Reframing the Portrait

a portrait of a woman, with one side of the portrait in the style of a Bronzino painted portrait, and the other half in an abstract Cubist style.

"A portrait of a woman, with one side of the portrait in the style of a Bronzino painted portrait, and the other half in an abstract Cubist style." Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

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September 23, 2023

Before family photos, or school pictures or Instagram, there were hand-drawn and painted portraits. Throughout the ages, portrait artists have captured expressions and personalities on canvas or paper, and those who view the picture interpret this “likeness” in their own way. We talk with a philosopher, a musician and a novelist about the role of portraits through history, and how we see ourselves —and others — through these deeply personal images.

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Peter Brathwaite has now researched and re-imagined more than a hundred paintings of Black subjects. What began as a game is now a book and a museum exhibition called “Rediscovering Black Portraiture.

Lucrezia de’ Medici (1545-1561)

In her latest novel, Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell takes us into the world of Renaissance Italy, where she unravels the tale of a young woman, Lucrezia de’ Medici. Shannon Henry Kleiber talked with O’Farrell about what we can learn about history and ourselves through the many layers of portraits.

Frans Hals, Meeting of the Officers and Sergeants of the Calivermen Civic Guard, 1633
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The Frans Hals Museum in the Netherlands holds an exquisite collection of 16th and 17th century Dutch art — and the largest collection of paintings by artist Frans Hals himself. Steve Paulson takes us along on a tour of Hals’ work, and talks with Steven Nadler, a philosopher who has written a new book about Hals.


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September 23, 2023
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- [Anne] It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps. How do you get people to look, really look at an old master painting? Well, in 2020 when art museums around the world were shuttered, LA's Getty Museum issued a kind of playful challenge, recreate a favorite work of art using just three objects you have lying around at home.

- [Peter] I was, like everyone else at home during lockdown, with not a lot to do.

- [Anne] Meet the celebrated British baritone Peter Brathwaite.

- [Peter] As an opera singer, I was looking at my inbox, seeing the emails coming in saying that work was either being postponed or canceled, so I sat at home scrolling through Twitter and saw this challenge and thought, "Well, maybe I should try this."

- [Anne] Peter's used to playing roles on stage, so his idea was to reenact a historic portrait, make a costume, strike a pose, snap a selfie. There was just one problem.

- [Peter] I wanted to find an image that looked a little like me, but something that I noticed fairly early on was that I wasn't seeing very many faces of color. So I searched for an image, and I had no idea that I'd set off on this huge voyage of discovery into rediscovering Black portraiture.

- [Anne] It went a lot further than he expected.

- [Peter] And so I recreated an 18th century image of a young man. He's holding a lap dog. He has a silver tray and a glass of wine, and he's a servant in England, obviously in a stately home. I staged this in my front room. I was using my mother-in-law's cuddly toy dog thing, and I had a glass of cranberry juice in my hand. I posted it to social media, and the response was fairly overwhelming. People enjoyed the humor. They were intrigued by the hashtag of #rediscoveringblackportraiture. And so I decided to continue, and that carried on for 50 days solid after that.

- Wow, wow. 50 days, was that like one portrait a day?

- [Peter] Yes, yeah, so it became hugely important.

- [Anne] Peter Brathwaite has now researched and reimagined more than a hundred paintings of Black subjects, from a 14th century image of Mansa Musa, the Emperor of Mali, to the presidential portrait of Barack Obama, and he's still not done. What began as a game is a full-fledged questioning of art history, also a book and a museum exhibition called "Rediscovering Black Portraiture."

- [Peter] It was incredibly hard to find some of this work, and a lot of these portraits were created to illustrate the wealth of the patrons who commissioned them. Often a Black subject was included to highlight the wealth of the individual, but that's not the full story, and we see individuals who are free, not necessarily enslaved, with names and navigating Western society in a very sophisticated way, and it was difficult to encounter these works and see that there's so much that I haven't seen before. This is really showing that what we see in galleries and museums is often the tip of the iceberg.

- [Anne] And this is work that you had already been doing in some ways. You got interested in Black portraiture quite a long time ago as an opera singer, right?

- [Peter] Yes, yeah, so I had a bit of a tricky situation when I was asked to lighten my skin to fit into a stage image in an 18th or 19th century opera that I was performing in, and I-

- I mean, I'm sorry, can I just interrupt, seriously?

- Yes.

- Like the director asked you to white up?

- [Peter] Essentially, yes, because it was that tricky thing where we were staging an opera in a period where people would wear whiter makeup. It was the fashion. And at that point, I wasn't knowledgeable enough to know that Black people from that time wouldn't have whitened their faces in the same way that white people would've. And so I tried it, and then after the rehearsal went home and did some research for myself, and I found Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was a famed swordsman, composer, conductor, and he was mixed race. He was living in France in the 18th century, a contemporary of Mozart. There's a film out about him at the moment. And so I turned up to rehearsals the day after with his image to show the director and from then on was channeling him when I performed on stage. And that was probably the first time that I tapped into a search engine the words Black portraiture.

