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Art review: Turning Heads: Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer at the National Gallery of Ireland

12 April 2024

Nicholas Cranfield sees tronies by Old Masters in a Dublin exhibition

The J. Paul Getty Museum

Michael Sweerts, Head of a Woman, c.1654, oil on panel, on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Michael Sweerts, Head of a Woman, c.1654, oil on panel, on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

THIS exhibition focuses largely on painters who developed a fascination for the human face and the 43 muscles that control our expressions. Many of these so-called tronies, distinct from caricatures, are anonymous. They were not intended as what we would know as portraits, and the models did not have to be recognisable.

Although the exhibition draws prominently from the Low Countries of the 17th century, it also includes earlier works, such as those of the Flemish painters Frans Floris and Pieter Huys, and works by artists elsewhere, including the Renaissance Italians Federico Barocci and Giambattista della Porta. There are some later pictures as well.

The psychological insight in many is breathtaking. By leaving the backgrounds blank, the artists give few clues to the sitters’ identities; so we are constantly drawn to look at the face. The exhibition suggests that artists quite often built up a stock of such head shots from which they could draw for narrative or history paintings; the National Gallery’s own Saint Peter Finding the Tribute Money by Peter Paul Rubens (1617/18) is really just a series of seven head studies in profile and full face.

The Mauritshuis has loaned Rembrandt’s Laughing Man (1629-30). It is painted in oil on copperplate covered in gold leaf, suggesting that it is rather more than a sketched aide memoire. Tronies by then had become valued as stand-alone works.

A baker by day and a painter by night, Adriaen Brouwer’s pupil Joos van Craesbeeck (1605-60) moved away from his master’s popular caricatures. He perfectly captures the startled expression of a pipe-smoker who has inhaled too much. More than 100 years after pipe-smoking came into fashion, he is clearly choking, with watery eyes. A few years later, Pope Urban VIII would ban smoking in churches, initially only in Seville.

There are three works by an altogether misunderstood and seemingly half-forgotten painter. One is very much “a nursery portrait” of a young boy holding a piece of fruit and looking at us warily, as if he has been caught filching it. In another, loaned by Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, a young woman looks over her left shoulder, her head wrapped in a white scarf.

The head of another, older woman in the third (J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA) is for me the stand-out picture in the whole show. Is she Judi Dench or St Delia with a wry smile in her eyes?

It is hard to tell much about these three sitters except that, although they appear to be rural folk of the 19th or perhaps 20th century, they were painted from life in the 1650s by Michael Sweerts, as extraordinary a painter as he was a man.

He was born and baptised in Brussels (1618) and, some thirty years later, ended up in papal Rome, working as a genre painter. He seems to have been there from 1646 for about eight years. His patron, Prince Camillo Pamphilj,involved him in setting up an art academy in Rome, for which he was rewarded with a papal knighthood.

Image, National Gallery of IrelandPeter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Saint Peter Finding the Tribute Money (c.1617-17)

Despite this honour, he left the Eternal City and returned home, setting up an art school there. Judging by their clothes, the young boy, teenage girl, and woman were all painted around this time, c.1654. A few years later, he moved to Amsterdam.

After something of a religious conversion, he joined the newly formed Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris as a lay Brother. He became vegetarian, attended frequent weekday masses, and fasted daily. Giving all his possessions away, he sailed with the society’s founder from Marseilles to Palestine, to proselytise Muslims.

In Syria, he reportedly became mentally unbalanced, and he was dismissed from the missionary company in Persia, where he continued painting in Isfahan. Although he managed on his own to get as far as Goa, where he joined the Portuguese Jesuits, he died. He was just 46 years old.

Although he is overshadowed by the likes of the younger Johannes Vermeer and the older Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyck, this exhibition, none the less, demonstrates his considerable skill in bringing faces to life and in turning heads of spectators.

“Turning Heads: Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer” is at the National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square West, Dublin, until 26 May. Phone 00 353 1 661 5133. www.nationalgallery.ie

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