Portrait Painters in Rembrandt’s World

On view at Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder from October to December is an exhibition of Portraits from Rembrandt’s World. This is more than just a selection of portraits. The exhibition traces the development of portraiture in the Northern Netherlands, in which Rembrandt and his pupils played a key role. This article provides information to accompany the show and offers a brief history of portrait painting as reflected in the art of some of its leading practitioners.

The principal centres of portrait painting lay in the most densely populated areas of the Dutch Republic, the province of Holland. Naturally, every town had its portrait artists, catering to the local market, but their influence on the development of portraiture remained marginal. Gerard ter Borgh, for example, is a famous painter today, but lived in relative isolation in Zwolle. In Middelburg, Salomon Mesdach was an influential painter, while in Leeuwarden, Wybrand de Geest ran a flourishing portrait business. Paulus Moreelse received major commissions in Utrecht, but also remained true to his own style of painting.

Leiden fijnschilders
Traditions emerged from the specific ways in which painters worked in Leiden, Amsterdam, Haarlem and The Hague and which other artists then emulated. These developed into what became known as schools. An excellent example is that of the fijnschilders in Leiden. The earliest representative of this school is Gerard Dou (1613-1675). Dou painted in the smooth, precise style that his teacher Rembrandt had employed in his Leiden years. Unlike Rembrandt, however, Dou remained loyal to this exquisite manner of painting. Thanks to influential pupils such as Quirijn Brekelenkamp, Gabriel Metsu, Godfried Schalcken and Frans van Mieris, this polished style of painting became a speciality of Leiden artists.

Rembrandt, the revolutionary
After serving his apprenticeship in Leiden, Rembrandt (1606-1669) settled in Amsterdam in 1631. Here, within a few years, he made his name as the city’s leading portrait painter. At the same time, he also worked on history paintings, drawings and etchings. In their day, Rembrandt’s portraits were revolutionary. He experimented with colour and light, and with the use of paints. The way he used light and dark contrasts is well-known, as is his broad brushstroke and his use of the painting knife. For Rembrandt, it was the character of the subject rather than the appearance that mattered. Yet this approach did not stop him obtaining an accurate likeness. Rembrandt continued to take on commissions for portraits and paint these masterpieces throughout his life.

In his studio in Amsterdam, Rembrandt passed his characteristic manner of painting on to his colleagues. This arrangement, in which he would hold masterclass-like sessions for talented young painters, has become known as his academy. It resulted in a Rembrandtesque style which is highly recognisable and quite different from that of other schools. Indeed, it is no easy matter to identify the master’s work from among the studio paintings by these excellent artists, which were also minutely checked by Rembrandt. Some of his pupils were subsequently to drift towards more fashionables styles, adapting their approach to the tastes of the day. This was true of artists like Ferdinand Bol and Nicolaes Maes. Jacob Leveck, Govaert Flinck and Abraham van Dijck also emerged as successful, independent painters. Arent de Gelder was Rembrandt’s only pupil to remain true to his master’s style of painting to the end.

Bartholomeus van der Helst’s regent portraits
Besides Rembrandt’s school, Amsterdam had one other group of portrait painters. These artists used clear, harmonious colours, lively poses and even lighting. This was in marked contrast to the increasingly bold brushwork and dramatic colours of Rembrandt. The undisputed master of this school was Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613-1670). One of his finest portraits is on show at Portraits from Rembrandt’s World. It features Jan Jacobsz. Hinlopen and his wife in a landscape. Van der Helst was a master in depicting the opulent garments of his models and the luxurious surroundings in which they chose to be portrayed. His method of painting perfectly captured the spirit of the Republic’s young, successful patrician elite – the regents. Eventually, his style was to eclipse even Rembrandt’s school in popularity. It had numerous followers outside Amsterdam too. The exhibition features works by representatives of the movement such as Adriaen van de Velde, Abraham van den Tempel, Isaac Luttichuis and Jan Verkolje.

Frans Hals’s jovial models
Mention seventeenth-century portraiture and apart from Rembrandt, everyone immediately thinks of Frans Hals (1581/85-1666). Hals left Mechelen (Malines) late in the sixteenth century and settled in Haarlem. While painting had developed along classicist lines in Haarlem, Frans Hals preferred to steer his own course. He chose portrait painting. But with his brilliant use of colour and his fabulous technique, which we would now describe as Impressionist, he soon distinguished himself from his contemporaries. Hals painted with terrific verve and skill. It is almost as if he were trying to make as little use of paint as possible to achieve the maximum result. From close up, his brushstrokes appear inexplicable; from a distance, the majestic form and the accuracy become clear. Hals painted tronies too, studies of faces with a genre-like character. Few could match his ability to render spontaneity and an unposed quality in his models; they often seem to be smiling directly at us. Here Frans Hals differed from his contemporaries, including Rembrandt, whose models are almost always in a serious mood.

