The Golden Age at Its Best

Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals

Catalog of the exhibition by Rudi Ekkart and Quentin Buvelot
an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, June 27–September 16, 2007, and the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, October 13, 2007–January 13, 2008.
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis/National Gallery/Waanders, 280 pp., £30.00; £19.95 (paper)

Abraham Casteleijn, a middle-aged newspaper publisher, holds up his right hand as if he might address us. But the roll of his eyes and his slack-shouldered slouch on the dining chair deprive the gesture of any energy. It resolves into a fond, resigned welcome, inviting us into the urbane muddle of his Haarlem mansion: his globe, the Turkish rug on his table, his hat slapped down on a loose stack of bound folios, a paper or two—perhaps some 1663 copy of the Weeckelycke Courante van Europa—dangling beneath them. The bust of a long-dead local worthy looms over his shoulder, po-faced, rectitudinous, dour. It sets a note of severity that Abraham and his wife Margarieta dutifully observe in their garb of black satin—good, serious folk, adherents to the Mennonite confession.

Yet Margarieta has snatched at Abraham’s left hand, confident of luring his gaze away from the viewer. Where will she lead him? Toward a garden of fruitfulness, in Jan de Bray’s initial sketch for this dual portrait; but when it came to composing the canvas, the painter scrubbed his allegory. Here her outstretched palm simply hovers, by parallax, over the background knob of a pilaster, as if she might fondle it. Beneath her skirts, a flash of red velvet petticoat underlines that little hint of mischief.

Elsewhere in the exhibition “Dutch Portraits” (just finished at London’s National Gallery, shortly to open in The Hague’s Mauritshuis), de Bray’s own eyes gaze out at us, their cast less comic than artistically melancholic. He has given himself a bit part in a family charade, in which his father and mother flaunt their African slave and their Chinese porcelain while posing as Antony and Cleopatra in an episode from Pliny. De Bray senior was himself a painter, an architect besides, and something of a scholar; his wife belonged to a family of poets; three of their sons worked in the portrait business: swanky literati, this Haarlem dynasty, as cultured and refined as feathered tulips in a crystal vase.

The flowering of such civility in mid-seventeenth-century Holland is largely what the exhibition and catalog celebrate, besides the individual visions advertised in its subtitle: “The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals.” It documents a remarkable historical episode, for, as an earlier husband-and-wife portrait—painted by Jan Claesz at the century’s beginning—suggests, the sophistication was a novel implant in the northern Netherlands rather than an indigenous growth. Claesz’s couple, burghers of the city of Hoorn, are draped like Abraham and Margarieta in virtuous black; indeed, the way the man uncurls his fist foreshadows the former’s bleary bid for attention. In 1602, however, all is crisp and archaically immutable. The likenesses and the lace, the coat of arms and the galleon in a window, the cartouches giving the sitters’ ages—everything declares itself as sign. Conceptually, this proud provincial heraldry feels closer to ancient Egypt than to a world where newspapers circulate.

But the inset galleon stands …

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Letters

Corrections November 8, 2007