The Status of Portraits

John Haber
in New York City

Anthony van Dyck and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

For once, the Frick Collection attempts a blockbuster. Anthony van Dyck would not have had it any other way.

The most precious of small museums, the Frick manages two dozen paintings by van Dyck—on top of prints, oil sketches, and drawings. They take him from a dashing self-portrait at, at most, a remarkable fifteen years of age to a portrait of Europe's leading art dealer clowning around with bagpipes in 1641, the year of his death barely into his forties. If this was the art world, I want to be a part of it.Anthony van Dyck's Frans Snyders (Frick Collection, c. 1520)

van Dyck's portraits take him from Antwerp to Italy, where the Baroque had only just begun almost exactly the year of his birth. They show him building on the Flemish community in Genoa, a thriving port city, and triumphing as England's court painter for a decade. They move easily among the exemplars of wealth, royalty, diplomacy, and religion. For van Dyck as for England, those were in fact inseparable, with almost any man in more than one role. They show him defining himself as an artist by creating an image for others. Yet they build after all on four portraits in the Frick, starting with those of another artist and his wife.

As a worthy follow-up, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was a portrait painter for today. His figures would look quite at home on social media. So where are the selfies? History records just two self-portraits, but they point past his more popular works to his greatest strengths, in empathy and illusion.

No, Murillo does not make selfies. He takes no interest in where he was on a given day, and he sets himself apart from the crowd, as if literally set in stone. Yet his larger output has no shortage of sentiment and sickly smiles. It runs to women and most especially children, dressed like urchins but basking in light. One little boy leans on a sill, but he might have stepped right out of the street. They seem no more important than what the artist and loved ones invest in them, but that is enough.

For all that, Murillo is not making portraits, not most of the time at least. The Spanish artist found a ready audience for religious paintings and genre scenes, with all their cherubs, ragamuffins, sweetness, and light. With both portraiture and fiction, the Frick illuminates his practice of each. It also centers on his two known self-portraits, painted in the early 1650s and around 1670, from barely fifteen surviving portraits. They show him in his thirties, fashionable and confident, and again in his fifties, after the death of wife. They show him, too, staking out the image of an artist and the primacy of illusion in his art—but first the portraits by van Dyck.

The very image of spontaneity

That other artist with his wife is Frans Snyders, best known for scenes featuring animals, dead or alive. This is not the steady accumulation of paint and the foretaste of death in Dutch still life. No, Flemish art was far more assertive, in its aggressive brushwork and slick surfaces. So is Snyders in his portrait, with his hair, beard, and eyes equally alive, and one would hardly know that he is an artist. With one hand poised tautly on his lap and the other by his side, continuing the drama of a curtain tied to hang down directly above, he and his wife might just be boasting of their independent means. And so they were, for the portrait came on the occasion of their acquiring a country home.

Portraiture was like that for Anthony van Dyck, as an image of society unconcerned for mere detail—and an image of art concerned for everything. Signs of status appear casually, like a laurel or the sheer quality of dress. England's queen might be on a family outing, but she stands on a platform as on a stage, and that seeming child with a pet monkey on his back is a dwarf. The painter breaks through in 1623, with a cardinal in electric red, overlaid with a lighter fabric that could pass equally for gold or white. More often, though, color appears as a carefully chosen accent, not least in a person's cheeks. Snyders, like van Dyck himself in a commanding self-portrait at twenty-one, dresses in black.

He reveals little of himself, too. He paints his wife and, most likely, his mistress in almost the same pose and same blue dress shot through with white. Even their faces look much alike—and not only because of his taste in women. Yet they reveal how he thought and worked. He left the portrait of his mistress unfinished, and the drawings show how he began. He planned obsessively, but he also planned for frequent rethinking, and he left faces to work themselves out on canvas, as a focal point and the very image of spontaneity.

Like society, he thinks first of a pose, often played off against a standing column, and then of surfaces. On paper, he sticks mostly to black chalk, sometimes with highlights in white or, more rarely, red. They work out a pose, including the articulation of hands, with faces left to separate sheets or a blur. The Frick also includes Jacob Jordaens, the Flemish painter, and Peter Lely in England—both more reliant on washes and more concerned for finish. In Antwerp, van Dyck assisted Peter Paul Rubens, and both also tackle the same theologian, a Jesuit who served in China. van Dyck has nothing of the older artist's insight into a brooding, grasping personality still capable of wisdom, but that leaves plenty of space for the theater.

Sometimes he takes next to oil on paper, in grisaille (or monochrome), to work things out further. Only then come canvas and the face—with background color or landscape last, if at all. Still, he works fast every step of the way, with a shadow or cloud almost like a halo. This is not Brian Wilson in his room gorging on Oreos instead of making music, for all their shared obsessiveness. A sitter spoke, half bemused and half complaining, of enduring sessions over six days. I bet they were short sessions.

