High Society in the Rijksmuseum (exhibition)

Edition 22 March, by Benjamin Roberts

Back in the olden days, long, long before ‘selfies’ the only people that had portraits made of themselves were popes and cardinals. Sometime after 1500, with the onset of international trade and newly generated wealth, kings, queens, aristocrats, and the growing affluent merchant class also wanted to be portrayed.

For the best examples of this new self-awareness in early modern history, the Rijksmuseum has combed museums and private collections around the world. The result is the astonishing exhibition ‘High Society’ which features 39 works painted by artists including Cranach, Veronese, Velázquez, Reynolds, Rembrandt, Manet, and Munch. How high society was immortalized on the canvas range from a work from the early sixteenth century of a smug-looking Protestant Duke of Saxony to a seductive Parisian socialite in the 1930s. The painter of the first, Lucas Cranach the Elder, depicted Henry the Pious (the Duke of Saxony) ornately dressed in a brown and yellow coat, and adorned with a wreath of flowers on his head, and ready to draw his sword. The painter of the second, Kees van Dongen, portrayed Anna, the Comtresse Mathieu de Noailles (1931), a Romanian princesses (and granddaughter of the Turkish pasha), with a plunging décollectage revealing her left nipple.

The highlight of the exhibition are Rembrandt’s life-size portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, which was commissioned in 1634, a year after the couple’s wedding. At that time, the couple belonged to Amsterdam’s wealthy elite and were dressed in the finest fashion of their day. It is the first time they are on display after they had been recently restored. When infrared light was used during the restoration process, museum experts discovered that Rembrandt had initially painted a door behind the couple, but later changed the background to a basic black so that they would resemble a pendant. The fact that their portraits were life-size was unconventional for the rest of Europe where only kings and queens were painted in full size. Besides the people that were painted, the exhibition is an excellent overview of high fashion in the last four hundred years. From Maarten’s Soolgen’s high-heeled and ribbon-adorned dandy shoes, which were fashionably among affluent young people in the Dutch Republic in the 1620s and 1630s to the haute couture of the late nineteenth century Paris represented in the portrait of Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi (1881) by John Singer Sargent. The handsome young physician is dressed in a flaming red bathrobe. Later in life he had become controversial for his medical works, one including a gynecological textbook. Sadly enough, in 1918 Dr. Pozzi was murdered by one of his patients whose impotency could not be cured. Sometimes that’s the way it goes in high society.

High Society
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Until 3 June 2018