- [Anne] I was just thinking about the casual racism involved in, you know, just the assumption that there weren't any high-status Black men and women in, say, 18th century aristocratic French circles.

- [Peter] Yes.

- [Anne] And at the same time, so many of the other portraits that you uncovered, there are Black subjects in them, but they're nameless, anonymous. They're literally on the margins of the portrait.

- [Peter] Definitely, and the first thing I did with images like that was usually to crop them and center the Black subject. So in "The Paston Treasure," which was painted in 1665, which is a huge painting full of riches that the Paston family in Norfolk collected on their travels across the globe, the Black figure is sat at the head of the table. He has a monkey on his shoulder, and no aspect of his actual self is in that original portrait.

- [Anne] And he's way over on the side, right?

- Yes, yeah.

- So the portrait is this portrait of this wealth practically spilling out of the frame towards you as the viewer, and then way over on the side, you don't even notice him at first-

- No!

- Is this young Black servant.

- [Peter] And we don't who he was, but we can infer from his presence there that he was trafficked, he was enslaved, and possibly knew a life of freedom before being enslaved, and so that's what I was focusing on when I was restaging it. I was meditating on what it means to take up space as a man of color today but also imagining what he would've known and the food he would've eaten. And there's a dish from Barbados called cou cou, which is the national dish. It's made of cornmeal and okra, and it's served with fish, and it's cooked using a wooden utensil called a cou cou stick, and I gave it to him in my recreation. It's just finding these elements of joy that kind of dampen the trauma that's often found in many of these images.

- [Anne] Yeah, and then this history runs through your own family, too, right?

- [Peter] Yeah, and that's why "The Paston Treasure" is such a significant portrait in the project. It was painted in 1665, and we have the will of the first member of my family to move to Barbados, and his will was proved in 1665. He was called Miles Brathwaite. He traveled from Lancaster to Barbados, set up a plantation, has a lot of land. At the height of their wealth, the family owned around eight plantations. And this is a part of my history that is incredibly dark. One side of my family enslaved the other. My Black side came from Ghana, we think. The earliest known Black ancestor we have evidence of is a man called Addo. We think he was born in around 1742 and trafficked as a young man. He was owned by the Brathwaite family. They gave him their surname, and he was freed after a slave uprising in Barbados in 1817, which was known as Bussa's Rebellion. And he was freed for good conduct, and we're not sure what that good conduct involved.

- [Anne] Right, did that involve protecting the white family or-

- [Peter] Possibly, yes, and the white side of the family had their portraits painted. They had monuments built when they died. And John Brathwaite is one of these ancestors whose monuments are in Bridgetown, Barbados, in London. There's a copy of one of them in University College London. And it's not something that I can very easily run away from. And my surname is Brathwaite. My middle name is John, like many of my enslaver ancestors. Lots of these names crop up again in the family history, and so it's really woven into my very being, and the best thing that I can think of to do with it is educate and respond to it artistically.

- [Anne] Right, and so in some of your portrait recreations, you have your grandmother's quilt and your grandfather's cou cou stick and the manumission papers from your four-times great-grandmother but also some of those portraits of your enslaver ancestors. Can you pick one and tell me about it?

- [Peter] Yes, there's the "John Singleton Copley: The Death of Major Pierson" portrait that's from the Tate Britain gallery, and it features a battle scene, and there's a Black servant protecting his master, and he's pointing a gun at the people he's attacking. And in my recreation, I've used printouts of the face of my five-times great-grandfather, who is Miles Brathwaite II. We have his portrait. He was known as the Honourable Miles Brathwaite. And I've used all of his images to represent the various faces in that portrait. And instead of a gun, I'm pointing the cou cou stick at his face in my recreation. So yeah, there's something about the coming together of these cultures and me calling out to him, asking him to respond. And we'll never hear his voice, but I like to imagine what it would've been like to sit down at a table with him, and I doubt I'd ever be able to really, truly understand what was going through their minds when, yeah, they were obviously obsessed with wealth and this white gold that allowed them to create these empires. And the Brathwaite family motto is, "Not all of me will die." It really illustrates the deep-rootedness of this history and how it-

- Yeah, I mean-

- It is everywhere around us, and yeah.

- [Anne] And including in your DNA.

- [Peter] Yeah.

- [Anne] One of the ones I keep coming back to is, and now of course I can't remember the title, but it's two young women in England. One is white, and the other is Black. They're cousins, and coming down through time, I guess, the white girl was named, the portrait was named, the portrait of her.

- [Peter] Yes.

- [Anne] And the Black girl was not named and-

- No.

- Essentially erased, but they're both vivid personalities.

- [Peter] Yes.

- [Anne] The young Black woman does not look like some subservient companion.

