The ‘tronie’ (meaning ‘head’, ‘face’ or ‘facial expression’ in Dutch) entered art historical discourse in the1980s and in recent years has garnered increasing interest. Nevertheless, it remains unclear what “tronie” actually means, which paintings we can assign to this category, and how we can interpret them. Various important articles have appeared on this topic, but now Dagmar Hirschfelder has addressed it in an extensive study, her dissertation at the University of Bonn.
In her introduction, the author proposes a compact definition of the tronie: it embraces the countless depictions of single figures in Dutch art of the seventeenth century – reduced to a head, bust or half-length figure – dressed in a fantasy costume. The model seems to be painted after life, often rendered with painterly brushwork and/or strong illumination. The figures lack the attributes and context to identify a particular biblical or historical personage.
The book ambitiously undertakes to analyze the genesis and circulation, as well as the function and meaning of the different kinds of tronies. Hirschfelder presents a great deal of material by many artists in order to address the definition of the tronie as theme (‘Bildaufgabe’). She adopts as touchstone the established category of portraiture, which shares many similarities with paintings described as tronies, and her methodological approach is summarized in her title. By comparing and contrasting she seeks to illuminate the characteristics and qualities of the tronie.
Hirschfelder’s analysis starts with paintings of the 1620s and 1630s in Leiden and Haarlem, asserting that not only the early heads by Lievens and Rembrandt, but also the boys and girls of the 1620s by Frans Hals are tronies – an assumption questioned by other scholars however.The author correctly identifies Jan Lievens as the initiator of tronie paintings according to the definition in her introduction. Following Werner Sumowski she has him starting around 1625/26, but other scholars, including the present writer, suggest he began earlier. Regardless, Lievens remains the painter who transformed the type of head study produced by Peter Paul Rubens in preparation for larger compositions, into independent paintings of heads and busts for the market. Hirschfelder proposes that the Lievens’s single genre figures, influenced by the Utrecht Caravaggists, also contributed to the development of the tronie. She also mentions other important influences: Flemish head studies by Frans Floris, works by Hendrick Goltzius, and others show the reduction of the figure, or interest in the face.
The subsequent discussion of Frans Hals, though interesting, must be seen with a critical eye. In her introduction Hirschfelder points to the lack of attributes as essential to the ‘tronie.’ Therefore it is surprising that she nonetheless embraces depictions of a bust or head accompanied by an accessory. The author correctly connects them to genre paintings of the five senses, but concludes that they must be interpreted differently than the half figures by the Utrecht Caravaggists, to which they clearly relate, because they are reduced to the face or bust, and have lost their connection to larger genre scenes. In a later discussion of “tronies with attributes” she modifies her criteria further to include some of Lievens’s, Rembrandt’s and Hals’s single-figured genre and history paintings of the 1620s. Even though they depict genre themes, they have to be seen as incorporating the pictorial intention of ‘tronie.’
Chapter two relates the tronie to the characteristics of Dutch portraiture between 1615 and 1633. Both focus on single figures painted after life, without a narrative context. With unknown sitters, the difference can sometimes be hard to tell. Hirschfelder starts by analyzing in detail the function, various types, and conventions of portraits. She focuses on the portrait historié as sharing with the tronie the removal of the figure from their contemporary reality through costume. She proceeds to isolate a form of the portrait historié that she calls ‘costume portrait’, as a new category of painting that is even closer to the tronie as the sitter is not shown in an identifiable role. Yet the author concedes that these can hardly be mistaken for tronies because they follow the established codes for portraiture.
Hirschfelder reviews several criteria to distinguish portraits from tronies, such as costume, painting style, etc. Hirschfelder regards some self-representations of Rembrandt, in which light effect, rough painting style, or animated facial expression undermines portrait decorum, as a special case of the tronie. After discussing a range of examples that illuminate her analysis, she proposes an intentional ‘openness’ of interpretation that is quintessential for the tronie.
The author also looks at paintings that were produced after 1630, following in particular Rembrandt’s production in Amsterdam, and that of his students and followers. From 1650 on Rembrandt developed a looser style that he used for portraits as well as tronies, bringing the two types even closer together. The tronies by Rembrandt’s students of the Leiden and Amsterdam years elucidate various functions of this type of painting: an educational function of training pupils, as well as a commercial aspect in a large atelier.
Other painters outside Rembrandt’s immediate orbit, such as Jacob Adriaensz Backer, apply the invention of the tronie to other established categories of painting. Here Hirschfelder again resolves some problems of categorization by proposing another new type of painting, the so called ‘shepherd-tronie,’ which formerly was seen as part of the genre of pastoral painting.
Very useful is the analysis of the different tronie types laid out in a large table. The author begins with various depicted ages and genders, and then distinguishes between costumes, expressions etc., referring to her many illustrations. But, again, by including paintings of shepherds, merry drinkers, etc., normally seen as single-figured genre paintings, the author stretches the boundaries of the tronie. Therefore the following section devoted to the position of the tronie among other genres of figure paintings appears to be problematic as well. Because the author accepts many borderline cases (such as the ‘shepherds-tronie’), she is forced to argue against ‘tronie’ as a genre of painting. Hirschfelder prefers instead to see the tronie as a theme (‘Bildaufgabe’) within the wider field of figural painting. But the discussion of genres is problematic in itself, as the hierarchy of genres was only established as a system by the French academy toward the end of the century. When art historians discuss the tronie in the context of the genres it is a form of posthumous categorization – a tool of interpretation.
One of the most interesting chapters is the last one, devoted to the meaning, function and contemporary esteem of tronies. Hirschfelder’s discussion of the difficulty in the interpretation of tronie paintings builds on research by Ernst van de Wetering: because tronies maintain relations to other genres, they depict many different human types. These convey various meanings, sometimes vague – old men and women for example can symbolize vanitas, or represent exempla virtutis. In this context the discussion of the theory of the passions and physiognomy becomes very important, and takes up a substantial part of this chapter. Likewise important is the notion of ‘schilderachtigheid’ (painterliness) here discussed with reference to Boudewijn Bakker’s research. Sometimes it was their distinctive style that made the ‘head-paintings’ an attractive object on the art market. Not regulated by the decorum of portraiture, painters were free to apply more experimental brush work.
Dagmar Hirschfelder’s expansive approach has, for the first time, both defined and problematized the tronie as a pictorial type with diverse aspects, and is certain to provoke further discussion.
1. Walter A. Liedtke, Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2 vols., New Haven, 2007, vol. 2, p. 562; Franziska Gottwald, Das Tronie. Muster, Studie und Meisterwerk. Die Genese einer Gattung der Malerei vom 15. Jahrhundert bis zu Rembrandt, Berlin/Munich 2011, p. 15, and Lyckle de Vries: [review of:] Hirschfelder, Dagmar: Tronie und Porträt in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 2008, in: H-ArtHist, Feb. 9, 2011. http://arthist.net/reviews/887