The Gigantic Democratic Pose

Goldenes Zeitalter: Holländische Gruppenporträts aus dem Amsterdams Historisch Museum (A Golden Age: Dutch Group Portraits from the Amsterdam Historical Museum)

an exhibition at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, December 3, 2010–February 27, 2011.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Karl Schütz
Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum/ Munich: Bavarian State Painting Collections/Hirmer, 71 pp., €24.90 (paper)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich/Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource
Ferdinand Bol: The Officers of the Guild of Wine Merchants, 76 inches x 120 inches, circa 1659

Asked to review a book entitled Portrait and Individual, a well-known English historian dryly remarked that the portraits would probably tell him more about the society in which the sitters were painted than about the sitters themselves. The comment reminds us that while portraits from pre-modern times may give their subjects distinctive faces, they also show them as members of a particular class and family or as representatives of an office or institution. The individual—prince or prelate, patrician or professor—stands for the collective.

This public character of portrait painting is heightened in paintings that bring together an entire community made up of members of a public institution or corporation. Here we are confronted with a social phenomenon that art history alone is unable to explain. At a time when elsewhere in the absolutist Europe of the seventeenth century the public sphere was dominated by statues and portraits of princes, in the Dutch Republics the members of municipal corporations commissioned group portraits and paid for them collectively. This was a unique turn toward democracy in the history of portraiture.

In the language of art historians, these paintings have come to be known by the rather inadequate label “group portrait.” A designation corresponding to their social content would be more clarifying. Thus for the portraits of civil defense militias, the old name Schützenstück (musketeer piece) could be used; for those that assemble the overseers, or governors, of municipal foundations, the term Regentenstück (governor piece) would be better. Then there are anatomies (“cadaver paintings”), works in which a group of medical doctors and students surround a dead body—another distinct genre with its own social implications, for the dead bodies used were often those of the very poor. The more concrete designations place us in the midst of urban life.

These portraits arose in the Dutch Republics after the Dutch Revolt—the uprising that began in 1568 in which the Dutch, especially in Amsterdam, shook off the hated rule of Catholic Spain. They are the artistic expression of a newly acquired bourgeois freedom. Even the conventional ways in which the subjects are lined up are a result of the democratic upheaval; after all, each member of a municipal militia wanted to appear in his appropriate place, just as do the heads of state in today’s painfully awkward group photos at G-20 summits. Some musketeer portraits are astonishingly wide in order to allow all their ambitious subjects to line up side by side and as equitably as possible, without any hint of subordination to disturb the social harmony. For Dutch portraitists these were restrictive constraints and it took the genius of Rembrandt or Frans Hals to fill this standardized genre with dramatic life.

Ordinarily, one sees these portraits of…

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