- [Peter] Yeah, the image of Dido Belle. Yeah, she's with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, and Dido Belle is actually painted as if she's running out of the frame, off to do, I don't know, her next job on the estate or off to see someone. She's holding some fruit. But Dido Belle is someone who probably influenced the laws of the time regarding Black people in Britain.

- [Anne] Who was she?

- [Peter] So she was the, I should, I'm gonna refer to the book to get this right, 'cause yes, so she spent much of her life at Kenwood House in North London, living with her great uncle, William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield. And in the 1772 Somerset case as lord chief justice, the earl famously ruled that slavery had no precedent in common law within Britain, and it's certainly possible that Belle influenced her uncle's views.

- [Anne] Why do we not all know her name?

- [Peter] Yes, yeah.

- [Anne] Why do we not all know her history?

- [Peter] Yeah, I love that she's pointing to her face. She has her finger pressed against her cheek, and she's looking out to us, smiling. And is her gesture in this portrait meant to challenge the racially based commodification underpinning the British aristocracy? There's definitely a reason why she's pointing to her own face in that image.

- [Anne] Well, I just, I mean, paging through your book and looking at all of these, I just kept thinking, you've managed to make restorative justice that is beautiful.

- [Peter] Oh, thank you.

- [Anne] Yeah, well, I mean, thank you for finding and restoring so many of these people. I mean, you've introduced us to people whose images we haven't seen and whose stories we haven't known, and in the process, you're really teaching all of us how to see differently.

- [Peter] Yeah, that, I'm really interested in looking and re-looking and then looking again once more. And that's my whole process really. It's coming back to things. It's revisiting. And that's what I hope people are inspired to do.

- [Anne] Peter Brathwaite is the author of "Rediscovering Black Portraiture." Born in England and descended from relatives in Barbados, he's an acclaimed baritone opera singer and BBC music program presenter. Next, a mysterious portrait from 16th century Italy and the story behind it. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Imagine, it's the year 1560 in Ferrara, Italy. You're 16 years old, newly married to one of the richest, most powerful men in the country, and today, you're standing before him and the artist who is about to paint your portrait. Your name is Lucrezia de' Medici.

- [Maggie] "Could I trouble Her Highness to please lift her chin a little, more? A touch more, good, beautiful. Now turn your face towards the window, slowly, please, slowly. Yes, there, hold that, Your Highness." Then without turning his head, he addresses someone behind him. "Do you see, Your Grace? I feel this may be better than the previous pose. We get the curve of her jaw, the elegance of her neck. Although how I will ever find a paint to reproduce that flush along her throat and that brow." Alfonso, clothed in dark colors today, moves about in the shadowy recesses of the room. He's examining sketches arranged on a low table. For several hours now, Lucrezia has been asked to pose in one way, seated, standing, feet crossed, hands laced, hands apart, head forward, head aside, arm up, arm down, wrist turned while the artist makes a sketch. He then repositions her and does another. Lucrezia finds the situation ludicrous. The idea that Alfonso is permitting another man to touch her dress or her hand or her jewels is so peculiar. If this man weren't painting her, it would not be out of the realm of possibility for Alfonso to unsheath the dagger he keeps in his belt and run him through. She has heard of men killed for less.

- [Anne] Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell is known for bringing lost historical figures to life. Her bestselling novel "Hamnet" recreated Shakespeare's family life, and in her latest, "The Marriage Portrait," she tells us the story behind a real painting, a 16th century Renaissance portrait of a young noblewoman. O'Farrell told Shannon Henry Kleiber she came across a reference to it first in a poem, wondered what the painting looked like and who the young woman was.

- [Maggie] So I started looking up, I started delving around, and it wasn't long before I had her name, Lucrezia de' Medici and the really sad fact that she'd been 16 when she died. And then this portrait, which is attributed to Agnolo Bronzino, was downloading on my very old phone screen. And you know, I could see this kind of jeweled headdress, and then I saw this very pale brow and then these very large, slightly startled looking brown eyes. She looks quite anxious. She's wearing this very dark dress against a black background with a white collar, and she's adorned with jewelry, which I later found out is half from her father's dynasty and half from her husband-to-be's dynasty. But as soon as I saw her, it was a kind of lightning bolt, and I knew as soon as I looked into her eyes that I was going to write a novel about her, that I was looking at the subject of my next book.

- [Shannon] Wow, what is it about portraits that's so revealing? I mean, you were so pulled in through her eyes. And who would be the subject of a portrait in those times?

- [Maggie] Well, in those times, I mean, it varied. I think in order to have your portrait painted in 16th century in what we now call Italy, we're talking about Italy before Italy existed in a sense, it was made up of a kind of jigsaw of city-states governed by men like Lucrezia's father, who was Cosimo de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and her husband, who was Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. But the kind of wealth that men like Cosimo and Alfonso had is absolutely jaw-dropping. I mean, Lucrezia's dowry was 200 gold scudi. I had no idea what that meant, so I asked what did it mean.

