John Bezold

Book Review: ‘Public Faces and Private Identities in Seventeenth-Century Holland’


First published in 2009, and again in 2014, by the University of Cambridge Press; Public Faces and Private Identities in Seventeenth Century Holland by the University of California, Santa Barbara professor, Dr. Ann Jensen Adams is–as its title suggests–an exhaustive study of seventeenth-century portraiture, emphasizing that produced in the Dutch Republic. Hardbound, printed on thick, matte paper stock, and published by the Cambridge University Press; Adams’ book is a durable entity, whose publisher imbues it with a high degree of authority. That authority is extended in her acknowledgments, where she notes her inspiration for studying Dutch art originating in her interactions with the Dutch-born, now New York-based Dutch art historian Egbert Haverkamp Begemann, and the (late) American Dutch art historian Seymour Slive. She then notes her collegiality with Ruddi Ekkart–the ‘father’ of the study of seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture.1

Jensen has divided her book into four distinct, investigative chapters, each of which focuses on one portrait type–bookended by two other chapters: a lengthy introduction, and concise conclusion. After the introduction, wherein she outlines ‘the cultural power of portraits’, Adams goes on to investigate individual, family, history, as well as civic guard portraits. For a corner of Dutch art history–portraiture–which has yet to see voluminous amounts of research, Adams’ study of that created within the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic employs inter-disciplinary tactics, which has resulted in a publication of great value and substance.

Adams makes the central aim of her research clear within her introduction, stating that: ‘This study explores how portraits participated in the production and modification of discourses that define and situate the individual, creating such cultural meanings as what constitutes public and private spheres and the structure and function of political and civic institutions and of family, gender, and values of personal demeanor.’ (26) Thus rather than focus on the formal properties of Dutch portraits, she instead uses them–in an attempt to reconstruct the identity of those portrayed, the interactions that occurred between portraits and portrait viewers, and subjective responses elicited from viewing. In this respect, Adam’s study is similar to Emilie E.S. Gordenker’s research of fashion in seventeenth-century portraiture; both employ portraiture as the main focus of their study, yet depart from the actual portraits, while arriving at their conclusions. Adams departs from actual portraits of study, to delve into travel journals, poems, and painting treatises–for instance. Gordenker, lacking actual clothing from the seventeenth century to study, also departs from the portraits, and uses similar sources–yet does so in such as way that is much less suggestive or subjective, as some of the conclusions Adams arrives at. Because Gordenker focuses only on fashion in portraits, excluding interpretive reading of viewer responses, her interdisciplinary study’s framework, is stronger than Adams’.2

The first chapter on individual portraits discusses conceptions of the self; positions of portraits in seventeenth-century Dutch society; highlights the involvement of the sitter, patron, commissioner, and portraitist; and the differences in how our own era ‘reads’ (93) these portraits, compared to how they may have been ‘read’ in the seventeenth century. The second chapter on family portraits is perhaps the most flawed. It’s centered around two portraits: a print by Willem de Passe, of Frederick V and Elisabeth Stewart’s family, and a painting by the not-well-known artist Jurriaen Jacobsen, of admiral Michiel de Ruyter. There is nothing wrong, per se, with comparing a print and a painting; yet the size of the print is 30.6 x3 7.9 cm., and minuscule compared to the painting’s 269 x 406 cm.. Here, it is painfully obvious that Adams has fallen victim to conducting research based on photograph reproductions of artworks, rather than studying the actual artworks in person.3 It is very often fine to compare two artworks so different in nature, in terms of format and material, but within the context of this chapter it is problematic; it detracts from the convincingness of her conclusion. The chapter on history portraits is a rather sound interpretation of biblical, mythological, or and/or historical references in, often group or pastoral compositions. It attempts to combine theater, with painting theory–as of Karel van Mander–and patrons’ social positioning. The last true portraiture chapter on portraiture, is centered around civic guard portraits, which it discusses the genre at great length. This chapter is also an earlier published earlier as an individual article;4 it thus contains more information, and can function without the others, as it includes a far larger number of studied objects.

Rather than focus on surviving portraits, Adams’ study is–oppositely–mainly literary in nature. It’s centered on textual references that support nearly all of her argumentations, rather than seventeenth-century Dutch portraits: ‘My main concern is to determine what individual portraits meant to their seventeenth-century viewers in the larger sense of the word.’ (26) By keeping the borders of her research wide, Adams has left open the possibility of amalgamating from numerous academic fields–as those cultural, social, economic, political, and psychological. However, the last is only hinted at in the final chapter, where Adams lays out philosophers and theorists that have helped organize her thoughts, while conducting her research. When information on thinkers as Foucault, Barthes, and Kohut is presented in the last chapter;–one immediately wishes it were presented sooner, so that readers better understood the entire book’s conceptual, as well as intertextual, frameworks. Adams bluntly states a weakness of her study in its introduction, emplaning that she is, ‘less interested in the reception of a portrait by a particular viewer than by what more general attitudes toward viewing can tell us about the possible range of responses… I thus generalize patterns of thought and attitudes toward viewing from specific examples.’ (27) The wide range of theorists, sources, and the porous borders of the sampled academic fields–that simultaneously enriches and hinders Adams’ bold, daring portraiture study.

