Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief: Rembrandt's Night Watch and Other Dutch Group Portraits

Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief: Rembrandt's Night Watch and Other Dutch Group Portraits

Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief: Rembrandt's Night Watch and Other Dutch Group Portraits

Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief: Rembrandt's Night Watch and Other Dutch Group Portraits

Synopsis

A study of the theory and practice of seventeenth-century Dutch group portraits, Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief offers an account of the genre's comic and ironic features, which it treats as comments on the social context of portrait sitters who are husbands and householders as well as members of civic and proto-military organizations.The introduction picks out anomalous touches with which Rembrandt problematizes standard group-portrait motifs in The Night Watch: a shooter who fires his musket into the company; two girls who appear to be moving through the company in the wrong direction; guardsmen who appear to be paying little or no attention to their leader's enthusiastic gesture of command.Were the patrons and sitters aware of or even complicit in staging the anomalies? If not, did the painter get away with a subversive parody of militia portrait conventions at the sitters' expense? Parts One and Two respond to these questions at several levels: first, by analyzing the aesthetic structure of group portraiture as a genre; second, by reviewing the conflicting accounts modern scholars give of the civic guard company as an institution; third, by marking the effect on civic guardsmen of a mercantile economy that relied heavily on wives and mothers to keep the homefires burning. Two phenomena persistently recur in the portraits under discussion: competitive posing and performance anxiety.Part Three studies these phenomena in portraits of married couples and families. Finally, Part Four examines them in The Night Watch in the light of the first three parts. The result is an interpretation that reads Rembrandt's painting both as a deliberate parody by the sitters and as the artist's covert parody of the sitters.

Excerpt

Rembrandt was born in 1606, and during his quadricentennial year he and his work have been getting even more attention than they usually do. According to the invaluable Codart Web site, eighty-six events centered on Rembrandt have been or will be held from October 2005 to May 2007—in Poughkeepsie, Melbourne, Schleswig, Braunschweig, Cambridge, Cracow, Copenhagen, Kassel, St. Gallen, St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Bucharest, Barcelona, Istanbul, and Coral Gables, to name but a few. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was among the more inventive celebrants, mounting a special exhibit that linked The Night Watch to Peter Greenaway’s forthcoming film entitled Nightwatching, about which more below.

I didn’t know I would finish a book on The Night Watch and group portraiture amid all this commemorative clamor. Nevertheless, I’m happy to be part of it, even though the basic method and idea of the book aren’t likely to inspire exhibits in Hanover, Höxter, Haarlem, or Hamburg, to name but a few. The method is a practice of “close reading” remotely descended from the New Criticism and modified in my Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance (2000) to make it applicable to the visual analysis of early modern portrait genres.

In Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief (MMM in future references), I define and discuss the portrait as the record of an event. That event is the artist’s act of representing the sitter’s act of self-representation. I think of the portrait event as structurally similar to the lyric event in literature, because both are representations and interpretations of first-person perform-

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