This exhibition and its catalogue survey portraiture and portrait patronage in Amsterdam from the city’s rise as the leading mercantile center of the Netherlands through its sedate quiescence in the eighteenth century. With a catalogue published only in Dutch and an exhibition seen only at the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, ‘Kopstukken’ (translated in English promotional materials as ‘Face Values’) seems to have be en designed primarily for a local constituency. While Amsterdammers, and especially descendants of the prosperous merchants portrayed, can take pride in their distinguished visual heritage, the catalogue will be of wider interest for historians concerned with Holland’s contribution to Baroque self-fashioning.
An impressive team of scholars contributed to this project. Introductory essays chronicle the development of portrait painting and collecting in Amsterdam (Norbert Middelkoop), survey the generations of portrait painters (Rudi Ekkart), discuss the dynastic and social significance of portraiture for newly prosperous burgher families (S.A.C. Dudok van Heel) and explore the qualities that give Rembrandt’s portraits a unique place in this milieu (Jan Baptist Bedaux). Shorter essays introduce the thirteen sections into which the works are divided: paintings by portrait specialists working in the first third of the seventeenth century (Wouter Kloek), role portraits (Marieke de Winkel), dynastic portraits (S.A.C. Dudok van Heel), artists’ portraits (Volker Manuth), occupational portraits (Marten Jan Bok), group portraits of the leaders of trade guilds (Norbert Middelkoop), charitable organizations (Michiel Jonker) and militia companies (Paul Knevel), private portraits of individuals and families (Jan Baptist Bedaux), works of the later eighteenth century (Frans Grijzenhout), portraits of eighteenth-century art lovers (Paul Knolle), and several centuries of portraits from the Backer family (S.A.C. Dudok van Heel). Eighteen writers (among them Eric Domela Nieuwenhuis, Friso Lammertse, Jan Six [the 11th?] as well as several of the essayists) contribute catalogue entries, most of which emphasize biography and provenance but also give attention to style and iconography. An annotated list of portraitists active from 1600 to 1800 follows (compiled by Judith van Gent and Andrea Müller-Schirmer), along with a general bibliography. (It should be noted that not all sources cited in abbreviated form in the footnotes are listed in the bibliography, resulting in some frustration for the reader who would like to pursue specific topics further.) All works exhibited are recorded in large, full-color illustrations (clear but somewhat dark), but comparative figures are found only in the essays.
A central aim of the exhibition is to demonstrate the pivotal role of Amsterdam as a cultural and economic nexus for the development of several portrait types that have come to be seen as quintessentially Dutch. The main emphasis is placed on the historical and social context for the growing market rather than on specific stylistic or iconographic innovations. In selecting objects for display, the primary criterion appears to have been the status of the sitter(s), not the artist, as an Amsterdam citizen. This results in a somewhat curious appropriation of painters who spent most of their careers elsewhere (Miereveld, TerBorch, Sandrart, et al.) as Amsterdam portraitists. How their personal styles might have differed from, or contributed to, prevailing trends in the metropolis is an important topic not fully addressed in the catalogue.
The Golden Age of Amsterdam portraiture makes an impressive beginning with an assemblage of life-size portraits by the first great generation of painters to serve the new burgher elite: Cornelis van der Voort, Werner van den Valckert, Thomas de Keyser and Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy. Van der Voort, who emigrated from Antwerp and died in 1624, stands out as a trendsetter who established many of the types and conventions followed in subsequent decades.
Central importance is given to the various types of large group portraits, which are seen both as the most important portrait commissions awarded by the upper echelon of patrons and the most challenging demonstration of their makers’ artistic prowess. Of the 135 Dutch militia guild paintings now known, 57 were produced in Amsterdam (Knevel, p. 194). Regent group portraits blossomed under the avid patronage of a few specific organizations, especially the surgeons’ guild. Meanwhile, the patrician life-size, full-length individual portrait was adapted for the network of wealthy families (Bicker, Hooft, De Graeff, et al.) whose country estates and townhouses along the newly built canals afforded space for displays of quasi-aristocratic status. The value of these works as artistic monuments is balanced by their social significance as demonstrations of communal alliances and values.
The authors’ close attention to documentary evidence highlights the importance of practical circumstances in the commissioning, design and display of portraits. Large group portraits were only possible for those organizations possessing substantial wall space on which to hang them, and commissions often coincided with a building renovation or move to new quarters. While the concentration of capital and population in the metropolis attracted numerous portraitists who came to Amsterdam to make their fortune, a patron’s selection of an artist remained primarily a local matter, based on convenience and word of mouth. Family dynasties, seldom stretching back farther than the mid-sixteenth century, were manufactured by taking liberties with genealogy. Burghers seeking a distinguished lineage were not averse to prioritizing the distaff side, if the wife’s family tree was longer or more prestigious. When portraits from life were missing, imaginary likenesses (usefully described as dynastic icons by Dudok van Heel) were conjured up to fill the blanks in the sequences of ancestor portraits that quickly became a requisite feature of patrician décor.
Luckily for Rembrandt, no single portraitist dominated the scene when he arrived in the early 1630s, and the competent, painstaking style then in vogue was quickly eclipsed by his pictorial bravado. It is appropriate, therefore, that while most of the essays in the catalogue are expert but unremarkable summations of fact, J.B. Bedaux’s discussion of Rembrandt stands out for its idiosyncrasy. Bedaux embeds close readings of some of the artist’s liveliest portraits within a discussion of the anthropology of facial expression and body language. Having read up on African tribal rituals of ancestor worship, Darwinian analysis of physiognomy, and pop psychology on the physical language of love (p. 72: the Mennonite pastor Cornelis Anslo’s middle-aged wife tilts her head as she listens not because she is inspired by his preaching, but because she is sexually attracted to him!), Bedaux argues that what separates Rembrandt’s portraits from the rest is their ability to suggest incipient movement. Facial expressions register meaning, psychologists tell us, not as fixed signs but as sequences of movements that wax and wane. A portrait must therefore be read as a moment within a temporal continuum, and Rembrandt’s suggestive style allows this better than the detailed precision of artists like Pickenoy, whose figures appear frozen in place. Remarkably, Bedaux does not once refer to Rembrandt’s own professed interest in giving his figures ‘de meeste ende natuereelste beweechelijckheid,’ a claim to motility of both body and spirit that nicely anticipates his argument. Rembrandt’s work is represented in the exhibition by only three portraits: Maria Trip (ca. 22), whose youthful finery contrasts with the simple widow’s attire of her mother, Aletta Adriaensdr. (cat. 23), and the late self-portrait from the Mauritshuis (cat. 37), in which the aging artist gazes benignly from beneath a silk beret. Its scumbled impasto and peachy tones must have appealed to his last pupil, Aert de Gelder, whose broadly brushed portraits of Dordrecht patrons, as independent of convention as those of his master, are far more innovative and appealing than any of the eighteenth-century works included here.
While a few eighteenth-century portraits, notably those by Wybrand Hendricks and Adriaen de Lelie, stand out for their liveliness, the majority serve only to reinforce the dependency of artists in this period on prototypes devised by their seventeenth-century forbears. Subtle innovations in style and content result mainly from the infusion of foreign influence, promoted by the presence in Amsterdam of artists such as Tischbein and Liotard.
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