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In the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, hangs a beautiful portrait labeled Engelberta van Brienen, painted by Nicolaes Maes, one of Rembrandt's best pupils.

During the twelve years that I have been a docent at the museum, I have always been intrigued by this painting. In the beginning more by the painting itself than the sitter. The painting style (more Rubens than Rembrandt), her pose, her fashion, the maroon-red color, the sheen on her dress, her complexion and those big blue eyes. But most of all, that beautiful mysterious smile. Who wants a Mona Lisa, when you have a portrait with a smile like that.

But more recently I wanted to know more about the person behind that smile. Who was she? Where did she come from? Who was her family? She did not wear any rings. Was this portrait an engagement gift?

The archives at the Ringling museum held a few details: the name of the painter (Nicolaes Maes), who painted it in the mid 1670s and the fact that John Ringling had bought the painting in London, in c. 1930 (for £1000). At a much later date it was decided that the name of the sitter had to be Engelberta van Brienen, since she much resembled a then newly published portrait of her in a Dutch art cathalogue. Read an Update about this.

Further information showed that in 1675 Engelberta married Paulus Voet van Winssen, who later would become mayor of Utrecht (in 1680, 1681 en 1684).

Huh? Utrecht? I was born and raised in Utrecht. Now I needed to know more. Thus started a journey of discovery into Engelberta's life; her family, where she lived and her descendants (of which Audrey Hepburn is one of the most well-known).

So far I have traced 13 generations and more than 500 descendants (spouses included). More than 150 now live in all parts of the world. Some descendants have written a letter to their "Grandma".

This is a growing project. It will increasingly contain more information through the cooperation and contribution of her living descendants.

September, 2012
Willem van Osnabrugge
Docent Ringling Museum
Sarasota, Florida