Why bother going to a museum for an exhibit of 17th century portrait prints? The very idea and purpose of portraiture in the age of social media selfies seems to be incompatible with work so ancient in conception and technique. But if you put down the smartphone a minute and linger in the rooms filled with faces which comprise the Art Institute’s “Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and the Portrait Print”, you might see a few familiar looks and attitudes staring back at you.
Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was already one of the preeminent portrait painters of his age when he embarked on an ambitious series of etched portraits he called Iconography. Unlike much of the portraiture before, which focused on nobility and other eminences, this series featured artists of the past and present. Putting mere painters on par with aristocrats was unheard of but the prints proved immediately popular. Some of the early examples (etched by Van Dyck himself unlike later ones done from his drawings by master printers) are the heart of this show. They include a self-portrait, as well as renderings of well-known artists like Pieter Bruegel and Frans Snyders, and are distinguished from much of the supplementary images in the show by Van Dyck’s decisive mark-making, as well as their fragmented, unfinished quality.
It is this last aspect which makes these portraits appear especially contemporary. By leaving large parts of the paper blank or barely sketched in Van Dyck allows us to enter his subjects’ space and fill it in ourselves. There are also many examples of stylistic echoes of this strategy in the ensuing centuries. While his work is not included in the show, the work of the great New York Review of Books illustrator David Levine came immediately to mind. By focusing on some details of physiognomy, while leaving others absent, both artists allow airiness as well as immediacy into their compositions which is often extinguished in more formal and finished work.
Rembrandt, who was Van Dyck’s contemporary and an even better portraitist, is also well represented. An early self-portrait from 1618 contrasts a serious gaze with his quick signature flapping in the breeze on a curtain in the window to his right. Though etching is of course a much more time consuming process than pushing a button on an iPhone, the impulse to include dashed off or humorous moments like that signature have some of the same feeling we find in our own better snapshots.
Doubts about the purpose of portraiture were voiced at the same time that portraiture began. One of the earliest examples in the show, Albrecht Durer’s “Portrait of Philip Melanchthon”(1526) includes the following text on a plinth below its subject’s imposing profile, “Durer was able to depict the features of the living Philip, but the skilled hand could not portray his mind.”
Portrait prints were the Instagram of their day and then as now there were people questioning the narcissism and vanity of their production. And yet, the impulse to render the likeness of yourself and your friends seems irresistible, whether you’re holding an etching needle or an iPhone. Over 400 years have passed since Anthony Van Dyck set out to immortalize his friends and heroes and that love of staring at faces has hardly waned.
p.s. I wrote short reviews of an animated film about a Steam Age which never went away and a documentary about an ex-yakuza member who becomes a bible-thumper...