Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. . . Thus the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting.1

The art of portraiture flourished in the northern provinces during the 17th century. The Reformation, the spread of humanism, independence from Spain, and opportunities for trade transformed the population into an urban, highly literate citizenry that believed in the individual's ability to control his destiny through self-improvement. They considered portraiture symbolic of a person's new prestige and an important record for posterity of one's life, accomplishments, and place in society.2 Portraits joined the bustling marketplace where they were commissioned at an unprecedented rate and at the high prices Dutch merchants could now afford.

Unsurprisingly, two of the greatest Golden Age painters were well known for their portraiture: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606—1669) and Frans Hals (1580—1666). Both artists were concerned with relaying the feelings of the individuals in their portraits3 and were charged by their subjects to produce a likeness. They managed to do both in their own ways. Instead of using codified methods for painting expressions or details in clothing, they developed their own approaches through prolonged observation of their subjects and the study of art that came before them, in the Netherlands and abroad. Rembrandt was distinguished by his ability to use light as a compositional and expressive tool, Hals by his free, lively brushstroke.

Portraits of individuals used clothing, posture, objects, and setting to communicate information about their place in Dutch society. Some were set against an empty, neutral background so that the emphasis was on the clothing and expression, and others were enhanced with the objects and setting of the subject's daily life and work. This latter type, known as milieu portraits, was a specialty of some Dutch painters such as Rembrandt. Portraits of individuals were not always of this new middle class. Some were of the poor and destitute, others of the artist's family or the artist himself. Rembrandt, in particular, is known for self-portraits that chronicled his moods and circumstances throughout his life.4

Portraiture was not static in style but rather reflected the manners and mores of the time. In the 1630s, paintings became less colorful and more restrained as the Dutch began to wear more somber clothing. Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman, two paintings by Hals from 1638, represent a subset of the genre, the marriage portrait. While some of these paintings showed the couple together in one composition-often with a landscape painted by another artist in the background-others depicted each member of the couple in separate paintings but positioned so that when hung together, they faced one another. These particular portraits by Hals are of a wealthy citizen and his wife. Their poses and clothing convey their status and personalities without the props and setting of the milieu portrait. The sitters' identities are unknown, but Johann Friedrich Städel, the Frankfurt collector who acquired the paintings, believed they depicted the painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577—1640) and his first wife, Isabella Brant.5


1Leon Battista, Alberti. On Painting (1435). Rev. ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 63.
2Barbara, Rose. The Golden Age of Dutch Painting. (New York: Praeger), 1969, p. 105.
3Madlyn Millner, Kahr. Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century. 2nd ed. (New York: IconEditions, 1993), p. 97.
4Ibid, p. 105.
5Städel Museum



  • Ask your class: If you were going to dress for a formal portrait with your family, what would you wear and why? What could your clothing convey about your era? How could the portraitist arrange your pose and expression to express something about your personality?
  • Look carefully at Portrait of a man and Portrait of a woman in the Images section of this Guide. The two portraits. Talk about what your students notice about them. They should describe the clothing as well as they can. How does the subjects’ costume look different than their own?
  • The woman is wearing what is called a ruff around her neck, a popular fashion item in the 16th and 17th centuries. What guesses can the class make about how her life was different from women today?
  • Portraiture changes as fashion changes, and fashion often changes in response to cultural shifts. Compare the clothing in these portraits to that in a portrait Hals did nearly 15 years earlier, Laughing Cavalier (1624).
    Ask the class what these people and their fashion choices tell them about the time in which the subjects lived? Prompt them to think about the fabrics, colors, and accessories.
  • Describe the poses and expressions of the people in these portraits. Hals was famous for his ability to capture the individuality of his subjects. How does he do that here? What do your students think their personalities may have been like?
  • These subjects chose not to be painted with the objects and setting that would tell us about their lives and work. If students could see the background in these portraits, what do they think they would see? What would they choose for the background of their portraits?


Almost Alive

  • Read the quote at the beginning of this section and discuss its meaning as a class. Do students think Hals makes “the dead seem almost alive”? Why or why not?
  • Bring Hals’s subjects to life even further by creating monologues or dialogue for them and then performing for the class. For this activity, students can work as partners or alone. First, help them brainstorm. For the monologues, the class can create a list of people the speeches could be addressed to, including a daughter, a doctor, hired help, or a spouse. For the dialogues, students can imagine situational prompts, such as “The husband has just found out he lost his job.” After the performances, discuss how different art forms bring subjects to life.
  • For older students, these writing exercises could be enhanced with research into the life of a Dutch citizen in the 17th century.

Portrait Formats

  • Hals chose to depict the man and woman in Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman in separate paintings. He also painted them with empty backgrounds. What if he had chosen to depict the subjects using a different portrait format? Students should experiment with how another format could have changed the result.
  • Using photocopied versions of Hals’s portraits, transform them into milieu portraits by adding drawings or collaged elements to tell us about their lives and work. Students may want to add the following: an architectural element like a window, furniture, or objects that tell us about their interests and passions. Since there is not much known about this couple, students can use their imaginations though, as inspiration, they may want to consider the fact that these portraits were thought to depict Rubens and his first wife. What kind of objects might Rubens hold, for instance?