For our class of History Through the Nineteenth Century we were asked to analyze dress in a chosen painting from the 1400s to the 1800s with the aim to determine if the painter could be considered a valuable source for the study of fashion. I chose the painting Portrait of a Woman by Rembrandt from 1632, currently on view at the European Paintings gallery in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Some fashion historians argue that Rembrandt cannot be considered a reliable source for the study of dress, because he so often used costume rather than fashion to dress the subjects of his paintings. After Amsterdam was striked by a massive economic depression in the 1650s Rembrandt had to sell most of his possessions, an inventory of his includes not only the many paintings and prints he so avidly collected, but also the Near-Eastern and historical dress, which we know he used in his paintings. However the scholar Marieke De Winkel, who dedicated an entire book to the study of dress in Rembrandt’s work, believes that dress in his work is a topic greatly neglected within the massive research done on Rembrandt over the years.
Before I go into the details of the portrait I chose, it is important to consider Rembrandt’s own portraits. During his long career he created many self-portraits that can suggest some clues to his relationship with fashion. De Winkel concludes that through costume differences in function between self-portraits can be determined. Many self-portraits of Rembrandt’s are actually tronies, paintings in which the identity of the model is not of primary importance. In the portrait below from c. 1629 for example, De Winkel points to the fact that he has lovelocks, a hairstyle that was fashionable in France, England and Germany in the beginning of the 17th century, but was very rare for Dutchmen. In addition, within a short period of time in the late 1620s he depicts himself with different hairstyles in various lengths. It is unlikely that his hair and appearance could have changed so much in such a short period of time.
Shortly after his move to Amsterdam, Rembrandt created two portraits of himself in fashionable dress. In the seventeenth century, successful painters could break through social conventions and dress above their station. In other examples from contemporary painters it is only the attributions of their profession that distinguishes them from their clients. Rubens, for example, often show himself in the most fashionable dress. For Rembrandt this is the exception, he often chooses to appear in casual everyday working clothes rather than formal dress like his contemporaries. It is possible that he made this exception with an aim to establish himself as portrait-painter once he moved to Amsterdam.
Rembrandt was an avid collector of art and it seems that many of his self-portraits were based off of engraved portraits of sixteenth century artists. In the example shown here Rembrandt depicted himself wearing an historical sixteenth century bonnet. It had huge immediate impact and his followers depicted themselves wearing the same type of hat. Within time, and through today, the beret became the attribute of the painter in general. The historical dress for Rembrandt, it seems, was a way to present himself as part of the tradition of Dutch and German masters of the past.
So, it might seem fair to say that Rembrandt was not un-aware of the impact of dress, and that he made conscious decisions of dress when he depicted himself. With this in mind I examined his nude sketches.
To modern eyes these bodies, with their short stocky legs and huge bellies, might seem repulsive- especially when the face looks so young, but here is how in 1658 a desirable woman in a Van Dyck portrait was described: “ A goodly plump, fat, well favoured, well formed figure[…]full and fat fleshed shoulders, plump breasts, well coloured, and altogether able to endure a mans handling” (William Sanderson). So in fact the body Rembrandt is depicting is the most desirable, fashionable figure that echoes the most desirable, fashionable dress in the 1630s- one that has ripples of luxurious rich silk satin gathered around the belly. When we examine another nude, created about twenty years later, we can see how Rembrandt captures the change in fashionable dress.
The breasts are smaller and far apart, the belly is much smaller and the waistline is raised. Anne Hollander also points out to the slight awkward posture of the legs- after about 1610 the farthingale was replaced by heavy skirts that made the spreading of the legs necessary, which in turn was depicted in art as a desirable feature.
The first clue to what was worn directly on the body and under the clothes can be found in the two earlier nudes. The two figures are sitting on their chemise. The cuff of the white linen chemise can be clearly seen on the one from 1630. Over the chemise a stiffened bodice was worn, probably made also of linen and boned with wood. Then a wide rich skirt was worn. Sometimes in order to achieve a fuller figure several layers of skirts were worn under the dress. The stiffened bodice was hidden under a stomacher following the same shape, which extended over the skirt. In Portrait of a Woman from 1632 the sitter is wearing a black silk brocade dress with a matching skirt. The very wide sleeves are slashed vertically and decorated with ribbons at the elbow. The waist is also bound by similar ribbon. The bottom of the stomacher has flaps edged with black braid. And the cuffs and collar are made with fine white linen and decorated with beautiful delicate lace.
While the rest of Europe begun to trade the stiff ruff for a fallen ruff in Spain and Holland the ruff became even more enormous. The scholar James Laver notes that is ironic that the Dutch so bitterly fought to gain freedom from Spain, yet the Spanish style continued to be an influence in the Netherlands long after it was no longer fashionable in the rest of Europe. However another portrait, also from Rembrandt, that was done only a year later is showing a similar dress only with a fallen collar. Really, what it is showing us is that at this period in the Netherlands these two styles co-existed.
In a portrait of the Bas family, a wealthy family of merchants, this can be seen clearly. Note the young wear fallen collars, while the elders still wear the stiff large ruffs. In the Netherlands once fashionable status symbols were no longer considered fashionable by young or trend-setting groups at court they were adopted by individuals who wished to project a kind of conservative chic.
In the Portrait of a Woman from 1632, the sitter may have chosen a more conservative style in order to present herself as a serious and respectable woman. When we examine the two similar portraits again we can see that other than the collar, the two ladies actually wear very similar style. The ribbons are placed at the same position on the body, they both hold black ostrich feathers fan that was considered extremely fashionable and luxurious and they both have strands of pearls on both wrists. They also have similar hairstyle: the forehead is very high and the hair is pinned so it echoes the silhouette of the dress- it widens to the sides. The sitter from 1632 is thus not un-fashionable, and her dress and accessories certainly add to the sense of luxurious fashionable appearance.
In conclusion when we study the dress in contemporary portraits by Rembrandt it is important to consider it in context- the age of the sitters as well as their social and religious station are crucial to reading their dress correctly. How we read dress in his paintings relies on the propose of the work, paintings depicting contemporary persons in real, actual clothes should be distinguished from historical paintings, in which Rembrandt draw from other sources or used costumes he owned. However, when Rembrandt re-creates historical figures in historical dress he is still depicting a contemporary body.
In the painting above it is the posture of the sitter that tells us in which period it was painted. The spreading of the legs, the width of the body and the hands: one the table and one across the body almost as if holding a fan- all suggest 17th century fashion. So while some scholars easily dismiss Rembrandts as un-useful source for the study of fashion I hope I showed that in context a lot can actually be learned from his work.