The brief publication under review, richly illustrated in color with drawn and painted portraits, coats of arms and seals, and furnished with family trees and transcripts of archival documents, came forth out of a clash of two competing value systems. The point at issue was the overpainting of the coats of arms on the Frans Hals portraits of Jacob Pieterszn Olycan and Aletta Hanemans in the Mauritshuis. The museum felt that the arms detracted from the esthetic effect of the paintings, which was the only reason they hung in the Mauritshuis. Moreover, they were not part of Hals’s original composition but were added in the nineteenth century. Perhaps because they came to art history from other disciplines, the archivist Bas Dudok van Heel and the economic historian turned art historian Marten Jan Bok felt called upon to object, arguing that overpainting the heraldic devices “compromised the integrity of the artworks as historical objects and [constituted] a violation of the ethical regulations of the International Council of Museums (ICOM)” (p. 3). This I believe is overstated. I could find nothing in the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums that proscribes overpainting (or even removing) a later addition to a painting. The authors moreover surprised me by recommending to the Ringling Museum in Sarasota that it remove the coat of arms painted onto its Frans Hals portrait of Jacob Pieterszn Olycan – the wrong arms, they say – around 1930 (p. 51). The standpoint of Dudok van Heel and Bok concerning the underrated importance of heraldry for the study of portraits is however shared, on his own more diplomatic but equally decided terms, by Rudi Ekkart, the foremost specialist in Dutch portraiture.
Overreaction or not, the occasion that prompted them to examine the arms painted on these two portraits and portraits of the sitters’ extended family is a happy one, leading to a fundamental contribution to portrait research. They focus on values close to those of the patrons of the paintings and their descendants, which are different from the traditional art-historical approach centered on the role of the artist. They reconstruct the provenance of the paintings under study from the time they were made until the present day, with an eye to family, social and denominational history and the effects of divergent fortunes on the posterity of the paintings. Their evidence is formed by heraldic bearings on the paintings, compendia of coats of arms and archival documentation.
As the Frans Hals portraits in the Mauritshuis and the Ringling Museum illustrate, heraldry has its own, often anachronistic chronology, and is subject to false pretense alongside accurate registration. The status of sitters can rise and fall with time, affecting the reception and identification of portraits. The physical interventions of heirs like Cornelis Constantjin van Valkenburg (1764-1847) and Adriaan Cornelis Fabricius (1767-1847) made them co-authors of the identity of their forebears. From the late nineteenth century on, responsibility for preserving old portraits and deriving prestige from owning them passed increasingly from private to public hands. For the Valkenburg portraits this occurred through dispersal in the market, while the Fabricius heritage found its way in entirety to the Frans Hals Museum. This process has not been damaging to the reputation of Haarlem portraiture and its sitters. Had all the collections remained in the family, international museum audiences would have remained ignorant of the existence of a grand school of portraiture that endowed private citizens with aristocratic, even royal allure.
By investigating the position of portrait sitters in the Haarlem hierarchy, Dudok van Heel and Bok arrive at the interesting conclusion that Frans Hals’s sitters tend to belong to the Counter-Remonstrant maagschappen (clans) that controlled politics in the city after Prince Maurits dismissed the libertine Remonstrant sympathizers in the town council in 1618. Unlike Amsterdam, where the libertine de Graafs and Bickers recouped power in the 1620s, Haarlem stayed – to its disadvantage in the States of Holland – under the thumb of its Calvinist clans. Dudok van Heel and Bok relate this circumstance, a bit dodgily to my mind, to the wish of the portrait sitters to distinguish themselves in particularly dignified form.
As rich and abundant as it is, there is one dimension I missed in the 57-page booklet. That is what the authors of the catalogue of the Early Dürer exhibition in Nürnberg in 2012 called the “spatial turn.” Their reconstruction house by house of the history of the street where Dürer was born and grew up is wonderfully revelatory. The great advantage of this approach is that it does not merely connect the figures and locations we already know to be connected. By identifying and discussing the intermediate addresses as well, they offer a more complete picture of the artist’s environment, including neighbors whose professions or collections make it nearly impossible that they had no contact with the young Dürer. A topographical as well as genealogical placing of the sitters in the Haarlem portraits could have been expected to bring unanticipated ties of this kind to light.
In its published form, ‘Frans Halsen’ aan de muur is of optimal use to students of genealogy, heraldry, provenance studies and portrait specialists. Much of it is a dense interweaving of names, dates, relationships, identities, legacies and coats of arms, connected by minimal textual ligature. These demonstrations were necessary to underpin arguments that were written, after all, for the august Royal Dutch Society for Genealogy and Heraldry. But the research has much to offer art historians not specialized in these fields. It is to be hoped that the authors will find the time and have the inclination to write up, in English, their main findings, in the more accessible style of which they are both eminently capable. Their penetrating and highly wrought study will then better be able to inspire others to revise and improve their research strategies.
Maarssen, The Netherlands