This Isn’t a Portrait — DM

The Merry Fiddler, Gerard van Honthorst, 162

The Merry Fiddler seems to provide a glimpse into the life of one individual, despite the piece not being painted as a portrait. The Merry Fiddler is in fact not supposed to be a piece on one person, rather to be capturing a day in Dutch life and culture. It is the techniques used throughout this painting from Honthorst that almost contrast everything we know about portraiture and ultimately pressure us into learning more about this merry fiddler. 

Grootenboer presents the idea that when one has a portrait painted of themselves, they are to appear that they are unaware an audience is gazing upon them. However, in the Merry Fiddler, the subject seems to tryingly gaze at the viewer, well, with merry to say the least — but this isn’t a portrait. Yet, his warm and inviting smile is complimented with a drink in hand and a fiddle he seems to enjoy. This man could almost not appear any more joyous to whatever the occasion is, but it is his smile that first caught me when I first examined this work from Honthorst. This subject seems to show a genuine expression for the surroundings and activities he’s engaged in. Perhaps this piece shows a glimpse of what pleasure and leisure granted the subject and his people. The compliments of his drink seem to bring happiness into his life at least for the moment, and while his gaze upon the viewer seems to stray away perhaps from the after effects of his drink, he still seemingly tries to maintain eye contact and creates an open and inviting picture. The diverting gaze between each eye seems to align with the theatricalization that Hanneke Grootenboer describes, and how portraiture exaggerates features to make them actually more genuine, accurate, and relatable. But, this is not a portrait; and if this is not to be a portrait, and we are learning so much from this one individual, what are we to take away from this? If we are learning so much about one person rather Dutch society at large as any other piece of this classification would, why is this not a portrait?

We see the use of exotic patterns found within the fabrics woven around the subject. While the patterns appear to make out no clear distinctive object, the vibrant and array of colors bring assumption that these fabrics were not easy to obtain. This could further be backed up by the fabrics found upon the subject himself. The shiny and almost glimmery outerwear of our subject is quite vivid in itself, and mimics the form of silk — a prized possession, especially among this time. To top it off, the man has feathers placed upon his cap, and seeing as this most likely serves no functional purpose and rather a fashionable purpose, one would assume this man has the means to afford the outerwear that could present a higher status. 

Even further looking into the facial hair of our merry fiddler, it would appear to be well groomed and kept up well. This man seems to stray away from whatever middle or common class existed at the time. 

The piece itself doesn’t even dive into exaggeration of the scenery, because there is little to none to be seen in the background. When examining the perspective of this piece, we see that the subject appears to be peering out of a window. Maybe he is looking to the outside of his home, maybe he’s looking on to someone passing by on the streets, maybe we have caught a moment of sincerity as he smiles to someone from his community. But, so little is known about the environment surrounding this man. We cannot draw any further inferences from the background or landscape to make implications on what is occurring in this brief glimpse into the merry fiddler’s life, because what only appears to be shown is this frame of the window he peers out of. While Brusati discusses how Van Hoogstraten analyzes Dutch scenery paintings, and how they draw out theatricalization of rooms with folding walls and impossible shots, The Merry Fiddler presents a singular plane of a wall only with one man to be popping out the punctured rectangular hole. Brusati goes in to detail, “Dutch perspectives with their manipulations of scale and vantage points and their multiplication of optical spaces dramatize many issues associated with making pictures that involve close observation and subjective visual experience.” In the end, there is little to none of that found here in something that is not supposed to be a portrait. The drapes that once hung outside of the window fold back as he pulls them to the seemingly making himself shown to the outer world, but his foreground is left unknown and leaving us with only more questions.

 And, again, this is not a portrait of a merry fiddler. Honthorst purposely chose not to classify this as portraiture, and for what reason? His tactics while crafting this piece force us to examine this fiddler with detail and seemingly reveal more detail on this life of this man rather than the Dutch society at large. It’s almost ironic in that the piece refuses to acknowledge how much emphasis is placed on this one man. 

We have one man glaring out a window with a drink in his hand and a fiddle in the other. We have no idea what he is looking at, where he is at, or what brings the occasion. We are only left with assumptions for the scenario of this painting, and it is up to us to make inferences. Examining dutch portraiture is looking at the things we pass by each day. The items that seem almost normal in these paintings were placed with thought and consideration. The expression of our subjects are a hint at what is to be taken away from this painting, they are by no means a mere accident or fluke. Examination is based on assumption in this case, as we are only given a glimpse of someones life in something that is not supposed to be a portrait. What ends up occurring is that the painting is no longer the whole picture. 

When we look at a subject and their fixation, we are given a one sided view, but it is the surroundings, the expression, and the countless details that go into this art that allow an audience to take a guess at what can further be inferred.

Nevertheless, while this painting refuses to be a portrait, we’re left with the feeling that it is one. It is that smile that drew me in and what will continue to leave me with the feeling that it really is a portrait. Because, even though the gaze of the merry fiddler seems to divert in two different directions, it still sticks with us, the viewer, and we become the fiddler’s scenery that provides context for this work. If you are anything like me, you maybe showed a brief smile as well when first looking at The Merry Fiddler. The man exerts warmth though his openness and the cheek to cheek smile. You may not be seen as of higher status as he presents, but you two are sharing a smile.

Maybe this painting that isn’t a portrait is here to show us how tightly knit the community of Dutch culture was, and exchanges of smiles followed the enjoyment and leisure the Dutch people were granted. A painting that isn’t a portrait, yet acts like a portrait, is forcing us to use this one man to examine Dutch culture and society at large. 

Brusati, C. (2012). Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time. Art History, 35(5), 908-933. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxygw.wrlc.org/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-8365.2012.00930.x

Grootenboer, H. (2010). How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits. Art History, 33(2), 320-333. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxygw.wrlc.org/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-8365.2010.00746.x

Gerard van Honthorst, (1623), The Merry Fiddler,, 1623 https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-180?rts=True

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One thought on “This Isn’t a Portrait — DM

  1. I really like how the repetition of the phrase “This is not a portrait” eventually convinces us that it is! (sort of). Attention to the detail, plus application of scholarly work helps you do that. I think about Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe–yet is IS, well, a representation of a pipe. Is this a representation of a portrait, perhaps?).

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