Berger and Grootenboer: A Study of Dutch Portrait

In “Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch,” Harry Berger presents a compelling argument that portraits of Dutch militia groups during the seventeenth century emphasize a range of the effects from the time. Berger claims that, militia group portraits such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, reveal“signs of performance anxiety, and specifically [effects] as signs of uneasy manhood”. To support his argument, Berger first discusses the social and political history of the Netherlands during and after the Eighty Years War. By offering historical context, Berger goes on to explain the emerging shift in social and societal norms and how this translates into art. During the War, Holland became a center for world trade and the mercantile boom gave rise to a new class of independently wealthy merchants and the regent class. Previously, nobility came from birth order and inherited social hierarchies. However, a new system of upward mobility emerged from the success of the trade businesses, and elite merchants began to take on political roles. Berger suggests that the shift in economic, political, religious, and social norms led to an identity crisis that rippled through society. Furthermore, Berger discusses the shift in women’s roles at home. He states that women during this time period became more authoritative at home and gained more independence; “which is to say, big, voluble, and bossy” (183). As a result, Berger contends that men began to doubt their sense of manhood and value. Berger examines militia portraits, such as The Nights Watch, and claims such portraits emerged as a parody of militant manliness. Newly wealthy individuals paid to be apart of homosocial militia portraits, such as The Night Watch. Berger looks at how the individual aspects of this painting show the dramatic effects of male performance anxiety. The article has an informal, conversational tone.  

              Similar to Berger, Grootenboer suggests that the changing concept of nobility, and the shift from inherited nobility to increased independent social mobility, directly affected Dutch portraiture. In this academic thesis, Gootenboer discusses the role of theatricality in portraiture and how the portraits reveal an internal and external concept of self. Specifically, she examines, “how theatricality in portraiture allows a particular exposition of the sitter through which a sense of self is constructed” (323). Gootenboer focuses on “two meanings of the word exposition: as the positioning of the subject’s exteriority in front of an audience; and, in an extension and reversal of the idea, as its dislocation, its ex-position” (323). Additionally, she discusses how portraits of the newly established elite used staging. These portraits served as mirrors to reflect their subjects’ new riches and to help promote their new sense of self.

In her article, “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century,” Gootenboer looks at how objects in portraits often acted as an extension of the sitter—leading to an era of narcissism. Unlike Berger, however, Gootenboer examines the philosophical concept of self in portraits and how the subjects of portraits were meant to interact with viewers. While Berger focuses on the historical context of The Night Watch, Gootenboer explores the conceptual meaning of the self while discussing portraiture in the seventeenth century. Gootenboer take a far more academic approach in her article and clearly outlines her argument, in contrast Berger take a more informal approach to discussing his chosen portrait. These two authors present interesting and insightful information about Dutch portraiture in the seventeenth century. I think Berger offers great historical context and presents a compelling yet humorous argument about gender roles and the effect on art. Gootenboer sets up an intellectual case for the concept of self and the role of theatricality in portrait art. I do believe it helped to first read Westermann’s book prior to reading these two essays. Westermann offered a great introductory survey of Dutch Art and Portrait. Berger and Gootenboer, on the other hand, provide clear arguments and set up a strong case in support of their specific claims.  


4 thoughts on “Berger and Grootenboer: A Study of Dutch Portrait

  1. Excellent extended summary of the main argument for each! This highlights for me the idea that there may be more in common not only in their approaches (historical context to help uncover meanings imbedded in the paintings) but also their specific arguments: that in both cases the paintings (i.e., the painter, in collaboration with the sitters–but also the physical painting itself, as hung and viewed and perhaps as discussed at the time) were attending closely to and actually doing the work of managing or responding to some kind of crisis of the self. This might be made clearer in G’s second part of her definition–how do you understand her meaning of “ex-position”? And more broadly (but also more specifically), do you see enough historical context agreement between Berger and Grootenboer (or their evidence) to create a synthetic argument that perhaps goes beyond either? Would applying the ideas of one to the evidence of the other show us something new? And/or is there some limitation of each that illuminates the problem of “the self”? What would constitute evidence of the actual “selves” in question here, if the portraits are representations meant to manipulate the viewer into certain perceptions?


  2. Hi Cheney! I was also really interested by what these authors had to say about anxiety about masculinity and new ideas about self-concept. I think portraiture (especially for the folks we’re reading about) was a good way for people to show off to the world what they thought of themselves, and when someone is particularly concerned about appearing masculine or like they conform to some norm (such as the emerging nuclear family in the Netherlands at the time), the staging of their portrait is likely to coincide with that. I wonder with many of these portraits whether or not they were interpreted by audiences the way the sitter wanted them to be—especially with audiences four hundred years later!


    1. Good point about US as an audience: what do we perceive of those selves? What do we now perceive differently about those selves after reading Berger and Grootenboer?


  3. Hi Cheney,

    Great post here. I too found it fascinating how Berger contends that the rise of the nuclear family gave women more power than they had previously had. This point seems counterintuitive, but women do indeed gain influence when society begins to favor familial values above all else. I think it a modern sense saying women gained authority is a stretch (because we would equate that to public authority as well) but I can see how meaningful this was, and indeed progressive, for the time period. Baby steps!

    I like your description of the difference between Berger and Gootenboer in which you say she “explores the conceptual meaning of the self while discussing portraiture in the seventeenth century.” I was far simpler in my description and merely said she focuses on the theatrical element of the portraits, but your explanation is much better and spot on because it includes more of what the theatrical nature of the painting was trying to capture.


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