Understanding Portraiture through Context, Theatricality, and the Imposition of an Intermediary

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

         The rise of portraiture in the Netherlands during the 17th century was immersed in a number of social and cultural practices that shaped the art form and were shaped by it. Portraits were commissioned by nobles and by those who wished to emulate nobility. Analysis which focuses on these features of Dutch art reveals much about Frans Hals’s famous Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, but it is ultimately incomplete. While this type of analysis unveils the context under which the painting was made, it fails to strike at the subjects’ self-identities, exposed to the viewer through theatricality. A theatrical analysis that interprets a sitter’s identity through judgment from an ‘other’ will guide viewers towards a deeper understanding of the subjects and the portrait as a whole.

         Portraiture during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was typically reserved for nobility, but it eventually became accessible to wealthy burghers looking to increase their social status. Portrait artists painted aristocrats at their grandest, using portraiture to reflect their power or wealth; however, for those not of noble blood, artists attempted to emulate nobility more modestly by “emphasizing ‘interior’ qualities such as intelligence, moderation, and the ability to sustain a love-based marriage” (Westermann 132). They were most often painted in pairs for married or betrothed couples. Such paintings came with several norms; for example, while the man would often take a more active, dynamic pose, the woman’s pose would be contained and passive. The couples always faced towards each other with the man on the left, placing the woman “on the man’s sinister (left-hand) or lesser side” (133). Such portraits were often painted on plain backgrounds that forced the focus solely towards the sitter. Most portrait artists and their patrons followed these norms; Hals chose otherwise.

         Hals’s portrait of Isaac and Beatrix broke free of many of the norms of portraiture, though they still conformed to certain principles. What is most apparent is both the couple’s choice to be painted together in a single portrait and the style with which they present themselves together. Sitting close to each other, Beatrix’s arm on Isaac’s, figures relaxed and loose, both in the midst of laughter: this degree of expression was unorthodox not only for the norms of portraiture, but for the Calvinist morality which dominated the Netherlands during this period. According to the portrait’s description in the Rijksmuseum, “Posing a couple together in this way was highly unusual at the time. It may have been prompted by the sitters’ friendship with the painter and the occasion for the commission –  their marriage in April 1622” (Portrait of a Couple). The setting, too, was highly unconventional. Rather than use a plain, lifeless background that forced the viewer’s observation towards the sitter, Hals chose a vivid setting which enables a viewer’s wandering gaze by peppering the scene with symbolism. The vine winding up the tree behind the couple as well as the ivy by Beatrix’s feet, represent “the love and mutual fidelity on which marriage is built” (Westermann 135). The opening to their right reveals that they are resting amongst the garden of love, evinced by the various other couples strolling through; to their left lies an eryngium thistle, “known in Dutch as ‘mannentrouw,’ or male fidelity” (Portrait of a Couple). The thistle also held “presumed aphrodisiac qualities” (Westermann 135), insinuating at the sexual aspects of their marriage. Despite their preference for unconventionality, Hals cannot help but follow certain conventions in painting Isaac and Beatrix. While the two are not facing towards each other, Beatrix’s passive stance, with her arm resting comfortably on Isaac’s shoulder and her head and shoulders level, contrasts with Isaac’s active stance as, leaning back with his head tilted slightly to one side, he appears to recover from hearty laughter. Furthermore, the symbols of love and fidelity strike at the interior qualities a wealthy merchant such as Isaac would have wished to emulate, namely the ability to maintain a love-based marriage – though perhaps not moderation. This analysis reflects much about Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen: open-mindedness (and therefore intelligence), status, and a deep love for one another. But by looking at the portrait in terms of how it was used to reflect the couple’s virtues, this analysis fails to grasp a deeper understanding of identity that can only be understood through the lens of theatricality.

