Ben Broos and Ariane van Suchtelen (eds.), Portraits in the Mauritshuis 1430-1790. With introductory essay by Rudi Ekkart and contributions by Quentin Buvelot, Guus Sluiter, Petria Noble, Peter van der Ploeg, Hans Vlieghe and Frederik Duparc. The Hague: Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis; Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2004. 376 pp, 60 color, 330 b&w illus. ISBN 978-90-400-9000-4.
Rudi Ekkart and Quentin Buvelot (eds.), Dutch Portraits. The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. With contributions by Marieke de Winkel, Axel Rüger, Peter van der Ploeg, Ariane van Suchtelen and Lea van der Vinde. [Cat. exh. National Gallery, London, June 27 – September 16, 2007; Mauritshuis, The Hague, October 15, 2007 – January 13, 2008.] Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2007. 280 pp, 150 color, 40 b&w illus. ISBN 978-90-400-8334-1 (hardcover); 978-90- 400-8336-5 (paperback). Dutch ed. (Hollanders in beeld) ISBN 978-90-400-8333-4.
Katlijne Van der Stighelen, Portretkunst in Vlaanderen van 1420 tot nu. Hoofd en Bijzaak. Zwolle: Waanders Publishers; Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2008. 320 pp, 300 colored plates. ISBN 978-90-5826-533-3 (Belgium) / 978-90-400-8546-8 (Netherlands).
Portraiture has become a hot topic across the spectrum of cultural studies. Long dismissed as dull face painting (a view with which early modern theorists tended to agree), portraiture as a visual art gained new interest with the rise of contextual art history, the study of works of art as products, reflections, and sometimes motivators of the social and cultural concerns of their time. “Identity construction” has become a common concern in social anthropology and literary studies as well as art history, and the portrait tradition has come to be seen as a barometer of evolving notions of status, gender, personhood, and psychological interiority. In the midst of all this, portraits have gained new respect as objects of visual pleasure, in which the ruffle of a sleeve or the crook of an eyebrow can convey not only the social ideals or personality of the sitter, but also the technical virtuosity of the artist. Whether taken to encompass the studies of anonymous heads that have now been shown to belong to the separate category of tronies, or confined more strictly to the representation of individuals whose historical identity is essential to the content of the work, portraiture clearly constituted a fascination for Dutch and Flemish consumers of the early modern period – and, as Katlijne Van der Stighelen shows in Portretkunst in Vlaanderen – has remained an important facet of the Netherlandish pictorial record.
Portraits in the Mauritshuis catalogues close to 230 paintings in the collection of the Royal Museum Mauritshuis in The Hague. (Omitted are 46 portraiture miniatures and 21 sculptures; when these are added to the paintings, portraits constitute nearly a third of the museum’s collection.) The book begins with a masterful and concise introduction by Rudi Ekkart surveying not only the Mauritshuis collection but also the development of portraiture as an artistic specialty in early modern Holland. Sixty highlights of the collection are then presented with thorough catalogue entries, each packed with information about the sitter(s) as well as the artist. The objects chosen for this close scrutiny range from simple but trenchant studies of faces (Pietersz, Moreelse, Flinck, Netscher), to group portraits staged as complex narrative scenes (Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, but also Albert Cuyp’s Equestrian Portrait of Pieter de Roovere and Cesar van Everdingen’sDiogenes Looking for an Honest Man, a disguised portrait of a family named Steyn). The recent demotion of the early Portrait of Rembrandt with Gorget (here catalogued as unattributed, “after” the self-portrait in Nuremberg) is somewhat compensated for by the 1999 acquisition of the breathtakingly summary Portrait of an Elderly Man, dated 1667 and surely one of Rembrandt’s last portraits (the sitter has tentatively been identified as the art dealer Lodewijk van Ludick).
The selection features some portraits by non-Dutch artists, such as Holbein, Rubens (pendants acquired in 2003), Van Dyck, and the talented Estonian Michel Sittow. A few paintings better described as tronies are included (Hals’s Laughing Boy, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring), probably just because they are too wonderful to leave out. The juxtaposition of artists ranging from Memling to Troost chronicles the radical evolution of taste over a period of three centuries. (The entries are arranged alphabetically by artist; it might have been interesting to list them chronologically, so that the evolution of style and convention could more easily be traced.) The rest of the collection is listed with provenance data, shorter comments, and black-and-white thumbnail photos for each work. Results of technical examination are reported for all works, and the book concludes with a helpful glossary, chart, and essay by Petria Noble that puts these important findings in perspective. This book is informative as an up-to-date and well-researched introduction not only to the riches of the Mauritshuis, but also to the delightful diversity of early modern portraiture.
The exhibition Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals brought together sixty-six brilliant examples of Dutch seventeenth-century portraiture at the National Gallery, London and the Mauritshuis, The Hague, in 2007-08. These two richly endowed museums pulled the core of the show from their own collections, supplemented with loans that mixed familiar masterpieces, with emphasis on Hals and Rembrandt (including, in The Hague only, the incomparable Jan Six) with a variety of lesser known works. As seen by this writer in London, the juxtapositions were, at times, a bit jarring, like hearing simultaneous symphonies in major and minor keys, but also offered welcome opportunities for studying familiar works in a new light, and for rediscovering quirky gems by artists such as Jan de Bray and Jan van Ravesteyn whose reputations in their own time may have outweighed their place in today’s canon. For the catalogue, Rudi Ekkart contributed a historical overview of the genre as well as a survey of the practical elements of portrait patronage and production. Marieke de Winkel provided a valuable essay on costume. In the entries, well-researched summaries of existing knowledge are enlivened by occasional flashes of new insight. Like the catalogue for the Amsterdam Historisch Museum’s Kopstukken: Amsterdammers geportreteered 1600-1800 (2002, available only in Dutch), this book stands on its own as a useful introduction to the golden age of Dutch portraiture.
Katlijne Van der Stighelen’s survey of Flemish portraiture is much broader in scope and covers territory that will be less familiar to most readers. Here, the descendants of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling are not Hals and Rembrandt, and not only Rubens and Van Dyck, but also Pourbus, De Vos, Cossiers, Van Oost, and generations of lesser-known artists whose progress mirrors larger trends in the European march toward modernism. Moving through Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo to classicism, photography, and the fractured movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the text concludes with an epilogue touching on significant contemporary trends. Chapter VII, tracing the “delicate temperaments” of the fin-de-siècle (Khnopff, Ensor, Van Rysselberghe), is a high point along the way. Seldom does a book of this scope get beyond the superficial pleasures of the coffee table, but here, Van der Stighelen demonstrates an impressive depth as well as breadth of scholarship. This fascinating and lavishly-illustrated book is the first substantial overview of portraiture in Flanders, and is sure to remain a standard reference work for many years to come. An English edition would further broaden its appeal.
All of these books are beautifully produced, with ample illustrations, good notes, bibliographies, and indexes, and formats that encourage both sustained reading and fruitful browsing. (Waanders Publishers are to be commended for maintaining such a high standard while virtually cornering the market on serious art book publishing in the Netherlands.) The prices of these volumes are reasonable, and their content is of interest for cultural historians as well as connoisseurs. Taken together, they offer proof of the centrality of personal identity within the essentially naturalistic mandate of Netherlandish visual culture.