- What does it mean?

- [Maggie] Yeah, well, apparently it's the equivalent of $50 million in today's money. I mean, Cosimo was unbelievably wealthy, so he was able to commission portraits of all his family, of himself, of his wife. He and his wife, Eleonora di Toledo, had pretty much an arranged marriage, as Lucrezia's was. But they, I think really unusually for their class and time, they really loved each other. They adored each other.

- [Shannon] Wow.

- [Maggie] So and he, one of my favorite portraits of her, 'cause the most expensive color in those days was blue, 'cause it was made from powdered lapis lazuli, but there's one portrait of Eleonora, and the background, which is normally landscapes, it's just blue. There's so much blue. And I just have this kind of vision of Cosimo saying, "I want more lapis, more of it. I want everyone to know how gorgeous my wife is and how lovely she looks and how rich we are."

- [Shannon] So it's really to tell people about your status.

- [Maggie] Yeah, it was also status, but I think it was about betrothal. You didn't necessarily see your future wife-to-be or your husband-to-be. So you would be sent literally an oil painting.

- [Shannon] It's like what a dating site would be now in those days.

- Yeah, exactly. A lot of marriages were arranged like that. Henry VIII apparently was very disappointed. He'd seen, I forget now which of his wives was it. He'd seen a painting of her, and he'd approved and said, "Yes, okay, I'll marry her." And then when she actually arrived, he realized that the painter had been kind, shall we say. And he was apparently not very pleased with the in-real-life version. So I think it was problematic, 'cause I think as the artist, you'd want to be paid, and you wouldn't want to do a warts-and-all portrait. But at the same time, there's an awful lot riding on these portraits, you know, these kind of betrothal portraits in a sense.

- [Shannon] And I think it's so interesting about marriage itself, too, if you're looking from the outside at someone's marriage, that it's so complicated, and depending on how you're viewing it. And do you think of that as part of how you were creating this story, that a marriage is a complicated thing?

- [Maggie] Absolutely, I felt very sorry for Lucrezia for a lot of reasons, actually, because she was married to Alfonso, who by many accounts was very cold and pretty heartless. I think really all he was looking for was basically just a womb that was going to produce lots of heirs for him and for his region. He was married to Lucrezia for a year before she died, possibly murdered by him, possibly not. There was a rumor that he did murder her. But the autopsy when she died said that she died of natural causes. I should mention that the autopsy was performed by Alfonso's court doctor, so a man in his pay. When she died, Cosimo and Eleonora sent their court physician from Florence to attend the autopsy, but it was performed before they arrived. She was already buried. So make of that what you will.

- [Shannon] So the marriage portrait was created before she was married?

- [Maggie] Yeah, so the only portrait we have of Lucrezia is one that was commissioned by the Medicis just before she began her marriage life at the age of 15. One of the many questions that arose from me seeing that is that the other siblings, and as I mentioned, her parents, were painted numerous times in numerous situations and positions, but Lucrezia was only painted once, in this one portrait. And even sadder that, as I said, there is a room in Uffizi Gallery in Florence dedicated to the branch of the Medicis that were Lucrezia's family, but she's not there. The rest of them are there. But I spent a long time, actually, when I went to Florence trying to track down this portrait, the original of the portrait that I had seen on the internet, and I know that it was in, somewhere in the Uffizi Gallery. So I spent a long time trying to track it down in Florence. 'cause I couldn't work out where it was. And I had three art historians in Florence who were helping me, and they couldn't find it, either. We were really baffled. And eventually one of them said, "I think it's in the Palazzo Pitti." So I went there, and I had a printout of the portrait, and I was showing all the guards. I said, "Can you tell me where this portrait is?" And they all said, "No, I've never seen it before. It's not here. You've made a mistake. I don't know where it is." So I spent ages, about hours walking around, and eventually I found it. And it's in this very, very small, quite distant, very crowded room, I mean, crowded with portraits. And it's low down on the wall next to a fire extinguisher, and there she is. And it's about the size of a hardback book. And that really broke my heart. I thought, "Why is she over here on her own? Why isn't she with the rest of her family? And why is she in such an ignominious position? She ought to be in the main Uffizi. She ought to be in that room with her family."

- [Shannon] She deserved her story to be told by you.

- [Maggie] Yes, exactly, it just made me, well, I just, from all kind of sources or all accounts, I just always got the impression, it was impossible not to get the impression that Lucrezia was overlooked and underloved. You know, I often think a lot of portraits of the type, young girls in the Renaissance, you know, a lot of them look very kind of meek and expressionless, almost blank. It was the style, I think. But Lucrezia looks really troubled. She looks worried. She looks anxious. And I think crucially for me, she looks as if she has something she wants to say.

- [Shannon] Mm-hmm, and you are painting a portrait in "The Marriage Portrait." I mean, you are doing that.