         Theatricality in art is the capturing of one’s self in an incomplete, vulnerable, performative state that gives the judgement of the self over to a ‘you’ – in this case, the viewer. Theatrical paintings seem to capture the sitter in a moment of interaction with the viewer that, due to the viewer’s separation from the painting, results in judgments which are invariably subjective. Insights can be made about the sitters’ performance that reflect their identity; for example, Isaac holding his hand over his heart conveys a deep love for his betrothed, who he sits intimately close to. He leans back and shares a moment of satisfaction and happiness with the viewer, insinuating comfort with their presence. Beatrix is more reserved, sitting up straighter, but she maintains eye contact with the viewer. Her sly smile and subtly squinted eyes suggest amusement and slight deviousness. Is there something she knows that someone else doesn’t? Or is she simply more reserved, expressing her mirth more subtly? Certainly the latter would correspond with the active/passive stance convention consistent with couples’ portraiture, but the former betrays something deeper about Beatrix, a cunning which, through such mannerisms, she communicates to the viewer. Taken individually, both Isaac and Beatrix’s interactions with the viewer imply familiarity but insinuate differing relationships: Isaac treats the viewer as an old friend, sharing smiles and showing vulnerability, while Beatrix confronts the viewer as an intellectual equal, communicating deeper sentiments through body language that a less discerning eye could easily miss. These interactions leave the viewer with unanswered questions: What is it that they were laughing over? Why is Isaac so open with his emotions, and what is Beatrix hiding behind her quiet smile? The disjunction that occurs as a result of the viewer’s separation from this moment exposes the couple at the moment their guard is down and allows the viewer to scrutinize their behavior. 

To Grootenboer, judgment from another is essential to understanding oneself, and the open-endedness resulting from the disjunction of the subject’s actions and the viewer’s judgment inevitably create subjectivity in the theatrical interpretation of the self. Yet, we know that for this painting, judgment is not passed solely by the viewer. As the Rijksmuseum described, the painting was likely “prompted by the sitters’ friendship with the painter” (Portrait of a Couple). This implies that the person Isaac and Beatrix are sharing this moment with isn’t the viewer, but Frans Hals himself. Their familiarity is not with the viewer, but with the painter who captured them. As a result, the scene is not disjointed, as judgment of the subjects is both passed by and reflected in Hals’s portrayal of his friends, but lent credence by the couple’s unique state of vulnerability, achieved through conversation with a close friend. Theatricality is dualistic in that the subject is both separated from and exposed to the viewer, resulting in subjective interpretation of the subject’s self by the viewer. In this scenario, the theatricality still exists in the portrait, but the duality is contraposed: because the subject has already been judged by the painter, the portrait lacks subjectivity; yet, the identities of Isaac and Beatrix have been interpreted by Hals, and are still visible to the viewer. Ultimately, the understanding of Hals’s intermediary position in this interpretation imposes bias on the conclusions drawn from a theatrical analysis, but his judgments also make the interpretation more real.

This Portrait of Isaac Abarahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen can be understood through various lenses. Westermann’s analysis enlightens the viewer on historical context and symbolism, shedding light on both the symbols of love and virtue interred within the portrait as well as the intention behind the portrait, aimed at reflecting nobility through interior virtues. Grootenboer’s analysis lends the viewer the tools to interpret the interactions between subject and viewer and glean specific information about the sitters’ identities. Knowledge of Isaac and Beatrix’s specific relationship with Hals leads to a more comprehensive and final interpretation, that the reflections of identity written into the portrait are not original, but rather the judgments of his friends by Hals. This final piece limits the veracity of conclusions drawn about the subjects’ identities through theatrical analysis while simultaneously lending them credence through its verification of those identities.

Works Cited

Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits.” Art History, vol. 33, no. 2, 31 Mar. 2010, pp. 320–333., doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.2010.00746.x.

“Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix Van Der Laen, Frans Hals, c. 1622.” Rijksstudio, Rijksmuseum, http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-133.

Westermann, Mariët. “Portraiture and the Identity of Self and Community.” A Worldly Art: the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718, by Westermann Mariët, Yale University Press, 2016, pp. 131–155.


One thought on “Understanding Portraiture through Context, Theatricality, and the Imposition of an Intermediary

  1. The layered interpretation is convincing–moving from the known to a new look in light of theatricality–and esp. your attention to the very different ways each subject regards the painter/viewer. Her treatment of us as “intellectual equals” from whom she remains guarded is especially insightful and creative reading, I think.


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