Citizens of the Republic: Portraits from the Dutch Golden Age

On view at the National Gallery of Art, West Building, Gallery G-21, August 4, 2012 through February 3, 2013.

Cornelis van Dalen the Younger after Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen, Anna Maria van Schurman, after 1657, engraving, state ii/iii, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Department of Image Collections
Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen, Anna Maria van Schurman, 1657, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Joseph F. McCrindle


Stalwart Dutch citizens, distinguished for their contributions to the arts and the state, are sensitively rendered in a selection of seventeenth and eighteenth-century engravings that will be showcased at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.  Citizens of the Republic: Portraits from the Dutch Golden Age will present 21 prints after celebrated old masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Bartholomeus van der Helst, Michiel van Miereveld, and Caspar Netscher, and 5 rare books from the National Gallery of Art Library.  The exhibition will also feature Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen’s grisaille portrait of the eminent scholar Anna Maria van Schurman from the Gallery’s permanent collection.  This important painting will be hung, for the first time, alongside Cornelis van Dalen the Younger’s engraved portrait of the sitter, illuminating the relationship between painter and engraver.

In 1568 the Dutch began a protracted revolt against the Spanish that would become known as the Eighty Years War (1568-1648). In 1579, the nascent Dutch Republic was established when the seven northern provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland, and Groningen) unified and later declared their independence from Habsburg rule.  The republic, however, was not recognized by Spain until the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1609, and not officially ratified until 1648 with the signing of the Treaty of Münster.

In spite of their struggle for independence, the Dutch established governance with strong democratic principles promoting intellectual, religious and commercial freedom.  This culture of tolerance was essential in positioning the Dutch as one of the most powerful and prosperous federations in Europe.  Throughout the seventeenth century, known as the Dutch Golden Age, they dominated international trade and were celebrated for their achievements in the arts and sciences.  Robust rural and urban economies in all seven provinces intensified the demand for professionals and skilled artisans to construct and fortify the expanding federation.  Dutch citizens ardently contributed to the republic’s development, producing fine arts, architecture, and numerous innovations including the microscope, fire hose and submarine.  Proud of their accomplishments, the Dutch memorialized the enterprise and ingenuity of distinguished citizens in portraits.

Reflective of the humanist tradition, seventeenth-century Dutch portraits affirmed the significance of the individual and, either publically or privately, commemorated the life of the subject.  Artists received civic commissions for portraits decorating town halls and militia headquarters, and private commissions that remained in a more personal milieu, in palaces and residences, where viewing privileges were generally exclusive.  A broadening audience was increasingly interested in these depictions by celebrated masters, and accordingly, engravers and publishers formed partnerships to meet the demand for prints engraved after painted portraits.  The reproductive nature of these prints made them relatively affordable and more widely disseminated than paintings.  Further, their documentary nature appealed to a wide variety of Dutch citizens: collectors who commissioned prints to memorialize their acquisitions; scholars who included portraits in their books; and artists who studied masterpieces as a way of informing their own technique.

Portrait prints reproduce a subject’s likeness after notable paintings, drawings and sculpture.  Most often modeled after paintings, the subjects are as skillfully rendered as they were by the originating artist.  As a result of the translation from a painted to printed medium, variations do exist, however, between the original work of art and the printed portraits—as in Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen’s grisaille portrait of the eminent scholar, Anna Maria van Schurman, and Cornelis van Dalen’s engraving of the sitter (1, 2).  Although, in this case, Jonson’s painting was intended as a prototype for the engraved portrait, it nonetheless illustrates the differences between a painted scheme and a printed outcome.  When the two works are viewed side by side, it is clear that the printed composition mirrors the painting (due to the reversal that takes place when the image is transferred from the inked, engraved plate to paper).  The painting, like the print, delineates a frame around Van Schurman, and a scroll below, but the painting does not bear a title or inscription.  The lettering and dedication were added to the print later in the production process.

Inscriptions further identified the subjects and their exploits.  They included laudatory excerpts from notable prose in honor of the sitter.  Publishers often changed the text from one print run to another, creating a new printed state.  However, the monograms of the originating artist and the engraver, inscribed at the bottom of the print, were relatively consistent from state to state because they invoked the artistic legacy of masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Bartholomeus van der Helst, and Michiel van Miereveld.

Visually and textually, the prints in this exhibition boldly express individual contributions to the young republic and illuminate Dutch history.  Readily distinguishable for this reason, the prints are divided into four categories: Arts and Letters, Defense, the State, and the House of Orange-Nassau.

Unless otherwise noted, the prints in this exhibition were a gift of Peter and Evelyn Kraus.  In 2005 the Krauses donated almost 500 portrait prints to the National Gallery of Art, Department of Image Collections.  These prints are part of the department’s rare holdings and are available to researchers upon request.  The rare books on display are from the National Gallery of Art Library.  The Jonson van Ceulen painting and De Wit engraving are from the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art.

– Contributed by the exhibition curator, Molli Kuenstner, Image Specialist for Northern European Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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