- [Maggie] Yes, and there's a kind of motif that runs through the novel, a symbol, I suppose you'd call it, where as I was researching it, I read about, you know, the sort of techniques that Renaissance artists used. A lot of these artists were actually very poor. They lived from hand to mouth. So a lot of them actually painted over old canvases or old work or old tableau. So and that really thrilled me, that idea, the idea that you might go to a gallery now, these incredibly famous paintings, but there might be another painting behind them. But we don't know that, because who would take a , who would take turpentine to "Birth of Venus," you know? But the idea that it's possible. You know, as people have X-rayed the "Mona Lisa" and have seen that da Vinci tried out different iterations of her smile before settling on the last one. And to me, that feeds a lot into the knowing, you know, I wanted the idea of the underpainting, other narratives hiding in the shadows behind the one that we think we know.

- [Shannon] Hmm, I love the idea of the underpainting that's through your book, and you did that delving deeper into these layers. What was going on in your life when you were working on this book?

- [Maggie] Probably suffice to say that I had the idea first in February 2020, so I probably don't even need to say what ensued. So I wrote this book pretty much, it was bookended by the pandemic and by lockdown. And essentially, actually, Lucrezia and her brothers and sisters lived in lockdown their whole lives. You know, to be the daughter of a incredibly powerful ruler like Cosimo, to be born into that dynasty, obviously she was born into a life of enormous, enormous privilege. But at the same time, it was too dangerous for Lucretia and her brothers and sisters, 'cause they were the very, very precious heirs to the Medici throne. They could be kidnapped. They could be assassinated. So they were kept indoors pretty much all their life. As children, they lived in two rooms up on the fourth floor of the palazzo, and if they wanted exercise, they would walk around the battlements, and that was it.

- [Shannon] And so you related, as you were during the pandemic-

- [Maggie] Well, I was, I mean, I suppose I only thought about it really afterwards, but yeah, I don't think it's a coincidence that I was writing about a life of confinement.

- [Shannon] How do you think modern-day portraiture, photography, Instagram can show things in a different way from that portraiture? Or how is it the same? I mean, I look back at these gorgeous layers of paint and think, "That stands forever," and then these kind of fleeting Instagram things that can be deleted, but maybe they are forever, too. I mean, our online persona can be forever.

- [Maggie] That's true, yeah. I will say that to my kids as a warning. I think in a lot of ways, it's pretty much the same. You know, obviously the world changes all the time. The world of Lucrezia living in the Palazzo Vecchio is completely gone. Our world would be utterly alien to her. But I think at the same time, human hearts and minds and brains haven't really changed that much at all. And when people are posting pictures on Instagram, they want to wear their nicest clothes and their best jewelry and their makeup, and they want their hair to look good, just as the Renaissance people did when they were getting ready for their portrait. They were thinking about what cloth flattered them the most. They were thinking which jewelry, how to wear their hair, you know, how to stand. Did they want to lean on books to look clever? Did they want to have their region behind them to say, "Check out how powerful I am"? You know, it's actually just the same, isn't it?

- [Shannon] So interesting. Maggie, this is great. I just so enjoy reading your books, beautiful.

- [Maggie] Aw, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

- [Anne] That was novelist Maggie O'Farrell, author of "The Marriage Portrait." She talked with Shannon Henry Kleiber from her home in Edinburgh. Why does the portrait figure so prominently in the history of art?

- [Thijs] Most of the paintings he made, like the big ones, they hung them on the walls, and they kind of looked like wall paintings.

- [Patron] I see.

- [Thijs] Very big civic guards-

- [Patron] Where do we go for those Hals rooms?

- [Thijs] Yes, so take this door and then all the way, follow to those rooms.

- [Anne] Coming up, we travel to the Frans Hals Museum in the Netherlands looking to uncover the secrets of one of Europe's greatest portrait painters. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. If you wanna get a sense of why portrait painting looms so large in the history of art, there's no better place to go than the old city of Haarlem just outside Amsterdam. Steve Paulson takes us there.

- [Steve P] Just a few blocks from the huge cathedral that towers over Haarlem's main square, the Frans Hals Museum holds an exquisite collection of 16th and 17th century Dutch art and the largest collection of paintings by Hals himself. Frans Hals was one of the great painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Unlike his contemporary Rembrandt, he only ever painted portraits, and today he's regarded as one of the greatest portrait painters who ever lived.

- [Thijs] So my name is Thijs Gerbrandy, which is a very difficult Dutch name, but I'm an educator at the Frans Hals Museum.

- [Steve P] The thing to know about Haarlem in the 17th century is that it was a city of migrants. Once the Catholic Kingdom of Spain conquered Flanders, there was a massive exodus of Protestants moving north to Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. They brought new skills and trades and created a new merchant class.

