Portrait of A Couple

Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, Frans Hals, c. 1622

Portrait paintings played a major role in 16th-17th century Dutch Art. Chapter Five of A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, discusses differences between portraits of
men and women, and how they reflect societal values. According to
Westermann, many of the sixteenth century Dutch portraits emphasize
“‘interior’ qualities such as intelligence, moderation, and the
ability to sustain love-based marriages” (132). Furthermore, Westermann analyzes how portraits were typically hung in households to face each
other — the woman’s portrait hanging to the right, and the man’s
portrait adjacent on the left. Women were
placed on the left-hand side of male paintings because the left side
represents inferiority (in comparison to the right, “dexter” position,
which men occupied). According to the reading, this
portrait placement reinforced Dutch views of marriage as an
institution “based on mutual affection but steered by the man” (133).
I found this information on how portraits were placed inside the homes
particularly interesting because it reinforces the significance of
context when looking at a painting. Alone a portrait may seem telling
about an individual, but when two portraits are paired together it can
tell a larger story about societal norms and values.

Westermann goes on to examine Frans Hals’ Portrait of A Couple, which
somewhat contradicts the claim that women are quiet and subservient to
men. In this painting, the couple seems relaxed, both the man and
woman are smiling, the woman has her hand on his shoulder. The casual
positioning of the woman’s body, her smile, and open stance presents a
blissful mutual relationship rather than a power struggle. I am interested in learning more about the difference between portrait styles throughout this time period. For example, Rembrandts techniques seem to focus on an individual set in a dark background, whereas Hals’ creates much more informal portrait style in lush settings. Hals’
painting reminded me somewhat of the works of Bosch — colorful and
realistic.

One of the paintings I would like to see at the Rijksmuseum is the
Portrait of A Couple, which I mentioned above. It looks as though
there are so many details within the painting that provide context for
the couple (Westermann touches on this — for example, the
significance of the ivy) and I would like to explore this symbolism
more. Additionally, I would like to look at more of Steen’s works as
he seems to depict family life in detailed, dramatic, and humorous
scenes. I am interested in learning more about Dutch societal norms
during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the gender roles
that shaped the artwork.

The Merry Family, Jan Havicksz. Steen, 1668
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3 thoughts on “Portrait of A Couple

  1. For your first Essay topic
    To Cheney:

    Based on Cheney’s post and the comments that I have made on her posts, I am most drawn to her analysis on the topic that surrounds her post titled Portrait of A Couple. Her description of how, typically, a wife’s portrait is placed on the left side of their husband’s portrait to represent a hierarchy or inferiority within the marriage to be most intriguing. I would like her to dig deeper into how a marriage and couples in Dutch art, during this time period, were made and positioned within the paining itself and placed on a wall. Moreover, did it matter where in the house it was placed? What room? I am curious as to whether putting the wife’s portrait on the left side of their husband’s, during this time period, was a force of habit from a tradition that sprung a while ago or was it crucial and a current norm. In your post and in Westermann, having a mutual relationship of love is discussed when concerning a marriage in Holland, during this period. I wonder how this relates to the paintings and the hierarchy that is within the marriage. How present is this inferiority between the husband and wife within the marriage, and how is the love kept mutual if the man does not respect the wife as much as she respects him? I think research within Westermann’s book and the readings we have done so in Westermann could be helpful to answer some of these question and draw conclusions. I also believe Grootenboer and Spencer would beneficial to utilize when answering questions surrounding historical context and societal norms of this time period.

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  2. I found her analyzation that a woman’s portrait is put on the left side of their male counterpart’s portrait for inferiority reasons to be surprising and subtle way to exhibit a hierarchy in a marriage. I found it interesting that mutual affection was important, but not being on equal levels with your partner is as important.

    I would also like to find out how the Dutch men treated their wives in the household. I would be curious to find out how the men felt if their women tried to speak up in their area or get a job in their area. I wonder what a Dutch man’s response during this time would be if their wife took initiative or even thought about it.

    I would like to dig deeper and find out if most of the Dutch marriages were mutual. I am curious because if hierarchy within the marriage is so important I am sure it is also important in social classes during this time period. I am sure when people were considering who they wanted to marry whether or not they had money, what their family name was, and who they knew.

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  3. I’m glad you highlighted this Hals double portrait–it’s one I want to see, as well! (And you can also visit the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem when we’re there). I’m wondering where you might think this portrait fits in with other depictions of men and women: How will we know which “societal values” are being represented in a given painting? and when they are, how the viewer is supposed to regard those relationships–e.g., as models to follow? as negative models to mock or avoid? And which ones represent actual norms vs. aspirations or values of the artist or the sitters (which may or may not align with dominant values in the society–or more specifically, within a class or social grouping within society)? What kind of knowledge or research would be required to answer these questions? (What kinds of evidence does Westermann offer for her interpretations?)

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