Already in 1994, Joanna Woodall in her Portraiture Facing the Subjectannounced that Ann Jensen Adams’s forthcoming study of Dutch seventeenth-century portraiture assumes the distinction between public and private identity upon which bourgeois subjectivity is founded. Although long-awaited, the book now reviewed is by no means outdated, and is in many ways a refreshing examination of four Dutch portrait genres: individuals, the family, history portraits, and civic guards. It investigates all kinds of ascertainable responses to Dutch portraiture by its seventeenth-century audience. Adams argues that as the Dutch became more detached from traditional ways to express their sense of identity and belonging, based on birth and social status, they employed portraits to consolidate their subjective self-awareness and their newly acquired position in society, that they owed to the economic boom of the Golden Age. After introducing the then-existing terminology, she discusses in the first chapter the ‘cultural power’ attributed to portraits in rhetorics and common belief. Since the viewing of portraits was considered potentially transformative, as she claims, it could play a role in the production of the viewers’ identities. She asserts that many portraits are more than just a mimetic representation and create a new dialogic, interactive relationship with the viewer.
According to Adams, portraiture was a genre apart, not only because it was more evenly spread across society than any other type of painting but mainly since it served not merely decorative or commemorative purposes. Foremost, it was a means to propagate self-image. She interprets the portrait as an active participant in the cultural process, an interpretative medium, which is intended to have an impact on its viewers and helps them to understand themselves in relation to others. In these sociological terms Adams tries to understand the aforementioned portrait genres as representations of social frameworks. While acknowledging that identity should not be understood in the present-day multi-layered meaning, she sometimes becomes entangled in the web of ‘modern’ – though sometimes outmoded – sociocultural concepts of Goffman and the likes. In the studies on the four distinguished portrait genres she brightly investigates how the ‘imaginative function’ of these works shifts with the circumstances of commission, audience, and social status of the individual.
Chapter two, concerning the portrait of the individual, focuses on the ‘usual suspects’ in the identity lineup: physiognomy, demeanor and character. Innovatory is Adams’s approach of neo-Stoic tranquillitas in these portraits as an outward manifestation of self-insight. In the following chapter two family portraits are discussed at length, Willem de Passe’s print depicting the family of Elisabeth of Bohemia, and Jurriaen Jacobson’s painting of the family of Michiel de Ruyter. Despite its domestic appearance, the former picture remains essentially a ruler-cum-family portrait, and is obviously not a typical image of a common household like the latter. Adams rightly argues that the De Ruyter family portrait, with its aristocratic allure, made a self-conscious public statement, in order to claim a social position for the admiral and his offspring. She interprets the emphasis upon the descendants in connection with the social mobility in the Dutch republic, and the promotion of the family as the foundation of social stability. One should, however, not forget that the De Ruyter family portrait remained confined to the private dwellings of the sitters, while De Passe’s print was intended for a broad audience. The choice of public figures allows Adams to convincingly correlate the private sphere with the social order – perhaps more easily than would be possible with family portraits of lesser known individuals.
The fourth chapter on the history portrait (portrait historié) interprets individuals in the guise of historical figures as actual participant actors in their respective narratives. Adams succeeds well in mapping the transgressive and ambiguous nature of these portraits. However, her claim that these paintings “were used as part of a larger project of personal change if only at an unconscious level” (164) is rather broad in the context of this chapter which examines the experience of these works. When she connects the portraits’ dialogic nature with Protestant catechisms and the structural differences in phrasing between the different denominations, she disregards that many Catholic catechisms already had an interrogatory structure. An apparent mistake is the mention of Van Mander’s Crossing of the Jordan in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam as being lost (196).
Adams’s utilization of spiritual literature on meditational practices is groundbreaking, although she could have mentioned more indigenous pietistic authors, e.g. Josua Sanderus, translator of the extensively treated Occasional meditations by Joseph Hall. For additional literature on portraits and reformed pietistic visual culture, I refer to W.J. op ’t Hof’s article Het Nederlands gereformeerd Piëtisme en de Nadere Reformatie in relatie tot de (beeld)cultuur …(Documentatieblad Nadere Reformatie 28, 2004, pp. 2-33). This publication lists portraits of pietists and ministers of the Further Reformation (Nadere Reformatie) and also pays attention to their interpretations of the second commandment (the image ban), permitting portraits of rulers, parents, teachers and good friends, for commemorative, exemplary and political purposes.
In the fifth chapter, Adams links styles, themes and compositions of shooting company portraits to the unrest between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants. She uses Thomas de Keyser’s Company of Captain Allaert Cloeck and Lieutenant Lucas Rotgans of 1632, as a vehicle for projecting her ideas on iconographic conservatism (“the heroic past”), hierarchy, extrafamilial associations, personal loyalties, and public service. Her conclusive remarks in chapter six on identity and levels of reality form a scholarly essay in its own right.
In summary we can say that Public Faces and Private Identities is a well-written and inspiring text, systematically constructed toward her closing arguments. The quality of the illustrations leaves a bit to be desired. The book is a welcome addition to the existing literature on the still underrated portrait genre and was certainly worth the wait.
Rudie van Leeuwen
Radboud University Nijmegen