The tronie has been the subject of serious art historical investigation since Lyckle de Vries’s 1990 publication and the symposium in The Hague in 2000. Recent monographs by Dagmar Hirschfelder (2008) and by the present writer (2011) have treated the genesis, function and boundary of the genre, opening avenues for further investigations. Following upon these earlier studies, the present publication attempts to illuminate additional aspects of the head studies that comprise this category of imagery.
The present volume of essays, the most recent publication to treat the tronie in its diverse facets, grows out of the international symposium held on February 4, 2011 in conjunction with the exhibition “Tronies – Marlene Dumas und die Alten Meister,“ in the Haus der Kunst, Munich. Unfortunately, not all of the symposium contributions could appear in the volume. The eight essays that were selected approach the subject from very different angles, however. The book opens with an essay by Thomas Kirchner treating the art-theoretical framework for the representation of the human face and its affects. Following upon his previous publications on the subject, Kirchner presents an overview of the theory of affect from the Stoa (via Alberti) to Diderot, examining ways in which such theory functions in painting. In the process, he refers to the notion already established in rhetoric of the emotions as the connecting mental state between artist, work of art and beholder. Unfortunately, Kirchner only briefly discusses the actual relationship of affect theory to tronie painting.
In her contribution, Lia van Gemert investigates Golden Age literature “for reflections on the meaning of facial expressions and how faces are interpreted. Of special interest is the author’s observation that Dutch literature makes a distinction between individual portraits and descriptions of anonymous faces. Beyond that she demonstrates that some tronies convey moralizing messages, connecting them thereby to the literary genre of comedy. Her analysis only applies, however, if one defines the term tronie very broadly, i.e. classifies single-figure genre pieces as tronies, a view that has been rejected by Ernst van der Wetering, Walter Liedtke, and the present writer. Although she correctly sees the relevance in this context to the literary genre of zedeprinten (prints of manners), Gemert overlooks this reviewer’s earlier (2011) extensive discussion of the subject in connection with tronies and Netherlandish genre pictures.
The carefully researched article by Arianne Baggerman and Rudolf Dekker offers new insights into the relationship between the face, expression, and meaning in view of the development of individualism in the early modern period. Of special interest in this context is the diary of Constantijn Huygens, Jr., an ego-document that in many passages discloses contemporary perceptions of human character as revealed in physical appearance (the face).
Dagmar Hirschfelder discusses the influence of seventeenth-century tronies on eighteenth-century painters such as Christian Seybold, Balthasar Denner, Count Pietro Antonio Rotari, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Alexis Grimou, Giambattista Tiepolo, and the Rembrandt imitators Johann Georg Trautmann and Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich. Peter Black, in contrast, examines the predecessors of Dutch tronies. In a detailed analysis of Rubens’s Old Man with Curly Beard(Glasgow), the author demonstrates the origin and use of head studies in the studio of the Flemish artist, stating that at this point the troniecannot yet be classified as autonomous, marketable object. Resonating with my observations regarding the importance of Leonardo da Vinci to the history under discussion (2011), Peter Black identifies a head study by Leonardo, the so-called ’Self-Portrait’ in Turin, as an archetype of Rubens’s old, bearded, bald man.
Expanding beyond his earlier publications on Pieter Bruegel’s genre-like peasant tronies, which may be seen in the tradition of Leonardo’s grotesque heads, Jan Muylle offers unfortunately too brief observations on the tronies of antique philosophers by Nicolas Lagneau. As Muylle shows, Lagneau’s drawings present a curious case of posthumous portraits of famous personalities based on a series of engravings by Jan van Vliet after painted tronies by Rembrandt. In his essay, Jan Nikolaisen proposes a new reading of the tronies by Jan Lievens as “virtuoso role playing.” He does not offer much explanation beyond the accounts already stated in the monographs by Hirschfelder and myself, however. León Krempel, the initiator of the exhibition and symposium, makes an important contribution to tronie research in interpreting Vermeer’s two tronies of 1665 in Washington as pendants. Whether the two figures should be seen as allegorical personifications of Ecclesia and Synagoga remains an open question, however. The author’s idea of relating two paintings by Vermeer (The Hague and New York) to the concept of simple and constructed beauty postulated in contemporary sources is both new and interesting. Here too the final evidence is absent, however. Be that as it may, both interpretations, corroborated by the cultural-historical tableau of the time, demonstrate once again the ambiguity of tronies in the seventeenth century.
(Translated by Kristin Belkin)