby’s comforter on a blue ribbon) are dressed in fine clothing that was fashionable around 1775.

This charming picture, which shows all the characteristics of the life of the upper middle class in the Netherlands during the second half of the eighteenth century, also refers to the previous century, the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Popular motifs from that period were to a certain extent repeated 100 years later, and put into a ‘contemporary jacket’. The shrimp seller, for example, must have been based on a scene by the Rotterdam painter Jacob Ochtervelt (1634–1682), now in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, but in La Fargue’s time in the collection of the Haarlem doctor Simon Stinstra (1735–1782).

The works by the amateur artist Maria Margaretha la Fargue, dating from 1761 to 1792, are limited in number, and this is likely why she is largely unknown to the greater public. Today only thirty-one paintings and thirty-two drawings by her are known, to which some seventy described in unillustrated sale catalogues before 1900 must be added. Apart from pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, her paintings are mostly in Dutch museums and private collections. Her drawings are more dispersed, and examples of them are kept in all major Dutch print rooms and in that of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.

Who was this talented Maria Margaretha la Fargue? She was the youngest child of an unusually artistic family. Of the ten children of the notary and pamphleteer Jan Thomas la Fargue and his wife Charlotte Constantia van Nieuwland, only five reached adulthood. All of them chose to have a career as an artist. The eldest, Isaac Lodewijk la Fargue van Nieuwland (1726–1781), who added his mother’s maiden name to his surname, specialised in portraits. The second child, Paulus Constantijn la Fargue (1729–1782), was the most versatile and the most productive. He made paintings, drawings and prints, mainly of landscapes and city views. The third, Jacob Elias (1735 – c. 1778) followed in Paulus Constantijn’s footsteps and produced paintings and drawings with topographical subjects. His younger brother Karel (1738–1793) did the same but was also a prolific forger of seventeenth-century drawings. He copied Old Master paintings in black chalk and sold them as preparatory sketches by those original artists. Maria Margaretha (1743–1813), finally, was a specialist in genre scenes. Only Isaac Lodewijk married.

Paulus Constantijn was really the driving force and the principal breadwinner of the family and after his death, the surviving members fell on hard times. From advertisements in local newspapers we know that from 1785 on, Maria Margaretha earned her living by giving drawing lessons to children of better situated families. Later she fell into poverty, and in 1808 she was taken into the charitable care of the Dutch Reformed Poor-Relief Board. At her death she was residing in its hospital and care facility.

Maria Margaretha, who must have learned to paint and draw from her elder brothers, was a very religious person and – like the rest of her family – a fervent supporter of the House of Orange. This can be concluded from her writings, which were never published and only consist of manuscripts. The typical female subjects she depicted in a relatively small format can be divided into four types. Firstly, there are interiors of the affluent middle class, usually peopled with a mother, her children and a serving maid. Sometimes a visit to a cradle is depicted. The NGV’s painting belongs to this group. Then there are outdoor scenes, with a woman selling fish, eggs or vegetables at the door. Those pictures were often intended as pendants, one showing an urban environment, and the other a more rural one. Variations on these are the scenes in which the saleswoman is replaced by a knife-grinder or a youth playing on a lyre, sometimes accompanied by a little dressed-up dancing dog, subjects that reflect the influence of seventeenth-century masters such as Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693). A third type employs an arched niche, through which we see the interior of a kitchen, where a woman is busy peeling potatoes or polishing copper pans. Finally, there are the scenes in which only one person, usually a fish-seller, a Savoyard (of or pertaining to Savoy) or a lyre player, is depicted in a landscape. When a certain painting was successful, the artist sometimes re-created it, with only a few changes. In this second version mistakes could be corrected and extra details added. Therefore, such variants are in general of a higher quality. This is also the case with the Melbourne picture, which is a reworking of a painting from one year earlier.

At the end of the 1780s La Fargue also executed a few portraits, including a drawing of Frederick William II of Prussia, Elector of Brandenburg. In the years 1787 to 1789 seven drawings by her of contemporary events were engraved by Mattheus de Sallieth and Theodorus Koning to be illustrated in De Haagsche Princelyke en Koninglyke Almanach (The Hague Princely and Royal Almanac). Her last known work from 1792 is an etching – her only one – of the distribution of prizes to students of the Latin School. This print, which she dedicated to Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia, the wife of the Dutch stadtholder William V, was never taken into production and only a proof of it exists.

As a woman, La Fargue was not allowed to enter the Confrerie Pictura (the local society of painters in The Hague), of which her brothers were all members. In that time, women were not supposed to paint and draw as a profession (although there are a few exceptions). So, the unmarried Maria Margaretha struggled her whole life to keep her head above water. Although her choice of subjects was quite limited, she produced very elegant works of art whose anecdotal settings, with all their detailing, capture our imagination.

This article appeared in the Sep-Oct 2018 edition of NGV Magazine.