- [Thijs] And Haarlem facilitated a lot of those people, including the family of Frans Hals, because they mostly were busy making draperies, linen, or beer, and Haarlem was very famous for its beer, and why? Because we're next to the sea, and there's the dunes, and there's lots of fresh water coming from, so a lot of people from Haarlem made beer. And those people became incredibly rich, and those people shaped the history of the city.

- [Steve P] So what did that mean for the artists who were here?

- [Thijs] The Netherlands are famous for the amount of paintings that were produced. Millions were produced. That's much more than in any other country in Europe at that time. So we see lots of people, ordinary citizens, of course, with a lot of money, but also you could see, for example, a baker who owns a painting. And that would, of course, not be a Rembrandt or a Frans Hals at that time, but that would be a drawing, that would be an etching, that would be a smaller painting. But everyone had paintings. Apparently the market was so big that you could live off painting church interiors alone, that's it, and that shows how much demand there was for these kind of paintings. People build new houses, you need to fill those houses. You need a cabinet, you need a clock, you need a painting, you need a vase, and you combine those things.

- [Steve P] And all these Dutch painters, not just the famous ones like Rembrandt and Hals, but they could make a living just painting?

- [Thijs] Yes, it's not all of them, of course. And I mean, the fact that Frans Hals in the end of his life needed funding from the state to sustain his living with all his children, but most could. If you were a painter, you became a master, so to speak, and you had to join a guild. Only if you were in a guild, you could have your own workshop.

- [Steve P] Why did you have to join a guild if you were a painter?

- For economic reasons. They wanted to control in a certain way the quality of the product. And if you were joining a guild, it meant you had proven yourself to be a master. So Frans Hals obviously had a lot of students, like Rembrandt had a lot of students, like Rubens had a lot of students. All those master painters had students, why? Because also those students paid money to become a student. And after year six, you would become a master. Of course, you first painted in the tradition of your master, and then gradually you developed your own style.

- [Steve P] The style that Frans Hals developed was distinctive, and today it's considered a transformative turn in the history of art. He seemed to capture the ordinary moments of daily life, and he painted with broad brush strokes. It's no accident that centuries later, the French impressionists would come to revere Hals.

- [Norbert] To the modern eye, we like this impressionist idea of seeing the brush stroke instead of concealing the brushstroke.

- [Steve P] Norbert Middelkoop is the curator of old masters at the Frans Hals Museum.

- [Norbert] It is sometimes as if the people hardly posed for him, as if they're still moving around with their eyes, with their heads, as if we just came on the moment that Frans Hals captured in paint. So it always makes an impression that he hardly needed any time to paint a full portrait.

- [Steve P] He's published widely on the Dutch masters, and he has a very personal connection to Hals himself.

- [Norbert] I grew up in Haarlem, and as a young child, I used to come here after school. So the Frans Hals is really the museum of my childhood. But yeah, he's so much part of the city's consciousness. Every Haarlem school child will visit the Frans Hals Museum at least once. That's how it started with me. I went, came here with school when I was even maybe nine or 10, and that's how it started.

- [Steve P] Today, Frans Hals is considered Haarlem's greatest painter, and the Hals Museum has many of his masterpieces, including one entire room of group portraits of Haarlem's old civic guard. These are massive paintings. Some stretch more than a dozen feet across. Each officer's wearing a sash in the color of his brigade. Some men are feasting and laughing at a banquet. Others look serious, even haughty. What's so striking about a Hals portrait is how the personality of the sitter almost seems to leap out from the canvas. After I left Haarlem, I kept thinking about Frans Hals and how an artist who lived 400 years ago can still feel so fresh today and what it meant to be a portrait painter in the 17th century. I wanted to know more, so I sat down with the newest biographer of Frans Hals.

- [Steve N] I think he's an undersung hero of what has often been called the Dutch Golden Age. But Frans Hals is, I think, is certainly one of the great triumvirate of 17th century Dutch painters, along with Rembrandt and Vermeer. But I think he really recreated or renewed what it is to paint a portrait of somebody.

- [Steve P] This is Steve Nadler, a philosopher who's written widely on Dutch history and culture, and he happens to live just a few blocks from where I do in Madison, Wisconsin. His biography of Frans Hals is called "The Portraitist."

- [Steve N] We know that by the 16-teens and the 1620s, Hals has established himself as an important portraitist. All he painted were portraits.

- [Steve P] Which is sort of an astonishing thing in itself. For instance, Rembrandt, of course, did paint portraits, but he painted a lot of other stuff as well.

- [Steve N] He did, and if you're a portrait painter, you better have a lot of good commissions. And we know that Hals suffered from financial difficulties throughout his life, and even in the 1620s, he turned to what we now call genre painting. But even these are portrait-like. They are pictures of anonymous individuals drinking, blowing bubbles, laughing, fooling around in various ways. And that's how he made his living. So you're absolutely right. It was unique for somebody to develop themselves so singularly to just one genre of painting.

- [Steve P] Now, Frans Hals has a very distinctive style of painting, very different than Rembrandt, for instance, noteworthy because it's sort of broad brush strokes, right?

