Articles About Art - Seventeenth-century Portraiture
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When the Papacy lost its hold on Europe after the Protestant Reformation and related events, a
division occurred between 'protestant' and 'catholic' art. Art also became specialised into new,
distinct categories. In the northern Protestant countries, for instance, genre and landscapes
became popular as art forms in their own right. The reason why these themes became common
can be ascribed in part to changes in patronage. Rather than being the sole province of a wealthy
aristocracy, art became a middle-class, bourgeois pursuit. In most of the monarchies, however,
continued serving the interests of the throne.
Portraiture is one of the most common genres of the seventeenth century, and provides us
with a fascinating mirror of contemporary values and aspirations. The fact that portraiture
became more prolific points to the increased secularisation of art in the seventeenth century.
To make a study of seventeenth-century portraiture, is, in effect, to make a study of
patronage - for portraiture is, for obvious reasons, more emphatically determined by the needs
aspirations of the patron than any other genre.
In some instances, however, seventeenth-century portraiture tells us as much about the artist
Aa it does about the personality of the sitter. Artists like Rembrandt and Rubens, for instance,
often painted intimate portraits of their loved ones for their own enjoyment.
The formal choices that a painter makes in a portrait (for example the angle from which the
subject is painted, the nature of the pose and the choice of background) are often determined by
the function of that particular portrait. Rubens, for instance, was in the service of the royal Medici, and his cycle of twenty-two portraits of Marie de' Medici has to be viewed in the light of its primary
propagandist function. Rubens' use of certain religious conventions can only be fully understood once we realise that they deliberately cast Marie de' Medici in the role of goddess. This manipulation of religious convention in turn makes sense only once we consider that there
was still, in the seventeenth century, a belief in the divine right of kings.
* Drawn from notes compiled by B.M.R Van Haute for the University of South Africa