Theatricality and Perspective in Aerts’ Fantasy Palace

Fig. 1: Hendrick Aerts, Imaginary Renaissance Palace (1602). Oil on canvas, h 93cm × w 127.5cm × d 7.5cm. Rijksmuseum:

Looking at Hendrick Aerts’ Imaginary Renaissance Palace (fig. 1)  is, in a word, overwhelming. There is simply so much happening in this painting that it’s difficult to make sense of it all. The scene we see is a banquet held at a massive, fantastical palace of the artist’s design, and every corner of the painting is carefully packed with detail. The difficulty as a viewer is figuring out how to analyze it—where do we look first when every part of a painting demands our attention? We can begin to scratch the surface of Aerts’ sprawling scene by examining it one layer at a time. 

We can start small, of course, and treat this as something of a group portrait by taking a look at the human figures in the painting (excluding statues; art-within-art is a topic for another blog post). There are easily two dozen such figures, each of which has a unique action and unique body language. Some sit at the banquet table, others play music and dance, still more share secrets in the corner, and a few hide quietly in plain sight. So little is known about Aerts or his life that working through a historical framework to try and discern the identities of these figures is impractical; we could make generalizations about painters of the Dutch Golden Age and what types of people these figures might be based upon (if they are indeed based upon anyone), but we’d be wasting our time. It doesn’t so much matter who exactly they are. What matters is how they are painted: what does Aerts want us to know about these figures? What are they themselves showing us? What could they want us to know or think?

We can begin to make sense of the human figures in this painting by applying the concept of theatricality as described by Hanneke Grootenboer in her article “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits”. We can naturally make a connection between the word “theatricality” and performers on a stage, and this is more or less what Grootenboer refers to in reference to portraiture—she writes of “calculated, affected, or studied social behaviour” (p. 322). Theatricality in portraiture means performing for others’ perception, and that performance extends far beyond just the body language of the sitter. The objects they place around them, the settings into which they are painted, the clothes they wear, all of it is part of the performance. 

Immediately on looking at the figures, we can begin to see differences in self-presentation that set them apart from each other. From the title, we know they are at a banquet at a fantasy Renaissance palace. We can start to sift through identities by figuring out who is a guest of the banquet and who is not. The partiers are wearing more elegant, more expensive clothing, and their actions and the objects they hold cast them as more privileged characters. They eat, drink from shining goblets, dance, and talk with one another, while other, less elegantly-dressed people do the harder work of serving and entertaining them; one even chases after a dog in the background. By analyzing costume and behavior in the painting through a theatrical lens, we can draw our own conclusions about what types of people these figures are based on how they live, even if we can never know their names. 

Fig. 2: The dancing couple.

Let’s try a specific example. Take the couple dancing to the right of the fountain in the lower left of the painting (fig. 2)—what do we know about them from what we observe? We know they are posed deliberately to face the viewers. They are well-dressed. The man wears a sword, and the woman holds what looks to be a handkerchief in her left hand. They make eye contact with each other. We use this information to draw conclusions—they are clearly well-to-do enough to be guests at this fantasy banquet; the sword may mean the man has some connection to the military; the handkerchief could combine with their facial expressions and eye contact to suggest they are in love. 

Consider next the lute player in the foreground (fig. 3); he sits away from the main party, the closest to the viewer of any human figure. Visible though he is to us, the other characters in the painting pay him very little attention in his foreground perch. 

Fig. 3: The lute player.

We will return to the lute player in a moment, but we must first zoom out to see the painting as a whole for our framework of analysis, which lies in the realm of perspective and optics. In her article “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time”, Celeste Brusati describes analyzing paintings with optics. Optics here is not so much the hard mathematical calculations of lines as it is the process of viewing a painting. She describes her framework as explaining how “perspective afforded Dutch artists not only a means of representing three dimensions on two, but also a tool for simulating and reflecting upon visual experience itself” (p. 912). Perspective, therefore, does not just refer to the mathematical use of lines to create the illusion of depth in a painting, but to working to recreate the very human process of viewing as the human eye would go through it in the natural world. This allows for situations where extremely technically skilled architecture painters such as Pieter Saenredam or Hans Vredeman de Vries or our Hendrick Aerts deliberately paint perspectives that don’t make such linear sense. 

This isn’t to say the illusion of depth here isn’t well-crafted, because it is—startlingly so, in fact. The viewer feels the full size of this palace from low to high, and one feels the sheer airiness of sitting under the soaring arches. One arched tunnel in the far background, holding our vanishing point, appears to be endless (fig. 4). It gives the viewer the uneasy feeling that the palace itself may too be endless; one could imagine walking through that tunnel to find scenes like this playing out in courtyard after courtyard infinitely. 

Fig. 4: Background tunnel to infinity.

Now let’s take another look at our lute player up front, where perspective starts to get a little funky.  He does take up more canvas space than any other human figure in the painting, but upon closer inspection, perhaps he doesn’t take up enough space. He’s about as far in front of the dancing couple by the fountain as they are from the banquet table, but he is not as much larger than them as they are from the main banquet. What’s more, the structure he sits on seems as disconnected from the rest of the scene as he himself is; it’s shadowy and less detailed, its columns connect to the floating roof of a structure that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the scene. 

This distortion, seen through Brusati’s framework, is just as important, deliberate, and masterful as the depth of the tunnel in the far background. Again, Aerts is not trying to manufacture an architecture drawing; his goal with using perspective is to mimic that human process of viewing. We can apply to this a remark made by Brusati about the nature of the picture plane; rather than treating it as a window through which we look directly, pictures by these Dutch masters “treat the picture plane as the threshold where perception and depiction meet” (p. 917). Removed as he is from the revelry behind him, our lute player could almost be sitting on that threshold. 

The last, most brilliant wink to perspective comes when we examine the lute player’s line of sight (fig. 5). He’s watching the guests at the banquet, quietly, in much the same way that we as the viewers are watching them, and they are as oblivious to him as they are to us. Through the peculiarities of perspective, the lute player’s eyes seem to meet directly with the sightline of a woman at the banquet table, but while he (and the viewers) can see her, she cannot see him (or us) from her position. She’s further into this world than he is; she’s looking over her shoulder at the other musicians to her left. Here, we can, in a way, look at looking.

Fig. 5: Line of sight.

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