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The reality of status in seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture

“Sovereign bodies: the reality of status in seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture” – is an article published by Dr. Joanna Woodall, Courtauld Institute of Art in the “Portraiture: Facing the subject”. Woodall discusses the general opinion that the style of the Dutch seventeenth-century portrait has been determined by the bourgeois culture of Holland. Dutch painting is often seen as completely realistic and rational, lacking mysticism and admiration of aristocratic art.

According to Woodall, this understanding is too simplified and the Dutch style of the period can not be explained only by reference to bourgeois values, since Dutch portraiture did preserve a number of features usual for aristocratic painting style. Woodall asserts that the rise of burgeons individualism in the early XVII century did play a certain role in the development of the portraiture, however, this influenced mostly the personalities of those portrayed, but not the style itself.

She analyses a classification of nobility proposed by famous Dutch humanist De Holanda around 1550, which included nobles of birth, nobles of virtue and nobles of arts and concludes that there is a number of cases persons who are not nobles of birth are portrayed “with reference to traditional concepts of portraiture, inherited and adapted from aristocratic ideology”. Even though the influence of “nobles of birth” has gradually decreased in Holland, their place as art models has been occupied by representatives of the dominating bourgeois class.

Woodall identifies three strategies of portrayal in the Dutch art of the period: noble emulation, burgerlijk distinction and harmonious marriage. Although the aristocratic rule has been removed, the influential Dutch officials, traders and manufacturers often felt themselves as “new aristocracy”, causing their portraits obtain certain features usually attributable to the aristocrats images like specific figure positioning, symbols of war and power and even genealogical superiority.

This approach has been contrasted by burgerlijk distinction method. Such portraits are pronouncedly modest and even intimate. No symbols of power are presented in the image and the personality of the depicted person can not be identified at a glance. The specific feature of the method is correlation between domestic and public life of a portrayed individual. The portraits drive an analogy between domestic work and state activity, making certain analogy with the Dutch idea of republican Rome with its notable modesty.

Such portraits are filled with hints on marriage, since the entire Dutch society was seen as a great family where cities were children, obeying to the central paternalistic authority. The third “harmonious marriage” approach is an attempt to reconcile the previous two positions. The method concentrates on demonstration of virtues, making male portraits an analogy of masculine and female portraits – of feminine goodness’s. Marriage here is an analogy of certain social action, including occupation of a certain position. Identity is produced by a role played by a person.

Some features remind of aristocratic style, while not actually symbolizing aristocratism, like a hand which seems to hold a sword, although there is no sword there. On the other hand, the general style is more similar to the burgerlijk one. Artists used to avoid anti-naturalistic features in order to demonstrate people as they are, with their status being a role, not an inherited feature. The attire of the models in the early XVII century portrait is usually black and white, although there are some exclusions. This is not explained by fashion but rather by artistic tastes.

Black and white were to stress the true virtue, therefore, modest figures of the depicted persons have sometimes been contrasted with bright colors of the background. Woodall believes, that this fashion derived from the previous aristocratic epoch and notes, that the change in the attire of the portrayed which occurred in late XVII century, can be explained by alteration of Dutch elite about itself, resulting from social tension. The elite had to distinguish itself from hereditary aristocracy, and thus had to make more realistic portraits.

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