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Renaissance Portraits, Through the Looking Glass

In the description of Portraiture ReDressed on her website, Fran Forman describes how this series drew inspiration from paintings by 17th century Dutch masters. These portraits, created during the Dutch Golden Age, reflect a period of major change in the realm of visual arts and society at large.


The Dutch Golden Age constitutes an approximately 75 year period beginning in the late 16th century during which the Dutch Republic was renowned for its advances in trade, science, and culture. Shifting religious norms during this period meant that painters were forced to turn away from the church and towards wealthy merchants or government officials for patronage. As a consequence, having one’s portrait painted became a status symbol reserved for the country’s wealthy elite– a group largely composed of white men and their families. While these images of white domestic opulence have influenced our popular understanding of this period, they do not tell a complete story.


In order to understand the economic systems that funded these portraits, it is necessary to discuss the Netherlands’ history of violent trade and colonialism across the global south. Over the course of its history, the Dutch empire included territories in Suriname, Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, Saba, the Gold Coast, Ghana, South Africa, Madagascar, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. The Dutch West India Company participated in the Altantic Slave Trade. The harvesting of products produced through slave labor– including coffee beans, cacao, sugar, salt, and tobacco– had a significant impact on the Dutch economy during the second half of the 18th century as well.


Meanwhile, as a consequence of colonialism undertaken by the Dutch East India Company in Indonesia, there was a sustained period of intermarriage between Dutch people and indigenous Indonesians beginning in the 18th century. The children of these unions were recruited by the colonial regime, with some even moving to the Netherlands, where they went to school and established their own families. Today, approximately 800,000 Dutch people have mixed Indonesian and European ancestry.


Recognizing these elements of Dutch history is essential, as they illuminate where the money for these portraits was coming from while revealing that the direct link between Dutch citizenship and whiteness may not be as essential as we have been led to believe.


As we have seen, people of the global majority played an integral role in the accumulation of the wealth that supported the Dutch Golden Age and the ongoing cultural interplay within different communities affected by this legacy. They are a part of this history, and therefore should be reflected in its art.


As Forman explains, “Portraiture ReDressed hopes to rectify and alter this arbitrary portrayal of one's worth. Everyone, even members of the 98%, the marginalized and the 'other', deserves the honor of memorializing and recognition.”

Research compiled by Abby Lass.


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