simon schama on dutch courage


Feeling conjugally challenged? Look at Frans Hals’s double portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen in the National Gallery’s forthcoming Dutch Portraits show and, instantly, all will be right with your corner of the world. The graceful painting, silvery with intimate affection, documents one of the great changes in the history of European marriage: the possibility of the shared smile – the glimlach revolution. Not that lipwork had hitherto been out of the question for portraiture. But let’s face it, La Joconde isn’t, is she? That thinly knowing smirk implies private knowledge, to be decoded only through the proprietorial collusion of patron and painter. But Hals’s newly married couple, Beatrix sporting both betrothal and wedding rings on her right hand, advertise their mutual pleasure openly for our shared celebration. They incline to each other and, through their self-identification as a harmonious pair, radiate that sympathy outward through the picture plane towards us. Behold, the painting says, as Isaac holds his hand to his heart, the very picture of proper Christian marriage in which duty also happens to be pleasure.

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