The curators, Stijn Alsteens and Adam Eaker, call the show "The Anatomy of Portraiture"—but anatomy is the least of its concerns, along with narrative. Even a Holy Family looks more like a family portrait than a vision. That teen self-portrait has a greater impasto, while a still earlier portrait draws on Tintoretto, the Venetian Mannerist with loose brushwork, sober faces, and ghostly light. All that quickly vanishes, as van Dyck does everything to hide his traces. While the cardinal's robe is a tour de force of red upon red, one cannot pin down a single fold. Still the painter is not done, and he converts selected portraits into a compendium of stiffer prints, the Iconographie.

Like Frans Hals in the Netherlands or Diego Velázquez in Spain, van Dyck set the standard for the Baroque portrait, but without their penetration and reserve. Maybe he never does let his flowing hair down, no more than John Singer Sargent nearly four hundred years later. Yet he looks ahead to Sargent among friends, in drawings that set aside the aristocracy for such fellow artists as Adriaen Brouwer, Orazio Gentileschi, and Pieter Bruegel the Younger. A luxuriant but vulnerable red-haired woman even approaches Jo the Irish Girl by James McNeill Whistler in 1866. For once, the most class-conscious of artists allows his sitter to cut class.

Between portraits and genre

What if only two portraits of Rembrandt had survived, some twenty years apart? From his more than a hundred self-portraits (counting prints and drawings as well as oils), one can trace his growth as an artist and his changing fortunes, but the differences would be starker still. One would see him as a young man, taking pride in his experiments with himself and vision. And then one would see an older Rembrandt, bankrupt and almost defeated, but every inch a painter and every inch a king. Nothing looks more regal than his work clothes and maul stick, which he used to steady his hands while painting—but which he wields like a scepter. And nothing better attests to the growing command of mass, light, layering, and impasto.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's Self-Portrait (Frick Collection, c. 1650–1655)Self-portraits by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo seem far more of a piece—the first a gift to the Frick from Henry Clay Frick's descendants in 2014, the second from the National Gallery in London. He has much the same dark cloak and rippling white shirt in both, as well as much the same precision and light. He seems equally proud in both, too, of his stature as a man and an artist. The Frick describes the older Murillo as forlorn and weary, but he raises himself even taller than before. He also sets both paintings in oval frames, and those frames are fictions. They are meant as trompe l'oeil, or to deceive the eye.

He has painted them both, in the first case with a surrounding stone slab. A collector might have mounted a portrait in just such a frame, but only a well-off collector fully invested in the work. The stone appears chipped and weather beaten, because that investment has already stood the test of time. In the second, Murillo ups the ante, by reaching out to grip the pretend frame. He is calling attention to his mastery and his presence, even if he needs the gesture at his age to bear his weight and to sustain his pose. A shelf below holds the tools of his trade, from brushes and paint to a compass and a fine stylus for red chalk. A transcription dedicates the painting to his sons, because he wants them to know of his achievement.

He took portraits seriously, despite his limited output, and so did his admirers. The Frick displays prints and even textbook illustrations after his portraits, to show that they mattered to others. It also displays a print after Diego Velázquez, but Murillo would have seen the older painter's work in person, even in Seville. Velázquez would have taught him sobriety, splendor, Spanish court fashion, and the complexity of a painting within a painting. He had to admire portraits by Rubens and van Dyck from afar. They would have taught him more overt displays of pride and movement in looser hair, brighter flesh, and parted lips.

Murillo did not change all that much in twenty years, but he did grow into the role. Two paintings of other men from roughly the same time as his self-portraits show what he took as a model. He poses first as a self-styled aristocrat, with a goatee and mustache—just like his sitter. Shadows set his eyes off-kilter to bring out his bravura. He appears as an artist only in the illusion. He appears more explicitly as an artist later in life because he can no longer maintain the pretence of high society, but also because he no longer has to bother.

The fictive frames boast of painting as a mirror of life, but also as a work of art. Think of the curtain in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Jan Vermeer. A curtain much like that one would have covered a painting in a Dutch home, and its owner would have drawn it aside to astonish the lucky few. For comparison, the Frick includes a well-known genre scene of two women, either prostitutes or servants. They peer out from behind another imagined barrier, an open window, and (depending on their role) they are hardly tempting or hardly working. Is there is more to Murillo after all than sweetness and light?

The curators, Xavier F. Salomon and Letizia Treves, also include the boy leaning on a sill, along with a measured and lively portrait of an older child of noble birth. Which is closer to reality? Murillo is unlikely to have taken his sketchpad to the street, like Vincent van Gogh desperate for a patient sitter. Then again, he did not have to try. Where a Dutch painter might treat even a portrait as a genre scene, he treats a genre scene as a portrait, with a claim to truth in place of a moral. They deserve a place on the Web.

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Portraits by Anthony van Dyck ran at The Frick Collection through June 5, 2016, self-portraits and more by Murillo through February 4, 2018.


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