High Society

Having been invited to Amsterdam for the birthday of a dear friend, a group of us were lucky enough to visit a temporary exhibition at the Rijksmuseum entitled High Society.


The lovely Amsterdam architecture on one of the central canals


The exhibition features a collection of 35 full-length, life-size portraits of monarchs, aristocrats and rich citizens, by great masters in art history. It spans four centuries (from early 16th to the start of the 20th), and is styled as a party—featuring power, wealth, and massive egos. Because of the time and expense involved in painting such large canvases, this was a form of portraiture reserved for royal and noble subjects and, in later years, for what would now be known as ‘the one percent’.

It is also a timeless, fascinating, international fashion show, since people dressed in their best finery for the occasion. The paintings are full of symbols of the subjects’ wealth and power. Cloth of gold, lace, embroidery, large and intricate jewelry. There are also lots of accessories and plenty of dogs—lap dogs to show pampered luxury, fierce hunting dogs as symbols of strength.



See, above and below, how the painter Lucas Cranach (c.1472-1553) portrayed, for the first time in Northern Europe, a couple standing, life-size, and full length. They were Catherine of Mecklenburg (1487-1561) and Henri the Pious, Duke of Saxony (1473-1541), and the painting was commissioned in honor of their marriage in 1512.



He wears a wreath of red and white carnations to show he is a groom and, surprisingly, he’s neither clean-shaven nor bearded, but sports a very modern stubble.

Then there are Rembrandt’s wedding portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit – his only life-size, standing, full-length portraits. Painted in 1634, they were a joint 2016 purchase by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of France from the Rothschild collection, and they have just been restored. They are not as handsome as the previous couple, but their wedding black is accessorized with the most intricate lace collars and matching flower belt buckles.


Source: Google

It must be noted that, at the time, the wearing of black showed ostentation, not restraint: black was the most expensive material, had to be laboriously dyed and was difficult to upkeep. It was therefore a symbol of status which could, moreover, show off silver buckles and lacework to advantage.



The most powerful man of Europe, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, (1500-1558), had himself painted life-size by Jacob Seisenegger (1505-1567), showing just how important this type of portrait had become. Note the very wide shoulders, another symbol of strength, and the hunting dog.



An austere and powerful portrait, of Don Pedro di Barberana y Aparregui (1579-1649) by Velázquez (1599-1660). Don Pedro moved in powerful circles in 17th-century Spain, was comptroller of the royal treasury and sat on the King’s secret council. Note the plain background, contrasting with others that are richly decorated, and the tip of the sword lifting his coat at the back.



In a looser mode, the enchanting portraits, by Veronese, of Count Iseppo da Porto (c.1500-1580) with his son Leonida. The Count was one of the most influential figures in the town of Vicenza in the 16th century.



And that of his wife, Countess Livia da Porto Thiene, also descended from a noble family, and her daughter, Deidamia.

They are portrayed in ‘everyday’ clothes, which, although luxurious, are not too showy. It is rare these portraits can be seen together, since, sadly, his is in the Uffizi Gallery, while hers is in the Art Museum in Baltimore. A great shame, since being displayed next to each other greatly enhances the emotional import.



Moving on to more recent times, the portrait, by the English artist Gainsborough (1727-1788) of the beautiful Mary, Countess Howe dressed in what would have been the height of fashion in the mid-1700s. Her pale complexion is enhanced by the black ribbon on her wrist and her arsenal of expensive accessories also attest to her aristocratic status. Gainsborough only yearned to paint landscapes, but these would not earn him a living, so he was obliged to paint the local gentry, moving to another town with all his family in search of more clients, once he had finished one lot.



This portrait by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a rare treat, as it is domiciled in Los Angeles, where women are said to swoon before it. It depicts the exceedingly handsome Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi (1846-1918), who was the founder of modern French gynaecology and an incorrigible womanizer. Sargent, an American artist who moved to Europe, appropriately painted him in a scarlet dressing gown and embroidered satin slippers. Pozzi was killed by one of his clients, a man whose impotence he had failed to cure. He nevertheless had a long and distinguished medical career, and consorted with many creative people, such as Sara Bernhardt, who was briefly his lover and remained a lifelong friend, and Marcel Proust.



Giovanni Baldini’s Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound (1908) catches its subject in what is, for Casati, a relatively understated outfit: she once wore a dress of lightbulbs wired up to a generator. She was once described as the Lady Gaga of her day.
The card next to the painting says: Six feet tall and thin as a rake, and with bleached skin, heavily made up eyes and hair dyed either a fiery red or emerald green, Luisa Casati’s appearance was unforgettable. At the many legendary parties thrown by the flamboyant and eccentric marchesa the champagne flowed freely and there was no shortage of cocaine and opium. Boldini painted Casati wearing haute couture and accompanied by her favourite greyhound with his characteristic, ‘slashing’ brushstrokes.



A last highlight was the portrait, by Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), of Anna, Comtesse de Noailles (1876-1933), a writer and leading figure of Parisian society. The portrait was considered shocking, if not offensive, at the time, because of the plunging neckline revealing a hint of nipple, and the fact that she irreverently wears the ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur (a great honor conferred by the state) as a choker around her neck.



It was a rare treat to see these portraits assembled in one place—and fascinating to compare the mores and fashion of each era. To finish, I wanted to share a video of the Museum’s wonderful  Shylights, a light installation created, out of silk, by Studio Drift. 

If you click on the video, it will magically right itself, for some mysterious reason.

25 thoughts on “High Society”

  1. What a great post, and wonderful to see those portraits, as well as the video of the lamps. I agree that it is a shame that some of these couples are separated, residing in different museums. They should be displayed together, as intended.
    Oh, and I do love Amsterdam too, Marina.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those chandeliers are spectacular – they look like jellyfish in the sky.
    As for the portraits, you’ve highlighted the ones that exhibit old and new fads. The need to show off with extravagant possessions along with the desire to shock is evident in all. The ones I like best are the ones of the Count and Countess with their children, and the portrait of the very handsome Dr. Pozzi, I guess you could say he was murdered for love. Thanks for this wonderful tour, Marina.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love European portraits. Thank you for sharing these! I can walk around in Art museums for hours. My favorites are the one in Chicago, Boston MFA, and the National Gallery in Vienna.

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  4. I like the Cranach portraits best, as he has been so very candid about his subjects and they have the superb assurance and self-confidence not to require him to flatter them!


      1. I suppose he did a lot of sketches and studies. Different times… Have you seen the Sargent portrait of a little girl in a party frock? She was sulking because she didn’t want to pose, so he painted her with a sulky frown!


  5. Beautiful description and background of the main portraits of the exhibition, thank you! For me, in terms of art, Rembrandt’s Marten and Oopje were my favourite, the way he treated the black silk brocade, the lace and the silver— so incredibly masterful. It more than made up for the couple’s plain and overfed look!! I strongly recommend that those who can, should visit the portraits in their permanent place in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in the next 2-3 years, or later on in the Louvre.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a treat! Very well photographed. Did you use a phone camera? The images are so sharp. And your commentaries are interesting and helpful. It must have taken you some time to do this. I for one am very grateful. I plan to enjoy these again and again.. My favorite was the huge guy with the modern stubble. All sorts of striking details. I couldnt help noticing the thick sword he was getting ready to draw.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Albert! It was a treat, especially since my friend had arranged for a guide who told us all the juicy stories. A real bonfire of the vanities, lol, but fantastic artists. Wonderful details. I used my phone except for the Rembrandt ones which were impossible to photograph in the subdued light, so I used a google picture.

      Liked by 1 person

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