CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Portrait Tales – Portrait and Tronie in Dutch Art

11 March - 5 November 2023

Portrait Tales – Portrait and Tronie in Dutch Art

Exhibition: 11 March - 5 November 2023

The Dutch art theorist and painter Samuel van Hoogstraten described the human face as a “mirror of the mind”. He even thought he could read a person’s character from his or her features. Faces also play an important role in painting. Thus, the faces painted in the Netherlands in the 17th century reflect impressively many facets of human physiognomy in individual portraits. Just as they individually strive to reflect the reality of life of a portrayed personality, they can, in combination, reflect the history of an entire society.

The human face became a theme in Dutch Baroque painting independently of the representative task of portrait art. As distinctive character heads with pronounced facial features, a new type of figure painting established itself: the tronie, which meant head, face, or expression. Old and young people in plain clothes or extravagant costumes up to the self-representation of an artist were the preferred subjects, without the depicted being fixed to a certain role and identity.

Jacob Adriaensz Backer (1609-1651), Portrait of a Boy with an Axe, ca. 1645
Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Winterthur

Tronies served artists as study heads, but were also created as independent pictorial creations for the art market. In contrast to status portraits, which were commissioned works staging the status and rank of the models, tronies sound out the spectrum of human expression. Their closeness to reality and immediacy are of almost timeless validity, which makes the virtuously painted faces seem appealing and topical even today.

In the cabinet exhibition, Jacob Backer’s (1608-1651) recently acquired portrait of a boy with an axe is shown for the first time. This excellently preserved painting adds to the museum’s holdings of a masterpiece by an important artist from Rembrandt’s circle. Grouped around it are paintings by artists such as Ferdinand Bol, Samuel van Hoogstraten, and Jan Lievens, which are presented in complex relation to an exquisite selection of historical, genre, and self-portraits by Rembrandt.

The exhibition is curated by Andrea Lutz.