- [Steve N] Yeah, although even Rembrandt, as his career progressed, adapted to that technique. It's possible that Rembrandt himself started using that rougher brush work after having seen Hals do it in Uylenburgh's studio.

- [Steve P] And Hals was a little bit older than Rembrandt.

- [Steve N] Yes, he was, so it's more likely the influence went from Hals to Rembrandt. But you're absolutely right. As we see Hals' work develop over the decades, the brushwork becomes rougher. Now, we call it rough, and contemporary art theorists in the 17th century distinguished the rough from the smooth. But we shouldn't think that this is something that he just tossed off very quickly. We know that he went through a very careful process of priming the canvas, doing preliminary brush work on the canvas, what's called dead coloring, and then finishing it off. But it's not as if he sat in front of a canvas and just went .

- [Steve P] Right.

- [Steve N] And when you go and see a Hals painting in person, if you go to the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem or the Rijksmuseum or the Frick in New York or anywhere, it's simply amazing how the effect that you took for fine detail from a distance is up close, really, just a series of abstract dabs and slashes of paint.

- [Steve P] The other thing that's so striking about a lot of the Hals portraits is it seems like they capture this moment in time. There's an odd gesture, there's a smile or a laugh, or it reminds me of a photograph today, sort of like this instant moment that he's often getting. I mean, there's some that are sort of more studied portraits with people sitting, but was that unusual at the time?

- [Steve N] I think it was innovative. There were a lot of lifeless portraits coming out of the 17th century. So I think, no, I think you're absolutely right to pick up on that, that there's something lively about a Hals portrait. Everyone seems to be in motion, and he seems to have captured them at a moment. Many of the militia guild portraits where they're shown celebrating the end of their service, there's a banquet, there's laughing, there's drinking, there's food being passed along. You can almost hear the noise.

- [Steve P] And then later on, centuries later, the impressionists, the French impressionists rediscovered Frans Hals, right?

- [Steve N] Yes, van Gogh was a huge fan. Sometimes we're told that he was rediscovered in the 19th century. I don't think he was ever lost, likewise Vermeer. But he really didn't come back onto the main stage until French critics in the 19th century really paid more attention to him. Van Gogh believed Hals was probably the greatest colorist he'd ever seen, the way he was able to blend colors and make everything come alive chromatically.

- [Steve P] Now, the other thing about portraits, and I'm really curious about why the portrait seems to fascinate us. It has always fascinated us to this day, and the self-portrait in particular. If you think about Rembrandt, for instance, I mean, those self-portraits when he was old, it's almost like he was contemplating his own mortality. Do you see that in a Hals painting? I mean, there there's the sense that, oh, maybe you're kind of getting a glimpse of someone's soul.

- [Steve N] It's tempting to say that and to think that. It's possibly true. The temptation that I try to resist is looking at a portrait and thinking, "Ah, I know what this person is thinking," or "I know this person's character, personality." Let's go back to philosopher, for example, Descartes, who was a notoriously arrogant person, and Hals did a portrait of Descartes in 1649, and the man in this portrait seems to be a touch arrogant. But would I think that if I didn't know that Descartes was already arrogant? So seeing the soul of a portrait sitter, how much of it is really something that the painter themselves have captured, or what we bring to what we know?

- [Steve P] But that's the fascinating question, is just seeing a painting of someone. It's never gonna reveal exactly who that person is, although we might guess who that is. But then also it's like, what do we bring to that?

- [Steve N] Yeah, and I think that's a difference between a great portrait painter and a mediocre one. Let's put the poor portrait painters aside. I think part of what's fascinating for us laypeople in portrait painting is how incredibly accurate a person's face is captured, that this creative individual can take emulsified pigment, put it on a flat surface, and somehow create a three-dimensional picture that tells us exactly, a good portrait painter, tells us what this person looked like. I think that's part of our fascination with portraits. Perhaps the other fascination is that we do think we're being given more than just an image of what they looked like but some feeling for who they were.

- [Steve P] Well, I'm also thinking that humans are a very visual animal, and the thing that we look at more than anything is someone else's face.

- Right.

- And we're trying to get some sense of the emotion of the other person, and that's what comes through in a good portrait.

- [Steve N] So what do you look at first in a portrait, the eyes or the mouth?

- [Steve P] That's a very good question. I don't know.

- [Steve N] I'm fascinated, well, I actually look at hands. Only because hands are really difficult to get right, and a lot of painters hide the hands. There's been a great deal of debate lately about whether a "Girl with a Flute," Vermeer's painting that's in the National Gallery in Washington is a Vermeer, is how poorly the hands are done. Would Vermeer really have done hands like that? But once they get past the hands, I think it's the eyes to me, the highlights, the gleams, the shape, the look. You can tell a lot of a person's eyes.

