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June 27, 2007

The stories behind the portraits of the Dutch Golden Age bring these paintings alive to Lilian Pizzichini: Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals at the National Gallery

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals
National Gallery, London
27th June - 16th September 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

In real terms, the "Golden Age" of the Dutch Republic meant an era of unprecedented wealth. Merchants and entrepreneurs emerged as a new, middle-class elite and the dominant force in local government and civic institutions. In artistic terms, this early flowering of the bourgeoisie signified a radical departure in portraiture. Burghers were the new patrons of the arts, and they brought a new energy to this role. They were anxious to establish and reinforce their social position and eager to commemorate every aspect of their lives. Births, marriages, professional and civic appointments needed to be set in stone, or at least on the canvas. The fact that there were so many of them meant that artists had to find new solutions to portrait painting to keep up with the demands of their hungry clientele.

All this was good news for art history. The Dutch Golden Age is a fascinating moment for this branch of history. It was as though a new realism characterised every brush stroke, as though the new bourgeois subject could not be defined by the kind of allegorical perfection that typified representations of the nobility.

The first gallery of this exhibition marks the contrast between the traditional and emerging styles by placing a small oil on panel, 30 centimetres in diameter, in the centre of the room. Portrait of Hugo Grotius by Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn dates from 1599, what is called the Dawn of the Golden Age. It is the earliest painting in the exhibition and shows Hugo Grotius in the year in which he settled in The Hague as a newly qualified lawyer. He was 16 years old and had already accompanied a Dutch diplomatic mission to King Henry IV in France, having completed his studies in Leiden. He was awarded a doctorate in Orleans. He was considered to be a young man of great promise.

Ravesteyn's portrait is distinctive in that it heralds a new tradition of portraiture that had been simmering since 1580. He depicts Gropius at very close range, restricting the image to head and shoulders, with Gropius's head emerging from the stiff white ruff typical of the period. The sitter looks beyond us with large eyes, the informality of his pose suggesting dynamism and movement. He looks very self-assured.

In the same room, Gerrit van Honthorst's (1628), although intimate in nature, seems studied by comparison. Charles is dressed in the bright green and scarlet of royalty. The vast majority of these portraits are studies in black and white, depicting as they do the Protestant sobriety of the new elite. Charles stands out for being somewhat idealised. The brushstrokes here do not suggest the texture of imperfect complexions or the suggestion of time passing. His brow is smooth, his curly locks are glossy, his cheeks and lips are rouged. He seems trapped by his role as monarch. There isn't much movement here.

Rembrandt and Frans Hals are the stars of the show but portraitists were ten a penny in the thriving, busy cities of the Netherlands. Jan van Ravesteyn and Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck are little known in the UK but they were artists of enormous talent doing interesting work. Verspronk's Portrait of Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer shows that pink satin is no bar to male virility. Again, it stands out from the rest of the portraits for being marvellously flamboyant. Stilte isn't the only dandy in the exhibition, but he is the most lustrous. Standard-bearers wore colourful attire so that they could stand out on the field of battle. The composition is sufficiently animated to indicate the sitter's radiant pride in his splendid get-up and important position within the militia he represents. Hand on hip, he gazes directly at the viewer in a jaunty pose derived from the work of Hals, Verspronck's teacher.

This is one of the most humorous portraits of the exhibition, although those depicting married couples show a similarly relaxed tone of camaraderie and joie de vivre. What is extraordinary is how alive the sitters look, consistently, throughout this exhibition. Every vein in every forehead, every open pore is given its due attention. These portraitists were not great flatterers. But they were intent on observing Nature as well as giving voice, so to speak, to a new class of Dutchmen and women.

This movement of painters saw a great focus on the natural world as opposed to the allegorical. There are numerous group portraits of surgeons flaying carcasses pored over by eager students. Rembrandt's is not the only Anatomy Lesson (on show here for the first time in 40 years). It was a sub-genre of portraiture gaining strength throughout this era. The studies in anatomy, the rising through the ranks of professions such as doctor and lawyer indicates a new way of looking at the world. These professions also demanded a new type of group portrait.

Portrait of the Syndics of the Clothmakers' Guild, also by Rembrandt, shows cloth merchants seated at their board table, imposing in their business duties. They sit in judgement on the dyed woollen cloths their city produces and also, it seems, on us the viewer as we pass beneath their collective gaze. They were, in their way, standard-bearers for a new society. Movement is so important to these paintings: here, Rembrandt depicts one man seating himself to join the group, thereby disrupting the horizontal arrangement of his colleagues. This casual gesture also imparts some tension to the composition. Rembrandt further invigorates his subjects by making four of the seven men gaze at the viewer directly, as if they have been disturbed at work.

What fascinates most of all in what at first glance is a sombre show (lots of black silk and white ruffs) is the personality, and hence the story, of each sitter. The catalogue produced by the National helps underline the importance of this development in portraiture as defining a generation, as well as a nation. These artists and their subjects were creating a new concept of "Dutchness". Just as the Italian Renaissance created heroes out of commoners, so did the Dutch Golden Age. Touchingly, the new aristocracy was not afraid to celebrate the domestic sphere as well. In fact, this emphasis on the domestic serves to reinforce a sense of Dutchness.

Catharina Hooft is depicted twice in the show, the first time with her wet-nurse. In 1620, Frans Hals did an unusual thing - he painted a one-year-old child being held by her nurse, a woman of low status. Catharina was born in Amsterdam in 1618, the only child of the lawyer Pieter Hooft. In 1636, at the age of 16, she married an extremely wealthy man who later became burgomaster of Amsterdam. At that point in her life she was portrayed, alongside her husband, by Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy.

At the age of one, she had just parted company from her wet-nurse, her primary carer, the first strong attachment in her short life. This anonymous nurse was commemorated by the Hooft family for the role she played in their only child's life. It is a touching portrait. The nurse's ruddy cheeks are echoed in the infant's. The difference in status is underlined in order to make clear that the woman is not the mother to the child. Her flat ruff, old-fashioned by 1620's standards and cap, contrast sharply with the sumptuous attire of the bourgeois princess. She is dressed in the latest French fashion, expensive lace, cuffs and gold brocade cap. But the intimacy gives this picture its real appeal. Catharina leans her right hand against the nurse whilst turning a gleefully naughty smile to the viewer. The sense of trust this gesture creates makes this the most moving portrait of the exhibition.

Until one sees Rembrandt's Portrait of an Elderly Man from 1667. An old man slumps into his armchair entirely unconscious of the fact that the painter is observing his every move. His hat is lopsided, his collar is untied, his coat unbuttoned at the bottom as if giving his large stomach room to manoeuvre. His stoutness is emphasized by the chair's incapacity to contain him.

This portrait was swiftly followed by another of an elderly man. The next three paintings Rembrandt executed were of himself, all of which dated from 1669, the year of his death. He is studying very closely the effects of old age, so closely that the face of this old man seems to have been moulded in three dimensions. It is as though Rembrandt is coming to terms with his own demise. It is utterly beautiful.

This is an enlightening and entertaining exhibition in that it summons an era that will always fascinate. The Dutch not only created a new concept of themselves but a new way of competing on an international stage. The stories these pictures tell, their cultural and historical implications are what make the show come alive. Sometimes it takes good artists, rather than the truly great, to convey an era as it is shaping itself. It takes the humanity of the great masters Rembrandt and Hals to transcend mere social concerns.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

To read Christie Davies' take on this exhibition, see: Christie Davies is once again overwhelmed by the wonders of Dutch art and drawn to the portraits of this so likeable and so ludicrous a people.

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