Portrait of history

The walls in this mansion convey a family’s story
Sunday, December 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

It only takes a few steps up the stairwell of Wettershaw Manor to feel as if one is being watched. In the stairwell, the living room and the foyer, visitors are stared down by the eyes of more than 200 years of history.

The manor’s owner, Andrew Wetter, inherited a collection of about 35 oil paintings depicting members of his family dating back to the 1600s. The collection serves as a visual family tree.

“I’m very lucky to have this,” Wetter said.

Wetter is a genealogist and a self-proclaimed history buff. In addition to the paintings, he has found birth certificates, family heirlooms and a family tree dating back to 1050. In his research, Wetter has been able to find only 300 people in the entire world who share his family name.

The Wetter family originated in Switzerland where they held aristocratic titles and powerful positions in society. In the 1800s, aristocrats and other wealthy members of society had portraits made to depict their wealth and stature. Wetter’s collection compiles the work of a variety of artists, many of whom originated in the Netherlands where portrait painting was popular.

The content of the paintings in Wetter’s collection was more than likely a conscious decision, said Joan Stack, associate curator of European and American art at the Museum of Art and Archaeology. Every object, including books, clothing and other trinkets, was used to convey a political or social message. These objects were also used to physically represent a quality or aspect of the subject.

“The ideal was that both the painter and sitter are very concerned with the message conveyed in the portrait, just like a politician is concerned with the message conveyed by his or her image in a political ad,” Wetter said. “It was the only way to record appearances.”

While many of the artists of Wetter’s paintings are unknown and are only represented by initials, one in particular is noted. Sir Peter Lely, to whom two of the paintings are attributed, was Dutch, but worked in England as a court painter for the monarchy. His work was influenced by Van Dyck.

Some highly influential artists were known for portraiture, including Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt. The influence of these artists is seen in Wetter’s collection, from the setting to the quality of light that is characteristic of Rembrandt.

This quality of light is visible in a number of Wetter’s portraits, including a portrait of Hans Heirich van Wetter-Tegerfelden. The soft triangular shadow visible to the side of the nose is the key element in this style. The painting, which has holes poked through it, is the most damaged in the collection.

A portrait of Elizabeth van Wetter-Tegerfelden employs the same style. In the painting, van Wetter-Tagerfelden is seated by a large tree, most likely on the family’s land, dressed in an elegant blue dress and holding a twig with blossoms in her hands. Landscapes were used as backdrops for paintings; not for aesthetic purposes, but rather to emphasize the wealth of the family or person. The muted background and soft light of the portrait emphasize the soft hint of blush on her cheeks and the porcelain-like quality of her skin.

The oldest painting in the collection, which dates back more than 400 years, is a likeness created after the death of the subject, Eurich III, one of five bishops in the family. The image is small and is painted on steel; Eurich is painted flat in profile against a dark background.

By his account, Wetter’s family history is speckled with power and political strife. Hans Jacob van Wetter-Tegerfelden I, whose portrait is also part of the collection, fought against Napoleon when the French emperor invaded Switzerland.

“It’s like working in a museum,” said Katrina Kohler, a staff member at the manor.

Wetter hopes to open the house to the public for tours and as a bed and breakfast on June 1, 2006.

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