Whether intentional or not, the new show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” – totes a built-in lesson in art appreciation. It goes something like this: Just because a portrait is historic and hangs in a fancy frame on a museum wall doesn’t mean it’s good. Historic, yes. Good, not necessarily.
To define our terms, good portraits reach past the subject’s protective layers. Bad ones are all about those layers. The 17th century Dutch portraits were often examples of the latter – staring faces with little expression and wearing ornate clothing. The painters’ skill at faithfully rendering detail of the clothing seems to be the main idea. Their patrons demanded this. They were a practical lot – wine merchants, business men who bought art the way they bought household goods. They liked to get their money’s worth and they considered painters on a level with grocers.
Unlike the usual portraits of clerics and kings, the 17th century Dutch portraits offer likenesses of the newly rich who wanted to show off. Subtract the religious and the royal figure from portrait painting and the only people left at the time who could afford having their portraits painted were the nouveau riche. This would account for all the attention to lace, satin and brocade in Dutch portraiture.
Of course, not all Dutch painters were content with capturing the externals. There was the kind of thing Rembrandt did in his 50 self-portraits with his unflinching look at his bulging jowls and bulbous nose. In one self-portrait, he impels you to look hard at his face and read his thoughts by keeping one of his eyes in shadow. Van Gogh was right when he named Rembrandt one who could paint the face of Christ.
When thinking about good portrait painters today, Lucien Freud’s 2001 rendition of Queen Elizabeth comes to mind. Freud saw his portraits as “a kind of truth-telling exercise.” How truth-telling? Remember the portrait in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the 1945 flick based on Oscar Wilde’s novel in which a decadent young man swaps his soul to keep his innocent good looks while a portrait of him reveals the truth of his decadence?
Freud’s portrait of the queen is like that, except it’s not depravity that he captured, but a played-out queen worn by time. Gone is her starched and coolly remote public persona. It’s as if Freud ripped away the tent of royalty that surrounds her to expose an aged woman pale, grey and shriveled.
Not unlike his grandfather, Sigmund Freud, pioneer of modern psychoanalysis, Lucien Freud focused on inwardness, even painting people in the nude to get past their surface. No, the queen’s portrait isn’t in the nude in Freud’s portrait of her, but to her credit, she was reported to like what he did.