Books

No special pleading needed for this disabled Dutch master

A review of Deaf, Dumb and Brilliant: Johannes Thopas, Master Draughtsman, by Rudi Ekkart. Thopas was an equal of his peers - his disability shouldn’t even come into it

21 June 2014

9:00 AM

21 June 2014

9:00 AM

Deaf, Dumb and Brilliant: Johannes Thopas, Master Draughtsman Rudi Ekkart

Paul Holberton Publishing, pp.200, £30, ISBN: 9781907372674

To discover an ‘unknown’ is the dream of anyone connected with the arts and in Johannes Thopas (c.1626-1688/95) we have just that. This book catalogues the exhibition now transfering from Aachen to the Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam (12 July–5 October). The curator is Rudi Ekkart, who discovered Thopas’s meticulous lead-pencil (plumbago) drawings on parchment as an art-history student in the early 1970s, when he had unlimited access to the University of Leiden’s famous drawing collection. After that he kept a record of everything to do with the artist, which now finds formal acknowledgment.

Other recognised Dutch artists who were deaf and dumb have shown that a normal life could be profitably pursued. Jan Jansz de Stomme even used sign language to thrash out theological complexities with his wife and servant. Thopas’s history is sketchy. His clients, mainly from Haarlem and Amsterdam, were important enough for their portraits to have survived; but it seems he was always officially under the guardianship of one member or another of his rich family and never had the money, earned or inherited, to afford independence.


His father was the town physician of Arnhem, his mother the daughter of a merchant dynasty. Later in life Johannes depended on his brothers and sisters. Nothing is known of his artistic training, but in 1668 he was enrolled a member of artists’ guild in Haarlem. He subsequently moved with most of his family to Assendelft, where his older brother was the town clerk. There is no record of his death.

The pencil portrait on parchment was a significant genre in Holland, especially in Thopas’s lifetime. Judging by the comparisons offered he can rightly be called the equal of his peers. But what does his affliction have to do with it? There is no need for special pleading. Some glaring disproportions lend a naïve charm and his only surviving painting, of a dead child (another genre), is heart-wrenching without resorting to sentimentality. It has recently entered the famous Mauritshaus collection.

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  • ‘Mauritshuis’, according to the website. Thanks for the article.

  • While I LOVE that you say his disability shouldn’t even come into it – it really shouldn’t – I need to make a plea as a deaf person. Please don’t use the phrase “deaf and dumb” in current vernacular as you did in second paragraph of this article – it is highly offensive, as many deaf people (even those who identify as “Deaf”, which I don’t) do not see themselves as “dumb” (ie, stupid, or somehow subnormal.). I think my two University degrees and publishing record would beg to disagree.” Without speech” is probably a more appropriate term, although clunkier.

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