When the Old Masters Were the P.R. Agents of the Rich and Powerful



Hans Mielich’s portraits of Albert V, duke of Bavaria, and Archduchess Anna (both 1556) at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, part of the exhibition “High Society.”

Rijksmuseum/David van Dam

AMSTERDAM — We tend to think of public relations as a modern invention, but the desire for self-promotion is hardly new. In the days before the news release and the photo call, the most effective means of image control was the painted portrait.

In the early 16th century, a format of portraiture developed that was stunning in its impact, showing subjects life-size, full-length and standing. The scale was unprecedented in secular art, being previously reserved for depictions of God and the saints. It was also the most expensive form of self-promotion that money could buy. Such a portrait conferred instant status.

Originally the preserve of monarchy and of the high nobility, the full-length portrait was later adopted by those a little lower down the social scale. But they all used the format to communicate who they were — or who they would like to be.

In the exhibition “High Society,” running through June 3, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has gathered almost 40 magnificent full-length portraits from the 16th to the 20th centuries by the leading artists of their day. The paintings offer a fascinating insight into the messages that the great and the good sought to convey about themselves.

The Hapsburg emperor Charles V popularized the full-length portrait for the Europe’s ruling elites in the 16th century. Fully aware of its religious origins, he was effectively declaring himself God’s representative on earth. He had five such portraits made during the 1530s to be hung in palaces across his vast territories, which included the Holy Roman Empire in Europe and the Spanish Empire that stretched to Asia and the Americas. He was evidently eager to make sure his subjects absorbed the powerful message.

“It was all about propaganda and P.R.,” said Jonathan Bikker, the curator of the Rijksmuseum exhibition. “I think that’s why the monarchy and the high nobility had such a strong hold on that format. They made it associated with them and them alone.”

The nobility would often use the full-length portrait to celebrate the union of two influential families. Such was the case with Henry IV, duke of Saxony, and his bride, Catherine of Mecklenburg, whose 1514 portraits by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder were opulently adorned in the colors of their coats of arms. The continuation of a powerful dynasty could also by emphasized by the inclusion of children.



“Portrait of Marten Soolmans” (1634), by Rembrandt.

Acquired by the Dutch State for the Rijksmuseum

The association of the nobility attracted the Dutch bourgeoisie to the format in the 17th century. Having gained wealth and power, they used their portraits to claim a comparable importance. Those who could afford such lavish works of art hung them in the entrance halls of their canalside houses to show visitors that they were members of an exclusive club. “Only 20 of these portraits that were made in Amsterdam between 1618 and ’39 have survived, and they’re all of the city elite,” said Mr. Bikker.

Artists had a variety of methods to highlight their clients’ status. Rembrandt, for example, used his masterful skill in depicting texture and fabric to draw attention to the wealth of the prominent Amsterdam citizens Marten Soolmans and his bride, Oopjen Coppit, in their portraits. It is a common misconception that the Dutch of that era wore black out of puritan self-restraint — as the Rijksmuseum’s curator of costume, Bianca du Mortier, explained, that could not be further from the truth.

“Black was very expensive because it involved a complex dying process,” she said. Wearing it was a sign of status, particularly when it was elaborately embellished, as in the Rembrandt example.



Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Oopjen Coppit” (1634)

Acquired by the French Republic for the Musée du Louvre

During the 18th century, when the full-length portrait was at its peak in Britain, two very different social groups took advantage of its promotional opportunities. Aristocratic women, like Jane Fleming, would flaunt their beauty and elegance with help from masters of the genre such as Joshua Reynolds, while aristocratic men would show off their personal or professional accomplishments. The intention was the same: to enhance their reputation in society.



Joshua Reynolds, “Jane Fleming, Later Countess of Harrington” (1778-79)

San Marino, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

In the other group were the growing ranks of professional actors and actresses whose successes had made them independently wealthy. They commissioned portraits in their most admired roles as a form of self-promotion. Both groups benefited from the creation of the Royal Academy, Britain’s first combined art school and exhibition space, where many portraits were first exhibited, giving them unrivaled public exposure.

The Belle Époque, the period of optimism and economic prosperity in Europe from 1871 to 1914, was the heyday for this most sumptuous of portrait formats. In the aftermath of the French, American and Industrial Revolutions, a newly rich clientele clamored for the ultimate drawing room accessory to emphasize their entry into high society.

For women like Virginie Gautreau, a noted Paris beauty who prided herself on pale skin that she maintained by drinking arsenic, “it was important to be painted at full-length because it really showed that you belonged” to the elite, Mr. Bikker said. However, for Madame Gautreau, it backfired spectacularly. Her deathly pallor and daringly low-cut dress caused a major scandal when the portrait was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884. Madame Gautreau was humiliated, and the portraitist, the American painter John Singer Sargent, fled to England. The work (not included in the exhibition) became known as “Madame X.”

It is doubtful if such a thing would have bothered Marchesa Luisa Casati, a woman who wore live snakes as jewelry and paraded around her hometown, Venice, with a pair of cheetahs on leashes. The marchesa was painted in her prime by Giovanni Boldini in 1908; the bold brush strokes, confident pose and penetrating gaze perfectly sum up a woman whose aim in life was to be nothing less than a work of art.



Giovanni Boldini, “Marchesa Luisa Casati With a Greyhound” (1908)

Private Collection

The striking images created of her and of others like her were drawing attention from fashion designers who realized that having a celebrated sitter dressed in one of their creations was an opportunity for mutual publicity. At the request of Les Modes, a French fashion magazine, Boldini’s painting of the marchesa was exhibited at the couturier Jacques Doucet’s fashion house in Paris, with his creations displayed around it.

It was an early indicator of the link between personality and commerce that gathered momentum as the century progressed. In the aftermath of World War I, the extravagance of the full-length portrait came to be seen as excessive and the formal society that the portrait relied on began to disintegrate.

A new breed of celebrity turned to news releases and magazine covers to shape their image. But while those ephemeral means are soon forgotten, the full-length portrait will dazzle for centuries to come.