Why Dutch Golden Age Portraitists Loved Painting Exaggerated Facial Expressions

A new show spotlights how artists Rembrandt and Vermeer made faces come to life with expressive character.

Joos van Craesbeeck, The Smoker (1630-1640) (detail). Photo courtesy of Musée du Louvre.

Early Netherlandish painters of the 1400s pioneered portraits as highly detailed, distinctive records of an individual. Two centuries later, artists of the Dutch Golden Age made these faces come alive with an expressive, characterful twist. This genre of smirks, pouts, glowers, and gapes was dubbed the “tronies.”

“Turning Heads,” a survey of “tronies” that features works by world famous Old Master painters like Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, and Johannes Vermeer, recently opened at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Some examples of the genre that will be familiar with audiences include Rembrandt’s The Laughing Man (1629–30) and Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat (ca. 1665–67).

 "Girl with a Red Hat" is a renowned painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, believed to have been created around 1665. In this masterpiece, a young girl is depicted wearing a striking red hat adorned with a delicate white feather. Her face is illuminated softly by light, and she gazes directly at the viewer with a serene expression. The background is a dark, neutral tone, emphasizing the vividness of the girl's attire and her captivating presence. Vermeer's meticulous attention to detail and his skillful use of light and shadow contribute to the overall charm and allure of the painting.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat (ca. 1665–67). Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

This small jewel painted on panel from Vermeer’s limited oeuvre has a particularly spontaneous air, as though the subject has turned with surprise to see us enter the room. Though no amount of ravishing detail is spared on the rich textures of the woman’s hat and shawl, her face stands out for its strikingly lifelike, everywoman familiarity.

 "The Man with the Golden Helmet" is a painting often attributed to the "Circle of Rembrandt van Rijn," indicating that it was created by an artist or artists closely associated with Rembrandt but not necessarily by Rembrandt himself. The painting depicts a half-length portrait of a man wearing a golden helmet, hence the title. The man's gaze is directed towards the viewer, and his expression is thoughtful and contemplative. The helmet, with its golden hue, catches the light, adding a sense of richness and opulence to the scene. The background is dark, allowing the figure to stand out prominently.

Circle of Rembrandt van Rijn, The Man with the Golden Helmet (ca. 1650). Courtesy of Gemäldegalerie Berlin.

Rather than rely on descriptive documents of a specific sitter that may or may not be saved for posterity, intimate studies of human subjects could be used to capture fleeting interior states with universal resonance. The private contemplation tinged with anguish on this elder man’s face provides an interesting counterpoint to the obviously impressive glimmering gold of his helmet.

In this work, Rembrandt presents a scene set within an interior space, likely depicting everyday life in 17th-century Amsterdam. The painting features several figures engaged in various activities, each rendered with Rembrandt's characteristic attention to detail and psychological insight. The play of light and shadow enhances the drama of the scene, casting areas of brightness and darkness across the composition.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Interior with Figures (1628). Courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland.

A rare genre scene attributed to Rembrandt, Interior with Figures is a dimly lit work that contains an ambiguous confrontation between a group, in which narrative depth is provided by the the expressions and gestures exhibited by the central figures. Across the canvas, we can variously read defiance, shock, confusion, and shame.

In "Head of a Woman," Sweerts presents a close-up depiction of a woman wearing a white cap and brown peasant dress over a white shirt. likely a study of a specific individual. The woman's face is rendered with meticulous attention to detail, capturing subtle expressions and nuances of emotion. Sweerts skillfully employs light and shadow to give depth and dimension to the woman's features, creating a sense of realism and presence.

Michael Sweerts, Head of a Woman (ca. 1654). Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

The Brussels-born Flemish painter Michael Sweerts worked in many places, including Persia (now Iran) and Goa, India. In his mid-twenties, he moved to Rome for nearly a decade, joining a movement of fellow Dutch and Flemish genre painters known as the Bamboccianti for their shared interest in everyday scenes of peasant life and people living on the margins of society. Erring from caricature, Head of a Woman is empathetic painting of a humble woman captures some of her vulnerability through its careful depiction of her weathered features, toothless grimace, and teary eyes.

Portrait by Peter Paul Rubens showcasing the head of a bearded man. The man's face is depicted with strong features and a rugged beard, conveying a sense of wisdom and strength

Peter Paul Rubens, Head of a Bearded Man (c. 1612). Photo courtesy of Princely Collections Liechtenstein, Vienna.

With the invention of “tronies,” artists of the Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque era were able to get creative, experimenting with technical skills to bring about fun visual effects. In this way, they also discovered the capacity of painting to materialize otherwise abstract, intangible notions like emotions, age, wisdom, or fragility. Explorations and introspections like these would have a lasting influence on modernism.

Michael Sweet's portrait of a young woman. She is looking to the right and dressed in a white head scarf and brown peasant dress. The background of the painting is black, throwing her face into full focus.

Michael Sweerts, Head of a Woman (ca. 1654). Photo courtesy of Leicester Museum & Gallery.

“Turning Heads: Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer” is on view at the National Gallery of Ireland until May 26, 2024. 

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