by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Portraits de scandale

By Roderick Conway Morris
AMSTERDAM 23 November 2017
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Madame X by John Singer Sargent, 1884



The life-size, standing full-length portrait was a distinct genre in Western art for 400 years, but has never been the subject of a major exhibition until now. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is celebrating it, as both an artistic and social phenomenon, in High Society, a gathering of nearly forty splendid works from public and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic.

The exhibition grew out of the joint purchase, in 2016, of Rembrandt's pendant wedding portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit by the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre for €160 million – the record for any works by Rembrandt. This is the only pair of such portraits that Rembrandt ever painted, and two of only three life-sized full lengths out of an oeuvre of 324 paintings, ninety-two of which were portraits. They are on display here for the first time following cleaning and conservation.

One of the themes to emerge from the show is the eye-watering price of many of these paintings at the time they were commissioned. While we do not know how much Rembrandt was paid for the Soolmans-Coppit pictures, we do know, thanks to a dispute between the artist and the sitter for the third full-length portrait, Andries de Graeff, that a panel of arbiters set the value of that single portrait at 500 guilder, twice the annual wages of a master craftsman, around €100,000 today. By the late nineteenth century, an article from Paris in the London Evening Standard put the cost of a full-length portrait by a leading contemporary artist at between 30,000 and 40,000 francs (€133,500 to €179,000), at a time when a medium-sized hôtel particulier in a salubrious arrondissement could be had for 80,000 francs.

We learn from the attractive catalogue, by the exhibition's curator Jonathan Bikker, that the earliest known life-size, full-length independent portrait is Vittore Carpaccio's 'Young Knight in a Landscape' (1510). The earliest known such pair – of 'Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony' and his wife 'Catherine, Countess of Mecklenburg' (1514) – are by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and they are the oldest pictures exhibited here, on loan from Dresden.

Also on show are Jakob Seisenegger's 'Emperor Charles V and his Dog' (1532), which served as a model for Titian's more sophisticated and expressive full-length of the Emperor (1533). It was not until 1551 that the Venetian artist's portrait of Philip II, with its artfully contrived pose and props, established a prototype for images of monarchs and rulers that was to endure into the age of George Washington and Napoleon.

The sheer cost of commissioning these portraits tended to make them the preserve of royalty and the nobility, but as the images of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit indicate, during the seventeenth century, a number of wealthy merchants, notably in Amsterdam and Antwerp, had the confidence and means to have themselves so depicted in their finery. A charming deviation from the effort to impress are Paolo Veronese's informal full-length pendants of' Count Iseppo da Porto and his Son Adriano' and 'Countess Livia da Porto Thiene and her Daughter Porzia' (from around 1552), temporarily reunited from collections in Florence and Baltimore respectively.

During the genre's first two centuries, the primary function of these elaborate portraits was to memorialize the great and the good, but this changed in England during the eighteenth century, when sought-after royal and society portraitists such as Joshua Reynolds began to execute full-length studies of famous actresses (then a far from respectable calling) and even beautiful women who had simply gained notoriety as 'grandes horizontales'. Depicting these subjects in all their full-length allure could also launch an artist's career. When twenty-two-year-old Thomas Lawrence exhibited his portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren at the Royal Academy in 1790, it made him famous overnight.

In Paris in the next century, several artists gained recognition with full-length portraits of women. Monet won further portrait commissions after he showed 'Woman in a Green Dress (Camille Doncieux)' at the Salon in 1866. And three years later, Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran launched an extraordinarily lucrative career as a society portraitist with a full-length portrait of his wife Pauline Croizette, 'The Lady with the Glove' (on loan here from the Musée d'Orsay).

On the other hand, John Singer Sargent's full-length portrait of the notoriously promiscuous banker's wife Madame Gautreau, entitled 'Madame X', with her pearl-white powdered skin, bare shoulders and plunging décolleté, caused such a scandal at the Salon in 1884 that Sargent felt obliged to relocate his studio to London. Sargent is represented here by his first ever full-length, from 1881, of Madame Gautreau's supposed lover, the philandering society gynaecologist Dr Samuel-Jean Pozzi, bearded and Mephistophelian in a blazing scarlet bathrobe.

It comes as something of a surprise to learn that full-length portraits played a significant part in Edvard Munch's struggle to make a name for himself as an artist in Norway. He painted a number of them in the first decade of the twentieth century, including one of the Jewish industrialist Walter Rathenau (1907), on loan from Bergen.

The full-length portrait de scandale reached a wild climax in Giovanni Boldini's image of the eccentric, flamboyant, fast-living Marchesa Luisa Casati (1907), on loan from a private collection. The artist had first met the Marchesa under a table in a Paris restaurant, trying to retrieve the hundreds of pearls that had spilled on the floor when her 7-metre-long necklace had broken. In Boldini's portrait she is swathed in black satin and topped with a gigantic feathered hat, beneath which she stares out with huge kohl-rimmed eyes. In one hand she holds a large bouquet of purple flowers, and in the other the lead of a glossy, jet-black greyhound.

But the days of the standing full-length portrait were by then numbered. Modernist innovations in art combined with social change vastly reduced the demand for such pictures. Indeed, they reverted principally to a means of glorifying monarchs and the upper echelons of the aristocracy (not to mention many of the twentieth century's most unsavoury and murderous dictators). The Dutch artist Kees van Dongen was exceptional among modernists in continuing to paint portraits in this format, and his 'Anna, Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles' (1931) closes the show.

High Society is accompanied by another entertaining exhibition, Guilty Pleasures, curated by Jane Turner, which looks at some of the more disreputable activities going on behind closed doors while the parade of public images in the principal show were being created. Drawn from the Rijksmuseum's own collection, these eighty prints and drawings show us drinking and gambling parties, lustful rendezvous and visits to brothels.

The research for Guilty Pleasures unearthed a remarkable etching by Willem Basse. Basse is recorded as working in Rembrandt's studio at the time Rembrandt was painting the wedding portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit. His etching not only irreverently depicts Oopjen sitting on Marten's lap, as he puts his hand up her skirt, but substitutes their faces with those of Rembrandt and his lover Saskia van Uylenburgh (who married around this time).

Many of these prints are satirical in nature and some include moralizing captions warning about the dangers of gluttony, drink, greed and fornication. Others, displayed in a room suffused in lurid pink light, are frankly pornographic. One of the most amusing pieces is by Jean-Loius Van Hemelryck from around 1825. A jibe at literary get-togethers, it shows everybody smoking furiously, including a mother, a babe-in-arms, toddler, cat and dog. But perhaps the most unusual item is a large black and white chalk drawing, by Jacobus van Looij, dating back to the 1890s: entitled 'After the Party' it depicts a young girl lying on the ground comatose in her underwear.

'High Society' and 'Guilty Pleasures' at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 8 March - June 2018.

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023