HIGH SOCIETY – Four Centuries of Glamour at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum

Initially, visitors to the exhibition are treated to over thirty life-size portraits of the wealthy and glamorous. The second part of this large show goes into some aspects of ‘informal’ life of Europe’s upper-classes.

The first two portraits welcoming visitors are the earliest and show a couple. They were rich, powerful and getting married. This tradition of having one’s portraits painted on engagement or marriage was to continue into Rembrandt’s time and beyond.

Like all portraits in this exhibition, the format is life-size. Such a size was reserved for emperors, kings and queens, the aristocracy. Meet Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and Katharina, countess of Mecklenburg. Lucas Cranach the Elder created their portraits in 1514.

Nearby, hangs a portrait of Hapsburg Emperor Charles V. His Hapsburg chin is hidden by his beard. Some early oil-painting photo-shopping? The first room of this exhibition sets the tone: stunning, impressive!

The next room shows the portraits of Count Iseppo da Porto, Countess Livia da Porto and their two children. Veronese caught the family in interaction. The couple are now split: he and his son belong to the Galleria degli Uffizi; she and her daughter to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Here the four of them are together again – charming visitors.

Soon, wealthy burghers and then artists had their life-size portraits painted as well. Visitors can not just admire members of the upper classes. These people could have their portraits painted by the best artists of their time.

Here are Rembrandt’s portraits of Oopjen and Marten, Cranach’s couple, Veronese’s family. The exhibition also includes works by Velazquez, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Sargent, Munch, Manet, and other famous portrait painters.

There simply is not enough space to discuss all these beautiful portraits, changing tastes, facts, stories, scandals! Take just two funny ones.

The only naked portrait apparently shows a Dutch burgomaster as Hercules. He lost the competition for ‘Mr Love’; who is to be found gracing another wall. However, Hercules certainly makes people giggle!

Especially, as he happens to hang the most over-dressed man in this exhibition. This English aristocrat spent his fortune on clothes. Take a look at his shoes, his socks – and how he loves showing off his outfit!

The next room contains the restored portraits of Oopjen and Marten by Rembrandt. The completed restoration was the ‘excuse’ to put together this impressive exhibition.

Part one of the exhibition, covering four centuries of glamour, is in itself an absolute must see. For quite a few of these portraits belong to private owners. Other paintings come from museums from all over the world.

The exhibition’s second part covers what curators call the ‘informal life’ of the wealthy. Here are eighty prints and drawings from the Rijksmuseum’s own collection. This part goes into what went on ‘behind closed doors’. One room even has a warning sign: adult stuff exhibited!

This part shows for instance a print of Madame du Barry. Here are pastel copies of a Hogarth-like series paintings by Cornelis Troost, now in the Mauritshuis. Troost’s daughter copied her father’s popular series.

Pastel portraits of Dutch high society members are currently exhibited at the Amsterdam canal house Museum van Loon. Need to choose: do not miss ‘High Society’ at the Rijksmuseum!     Kate Den    21st March 2018


High Society: Four Centuries of Glamour runs until till 3rd June 2018.

Detail from Dr Samuel-Jean Pozzi by John Singer Sargent reproduced courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam