Portraits of the Golden Age

Dutch group portraits at the Hermitage in Amsterdam

This exhibition, ‘Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age‘ is on until the end of 2016 at The Hermitage in Amsterdam. It’s a collaboration between The Hermitage, The Rijks Museum and Amsterdam Museum.

Here is a trailer for the exhibition:

Given the sheer scale of many of these paintings, some of which are over 5m/16ft long, just staging of this exhibition is quite a feat. Indeed there is a short video showing one of the paintings being lifted into the building with a crane.

What struck me most was how it connected 17th century Holland to the present day Amsterdam, not just in terms of historical fact but in emotional resonance.  It was my first visit to Amsterdam and I admit a long-standing curiousity as to how the Post-Reformation Calvinists became were the forefathers of present-day Amsterdam.

The question that I arrived with was…

Who?

The quality of these works is exceptional and every face is prominent and beautifully painted. This is no small feat when there around twenty of them to paint (click the image to view a higher resolution version):

Pickenoy

Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy (1591-1653) Banquet of the civic guards from the company of Captain Jacob Backer and Lieutenant Jacob Rogh,1632. 198 x 531 cm. Collection Amsterdam Museum; inv.nr. SA 7313.

More than that; every face is a specific individual, of course, they are portraits. But even in portraits there is often a level of genericism or idealisation that obscures the individual, whether through formulaic technique or the desire to represent some ideal outside the situation.

My view on portraiture and personal criterion for its success is to ask whether it offers me a privileged view of the subject. Looking at the portrait do I feel as if I know the sitter well? It is a question of our times. After all, from a historical perspective the intimacy of knowing someone well would have been  inappropriate for a royal portrait. By proximity to royalty alone, it would remain a privileged view. That raises another question, which is interesting as a counterpoint to these Dutch portraits, namely what is a royal portrait really of? Not who, what? Not the person but the Crown.

Indeed, these portraits are the antithesis of a Royal portrait. Of course there is wealth and power here but there is also community, equality and deep pragmatism in supporting others as well as themselves and meeting the eye of the beholder as an equal.

Each of these portraits is intensely personal not just in terms of appearance but also the habitual posture, body language and small characteristic gestures of the subjects. Which brings me to the hands; I have a particular interest in hands. They hold so much expressive potential which is rarely utilised. That is not so here. I would go so far as to suggest that, were they alive many of the subjects could be identified by their hands alone.

The question that I left with was…

How?

How, exactly, do you work on a 5m/16ft canvas in that manner? Did they use mirrors to be able to see the painting and subject at the same time? And where do you work on it? How many artists had access to a space of that scale? How many worked on one such canvas? And for how long…