Portraits on stage and shelves: On the dramatic potential of the portrait genre

Bert Watteeuw, 30 June 2013

Portraiture was undoubtedly the most ‘human’ of all the artistic genres. Not only because it immortalized certain individuals, but also, and above all, because in some cases portraits would subsequently become focal points of intense emotion for their ambitious, amorous, discontented or mourning owners. These frozen likenesses touched the heart – and animated the pen – in ways that no landscape, still life or even a dramatic history painting could ever have done.

The shelves referred to in the title are not the scholar’s shelves with folio volumes on art theory bound in vellum that leave no scope for emotion. Rather, they are rickety structures (the bedside table appears to have been a later invention) crammed with pastoral tomes and love stories, books of songs, folk tales, novellas, comedies, tragedies, sharp satire, jokes, and more elevated genres such as utopian visions. We even take a look at the carefully concealed shelf with racier prose. Smaller formats, cheaper paper, more typing errors: this reading material is well-thumbed, cherished, and experienced on a personal level. The dramatic potential of the portrait becomes as clear as day in these sources, which in turn possess dramatic potential for research on portraits.

In his Rubenianum Lecture, Bert Watteeuw selected choice passages from the literature of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. He did not discuss any specific portrait paintings, but focussed on the portrait as a literary motif.