- [Steve P] If you think about probably the most famous portrait in the history of art, the "Mona Lisa," what is it that draws us to that? I mean, I think it's something about, we're trying to figure out what she's thinking. I mean, it seems like a smile, but is it really a smile?

- [Steve N] So there we go for the mouth first, right?

- [Steve P] We go for the mouth, but the smile is in the eyes too, I think. Or is it a real smile? So we're sort of trying to guess at what that is. Or you know, some of the other famous portraits in the history of art, van Gogh's self-portrait, Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," it seems like in all those cases, there's something, it's hard to read, and maybe that's the sign of the greatness in a portrait is it can be interpreted in different ways.

- [Steve N] The other thing about eyes and mouths and ears and maybe hands is there was an art writer, name was Morelli, and he came up with what he thought was a scientific technique for connoisseurship, for determining who painted what. And he said painters have their characteristic ways of doing certain body parts, and so he focused sometimes on ears. There's a Hals way of doing an ear. There's a Rembrandt way of doing an ear. There's a van Gogh way of doing a missing ear, I suppose.

- [Steve P] I think of the van Gogh ear, not just the missing ear, but yeah, I don't think of other people's ears. That's interesting, I mean, other portrait painters.

- [Steve N] Well, he thought maybe because the ear is not front and center that that's where you're gonna see their characteristic, the painter's characteristic mark. But why not think the same is true of eyes? There's a way of doing an eye or a way of doing a mouth. Some painters like to outline things. Hals never did, and I think Vermeer and Rembrandt as well. They built their facial features up with layers of color.

- [Steve P] If you think about the history of art and the fact that there are entire museums that are just portraits, the National Portrait Gallery in DC, there's the comparable version in London, I believe, I'm sure there are other, it's not at all obvious why we would have this fascination with portraits, just like one portrait after another in an entire museum. How do you explain that?

- [Steve N] I think it takes you back. If you're fascinated by 18th century America, you wanna situate yourself among the people who were there, see how did they look, what did they wear, how did they carry themselves. I think this is true both of painted portraits and especially photographic portraits. I love photographs of Lincoln. There's just something that grabs me about those.

- [Steve P] And the other thing that's so striking about so many of those older portraits is they're very rarely smiling.

- [Steve N] Right.

- [Steve P] Because if you smile but you're not serious or something, I don't know, why would that be?

- [Steve N] It might've been something to do with 17th century teeth. But so that's, I think that's the other striking thing about Hals' portraits is I think they're, there's a lot of teeth. There's more smiles and laughs in Hals' paintings than any other painting of early modernity.

- [Steve P] Have you thought much about portraits in photos? You mentioned you really like Lincoln photos. What attracts you to photographic portraits?

- [Steve N] Partly it's who the photograph is of, being fascinated with Lincoln to begin with, or just generally. I love seeing photographs of US presidents from that period. The technology fascinates me, seeing the changes in the ability to focus, but also cultural items, what they're wearing. Lincoln's hair is always a mess. Why is that? Was there not a handler next to him with a comb? So maybe that was the point that he wanted to convey a certain image, you know?

- Perhaps. "Yeah, I don't care about my hair. I've got a war, I've got a country to hold together."

- [Steve N] Yeah.

- [Steve P] So I wanna come back to this whole question of how much a portrait, whether a photograph or a painting, can reveal the person. And I mean, coming back to your example of Lincoln, I mean, I, too, am fascinated by photos of Lincoln because I have a sense of, "Oh, that's who he was." I mean, I can read lots of books about Lincoln. I can get some sense of him, but it's seeing that takes me there. Isn't that ultimately the attraction of a portrait?

- [Steve N] Yeah, it puts you there, and especially when it's more than just a portrait of a person. But if there's a pendant and you see them interacting with their spouse. The photographs of Lincoln standing in the field with his generals, towering over them, and then especially the series of photographs as a younger man and seeing him age as a war. I mean, there's the parallel with Rembrandt's self-portraits. That final photograph of Lincoln, he looked a very old man by the end of the war.

- [Steve P] Or even think of Obama, from when he started his presidency to when he ended. He's aged quite a lot.

- [Steve N] He has, but we're fascinated by Pete Souza's photographs of the whole Obama administration, seeing Obama interacting with others, playing on the carpet with a young African American boy and sitting at the desk eating his almonds. We wanna see these people engaged in the activities that made life meaningful for them.

- [Anne] That's Steve Nadler, a philosopher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "The Portraitist, Frans Hals and His World." He was talking with Steve Paulson. So we took you all over the world today, but "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is produced in Madison, Wisconsin, at Wisconsin Public Radio by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke with help from Sarah Hopefl. Additional music this week by Gregor Quendel, Junya Nishimura, Nick Huffer, and Happiness in Airplanes. Special thanks to Jeremy Crosmer for his quartet arrangement of the 18th century Black English composer George Bridgetower. Steve Paulson is our executive producer, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening.

- [Announcer] PRX.

Last modified: 
September 29, 2023