In her polemic 1983 publication The Art of Describing, and as its titles suggest; Svetlana Alpers sought to counter the iconological debates that then raged in the Dutch art history field,5 by encouraging historians to search for meaning within works of art, rather than search for any supposed meaning, beyond the artworks–as in textual references. The late-American historian of Dutch art, Walter Liedtke, criticized Alpers’ study in an article from 2000, wherein he also outlines the current state of research of Dutch art history in America. He remarked her publication, ‘which in its main theses and wholesale exclusions (for example, the entire Utrecht School), is a typical exercise in American taste dressed up (with some French motifs) as a new analysis of Dutch art.’6 In many ways, Adams’ research reflects that distinctly American approach, to seventeenth-century Dutch art’s study. So often is the text of her own book interrupted by very lengthy citations from many other writers; drawing upon writings published over a very large swath of time–ranging from Classical Greece, up to the present day. The exceedingly wide time period from which her many sources are drawn, certainly weakens her central arguments. Many of Adams’ exhaustive citations, are disruptive to the linear experience of her readers, and perhaps, in some instances, could have either been shortened, or better left regulated to her footnotes.

Adams has successfully navigated through the use of numerous methodologies; though largely based on textual references, using iconology, which she combines with memory, literary, and social theory–even that of economics. Her work has furthered the existing research on Dutch portraiture that was begun by Ekkart in the late-twentieth century, while simultaneously infusing the specialism with an interdisciplinary approach. What Adams’ book lacks, however, is original archival research in the Netherlands, and color reproductions of the many artworks it discusses. The book’s loquacious footnotes recall yet another comment made by Liedtke, regarding the state of American academic art history: ‘Recognition, promotion, and research grants requires (to paraphrase Seymour Slive) that footnotes become article, and articles become trendy books.’7 Yet another American study of portraiture, is Christopher Atkins’ 2012 publication on Frans Hals, to which Liedtke’s remarks about exhaustive footnotes cannot be applied.8 Therefore, Adams’ layered, subjective, readily commendable study of portraiture represents only one methodology toward its study. Even though Adams’ book on seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture is incredibly specialized–and probably of the utmost interest to only specialists within the field of Dutch art history; it’s nevertheless a valuable contribution to the art historical fields. Adams’ 2009 portraiture study, has captured the spirit of the late-2000s in American academia–through its relentless sampling, of countless sources.

  1. Anita Hopmans, ‘Rudolf Erik Otto Ekkart, een Biografische Schets’, in R. E .O. Ekkart, eds. Antia Hopmans, Roman Koot, and Lien Heyting (The Hague: RKD, 2012), 7-36.
  2. Emilie E. S. Gordenker, Van Dyck and the Representation of Dress in Seventeenth Century Portraiture (Turnhout: Brepolis, 2001).
  3. Jensen authored an article in 2011, about the ‘iconographic turn’ that occurred in Dutch art history, during the second half of the twentieth century, which was spurred and enabled by the growing number of photographic reproductions of artworks–as paintings and prints–amassed and made available for study by the RKD: Ann Jensen Adams, ‘The Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie and the Iconographic Turn in Dutch Art History’, in Photo Archives and the Photographic Memory of Art History, ed. Costanza Caraffa (Florence: Kunsthistorischen Institute; Berlin: Max-Planck-Institut, Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2011), 253-263.
  4. Ann Jensen Adams, ‘Civic Guard Portraits: Private Interests and the Public Sphere’, in Beeld en Zelfbeeld in de Nederlandse Kunst, 1550-1750, eds. Reindert Falkenburg, Jan de Jong, Herman Roodenburg, and Frits Schoten, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 46 (1995): 168-197. Adams also lightly touched upon history portraits in an earlier publication entry: Ann Jensen Adams, ‘History Portraits’, in Dutch Art From 1475 to 1900: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sheila D. Muller (New York: Garland  Publishing, 1997), 180-181.
  5. Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
  6. Walter Liedtke, ‘The Study of Dutch Art in America’, Artibus et Historiae 21, no. 41 (2000): 214.
  7. Ibid., 214.
  8. Christopher D.M. Atkins, The Signature Style of Frans Hals: Painting, Subjectivity, and the Market in Early Modernity (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012).