Today’s post comes from Kristina Arike, class of 2014 and Art Center Student Docent.
On February 28, Mita Choudhury, Associate Professor of History, presented this semester’s final installment of the Artful Dodger. The subjects of her discussion were two seventeenth-century Dutch portraits painted by Paul Lesire, “Alida Pietersdr. Van Scharlaken, aged 25, 1637” and “Portrait of Reynier Johnsz., Aged 32, 1637”.
Professor Choudhury began with an explanation of how she came to select these paintings. She explained that she has always been interested in portraits and faces; while in London studying abroad in her undergraduate years, she often went to the National Portrait Gallery to visit the paintings, as if they were old friends. She also has fond memories of the family portrait photography in her paternal grandmother’s house in India.
It was this sort of close looking and questioning that fascinated her about portraiture: Who were these people? What were they thinking? What were their lives like? Why was the portrait made? For the purposes of this discussion, the most important question is: What do these portraits say about the societies in which they were produced?
Professor Choudhury provided some background in order to frame our reading of the painting. These paintings were meant to be a pair because they were marriage portraits and painted for the special occasion. Lesire painted Alida and Reynier during the period known as the Dutch Golden Age. During the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was economically prosperous. The Dutch were engaged in commerce and had an urban economy, whereas most of Europe was predominantly rural at that time. Alida and Reynier lived in Dordrecht, which was the third largest city of the Dutch Republic. Although it was eclipsed by other cities like Amsterdam, Dordrecht was still a thriving urban center. Alida and Reynier were at the fringe of the urban elite, the regents who governed Dordrecht. Reynier was a wealthy merchant and Alida came from an old patrician family.
Professor Choudhury explained the importance of the merchant class to artistic development in the Dutch Republic. They were able to commission work, which created an artistic environment which was market driven. This was a new model that did not depend on patronage; rather, it was more speculative and led painters to develop specializations. This model also challenges contemporary conceptions of what we think defines an artist. In the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, artists were considered highly skilled artisans and belonged to guilds. Guilds point to the commercialized aspect of art in early modern Europe. The Guild of St. Luke, of which Lesire was a part, was the guild for painters and included the likes of Johannes Vermeer. Lesire was dependant on his patrons, and had a reputation for painting patricians.
It was Alida and Reynier’s powerful economic connection that allowed these portraits to exist. Paintings were a way to establish one’s lineage, and create a position of power for future descendants. They were also seen as a means of fixing one’s political position. Professor Choudhury pointed out the expressions of Alida and Reynier: stoic, mouth closed. These facial cues reflected the prevailing ideology of how civilized people should carry themselves, and also affirmed their right to govern.
The presentation ended with a lively discussion of the paintings between the audience and Professor Choudhury. An interesting detail noted was Alida’s posture—specifically, her jutting elbow that resembles the famed “Renaissance elbow.” This pose was a convention used as an assertion of masculinity. Viewers of the period would have recognized the significance of this gesture and read it as a way of her asserting the prominence of her family.