Fashionable Anthony van Dyck
Meanwhile, crucial developments were taking place in portraiture in Flanders. Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) of Antwerp had returned from a study trip to Italy full of new ideas. He had been deeply impressed by Titian. Especially the latter’s colours and the loose manner of painting. But he also adopted compositional elements, like Titian’s tendency to make the subject’s head smaller in relation to the torso. The effect is to suggest that the subject looks down at the viewer. Under Titian’s influence, Van Dyck introduced the use of so-called contrapposto, in which the leg twists round but the body remains in balance. Van Dyck’s success is due above all to his use of brilliant colours, which he adopted from the Venetian painters. In Flanders, Cornelis de Neve, Pieter Franchoys and Justus Sustermans were among his immediate followers. A few works by these artists are shown in the exhibition. In 1632 Van Dyck entered the service of Charles I of England. One of his pupils in this period was Adriaen Hanneman of The Hague, who subsequently brought Van Dyck’s manner of painting back to his native city.

There the courtly style of Anthony van Dyck found an eager public. Since 1625, the year Frederick Henry succeeded Maurice as stadholder, The Hague had seen the beginnings of a court of international pretensions. Like royalty elsewhere in Europe, the court’s artistic focus tended towards the Southern Netherlands and Italy.

Painters at the Court in The Hague
Before The Hague emerged as the administrative centre of the Netherlands, the States assembly met in Delft. Which is why the painter with the most portrait commissions in the early seventeenth century was Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt (1567-1641) of Delft. Assisted by his apprentices and pupils, Van Mierevelt ran a flourishing portrait business. Indeed, he kept a stock of portraits of famous contemporaries. One of his principal proteges was Paulus Moreelse of Utrecht; Jan Anthonisz. van Ravesteyn of The Hague was probably never taught by him, but the two are artistically similar.

When Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656) came to the court in The Hague in 1628 he already enjoyed an international reputation. He was particularly admired for the pastoral and mythological settings that he gave his portraits. He would portray his subjects as shepherds or as classical heroes and dressed them in splendid, imaginary garments. Even in portraits in which his subjects wore contemporary dress, Van Honthorst’s paintings contrasted with those of his contemporaries with their exuberant colours. This reflected the taste at court in The Hague for brilliant, extravagant clothes, compared to the staid black of the Amsterdam patrician class. It was to be some decades before Amsterdammers rediscovered colour.

In a sense, Van Honthorst was the victim of his own success. Over the years he produced so many paintings that they began to loose their originality. Nevertheless, Van Honthorst remains a major figure in the development of portrait painting. Younger artists, such as Jan Mijtens, Pieter Nason and Jan de Baen turned his innovations into a commonplace. And Van Honthorst had followers outside The Hague too: in Amsterdam, Bartholomeus van der Helst was particularly influenced in both pallette and composition.

Nicolaes Maes and the French taste of the eighteenth century
In the final quarter of the seventeenth century, the various schools made way for a more uniform style. That is clearly apparent in the work of Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), who merged the styles of Rembrandt and Van der Helst. Maes combined Rembrandt’s palette of reds, purples and ochres with the smooth brushstroke of Van der Helst. His style heralded the art of the eighteenth century.

Caspar Netscher, Johan van Haensbergen and Michiel van Musscher, Arnold Boonen and Carel de Moor employed an almost identical formula to express the spirit of the late seventeenth century in their art. Their portraits, as shown in the exhibition, feature gentry at leisure in studied nonchalant poses against exotic landscapes and luxuriant parks. These late seventeenth-century painters concentrated on rendering the costly materials of their subjects’ garments as well as the complex hairstyles and wigs. Moreover, they turned to a softer palette and a more sensitive brush. Their paintings led the way for the portraits of the eighteenth century, in which French tastes were to dominate.

Philips van Dijk produced highly subtle and refined portraits in this French style. With their elegant poses and smug expressions, his patrons were far removed from the serious and restrained patrons who had commissioned portraits at the start of the seventeenth century.

Despite the great variety in style and subject, portrait painters of the seventeenth century had one thing in common: they painted more than just the image. With their finely tuned skills and their tremendous talent they were able to produce fantastic works of art of a remarkably high decorative and artistic quality.

    Gerard Dou

    A Woman Reading, known as Rembrandt’s Mother

    Panel, 71 x 55.5 cm.
    Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

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    Frans Hals

    Tieleman Roosterman

    Canvas, 117 x 87 cm.
    Dated, AETAT SVAE 36/ANo 1634.
    Photo: Christie's, London.

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    Bartholomeus van der Helst

    Jan Jacobsz Hinlopen and Lucia Wijbrants

    Canvas, 134 x 160.8 cm
    Signed and dated: B.van der Helst F.1666
    Private collection

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    Gerard van Honthorst

    Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen

    Panel, 72 x 53 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder.

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    Nicolaes Maes

    Dordrecht 1634 - 1693 Amsterdam

    Portrait of a Woman, probably Anna or Maria Meulenaer

    Canvas, 43.5 x 31 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

    A Man

    Panel, 70 x 54 cm.
    Signed and dated, Miereveldt /Aetatis ../Anno 1635.
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder.

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    An Old Man

    Canvas, 78.7 x 66 cm.
    Signed and dated, Rembrandt f. 1667.
    Mauritshuis The Hague, acquired 1999.

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