In Dutch group portraits, revelations of real power
By Philip Kennicott
Monday, Mar. 12, 2012
The double chins, flabby cheeks and puffy eyes in two large-scale Dutch paintings now on view at the
National Gallery of Art
belong to male members of Amsterdam's mid-17th-century elite. They are governors of a building - the largest public space in Amsterdam at the time - which served as a gathering place for one of the city's three militia companies. It also did duty as a tavern and public reception hall for dignitaries.
Both paintings are on five-year loan from major museums in Amsterdam and are paired in a large stairway landing at the National Gallery's west end. The show, "Civic Pride: Dutch Group Portraits," offers visitors a rare chance to see two fine examples of a genre the Dutch pioneered: The group portrait, which memorialized and aggrandized important public and private figures, including government officials and the leaders of what we would now call "civil society" institutions.
Group portraits, which grew out of the tradition of militia portraits (Rembrandt's "Night Watch" is the most famous example), are both more and less interesting than an ordinary portrait of a solitary figure. The latter celebrate status and invite the viewer into the illusion of private, psychological communion with the subject. The group portrait, by contrast, also celebrates status but makes the viewer feel somewhat more remote from the people involved: on the outside staring in. The payoff is in the psychological interaction; the revelation of group dynamics.
Unfortunately, because the group portrait served a specific organizational purpose, commissioned and displayed to perpetuate an institution, most of the hundreds of them painted during the boom years of the Dutch Republic are still inside the Netherlands. The two chosen for display in Washington make a very attractive and revealing pair, showing leaders of the same institution, in versions painted in 1642 (by Govert Flinck) and 1655 (by Bartholomeus van der Helst). Flinck, who trained with Rembrandt before setting up his own practice, paints a more formal, sober image, showing four governors at a carpet-covered table, with the building's administrator in old-fashioned collar presenting an elaborate, ornamental drinking horn.
Van der Helst, whose style is more refined, shows a later group of four governors in a more private moment, drinking, gesticulating with animation and squeezing fresh lemons onto oysters. From the right side, three servants emerge with more food and drink, and oyster shells litter the floor, some of them with their opalescent inside turned up, others with their dark, nubbly outer shells facing the viewer.
The shells in the Van der Helst, with their contrast between rich, gleaming interior and the forbidding reticence of their dark exterior, can stand for the fascinating dynamic that emerges between the two paintings. At first there seems a simple juxtaposition: serious men posing publicly, and festive men captured in a clubby, private moment. The two paintings were hung in very different places - the more formal Flinck canvas above a large fireplace in a public hall open to general visitation, the more intimate Van der Helst in a meeting room used by the governors - which may explain part of the difference. Tastes in painting also changed, from the seething turbulence just below the surface in the Rembrandt-inflected style of Flinck, to the sharp but elegant line of van der Helst more than a decade later. And in between the 1642 painting and the 1655 work, the Netherlands secured its independence with the 1648 Peace of Munster signed with Spain and with it, greater peace and prosperity. The men enjoying oysters in the later work may be happier and more at ease because life was better.
But the formality of the Flinck shows a very different aspect of power than that seen in the van der Helst. It's tempting to say that the formality and seriousness of the Flinck is power in proper form, conscious of its dignity and cautious with its reputation, while the van der Helst is more relaxed and perhaps not about power at all. But the true nature of power is often best seen when men are at play, when they are among friends, when they are free to speak without the circumlocution and care that being in public requires. To see power at work today, you must spy on it in the boardroom, or on the golf course, where the jokes are off color, the bigotry casual, the assumptions and values so taken for granted that they need no dressing up.
So what does one make of the servants in the van der Helst, who seem to witness this private moment of insider revelry? In today's world, they would be an intrusive presence. In this painting, however, they are indicators of an even greater level of authority than most men enjoy today: a power so complete that even the little people can be trusted. They aren't spies or interlopers; they are completely subsumed in the hegemony of the elite men they serve.
And so the seemingly less formal van der Helst becomes an even more telling image of power, because it is power without self-consciousness. In the Flinck, one sees the trappings of power (the ceremonial drinking vessel, a red-leafed book on the table, a gilded shield on the wall), while in the van der Helst it is "interior" things that matter, the inside of an oyster shell, food for ingestion and light flowing in from a door that further closes off the men's space from the world. In each painting, the central figure looks directly at the viewer. No surprise that in the van der Helst, the man looking at you seems to be saying, "What are you doing here?"