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Singular Figures: the development of an exhibition

Singular Figures: the development of an exhibition

[photo of Jacquelyn Coutré]
Dr. Jacquelyn Coutré, co-curator of the Singular Figures exhibition. Behind her hangs the enigmatic Portrait of a Girl from the circle of LucasHeere.

On entering the Bader Gallery at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the first face one sees is that of René Descartes. The portrait of the philosopher who sought to pinpoint the nature of the self is a most fitting introduction to the exhibition.

Singular Figures: Portraits and Character Studies in Northern Baroque Painting illustrates the new emphasis, in the 16th and 17th centuries, on the individual, especially among artists in Holland and Flanders. Revealing a range of ages and emotions, these portraits seem to invite the viewers into the subjects’ lives, if only for a moment. Certainly, the fascination with the human face is not something new in today’s culture of instant photography and “selfies.” Portraiture reveals human nature and, ultimately, something about ourselves.

The exhibition was conceived by Stephanie Dickey, Professor and Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art and Undergraduate Chair (Art History and Art Conservation). When former Bader curator David de Witt left the Agnes to take a position at the Rembrandt House Museum (LINK), Jan Allen, Director of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, asked Dr. Dickey to develop an exhibition, drawing from the permanent collection, that could be in the gallery for a year or so, allowing the gallery time to fill the curator’s position.

[Jacob van Campen painting]
Jacob van Campen's pensive Old Woman with a Book (1625-1630)

"These are mostly formal, commissioned portraits that celebrate personal achievement," says Dr. Dickey. "Through the use of light, pose, expression and props such as hunting gear, or a skull, or even the choice of clothing worn, we learn something about the person in the portrait."

When Jacquelyn Coutré joined the Agnes in April 2015 as Bader Curator and Researcher of European Art, she immersed herself in the collection, becoming co-curator of Singular Figures with Dr. Dickey.

Portraiture reveals human nature and, ultimately, something about ourselves.

“The theme of portraits is an exciting one because of the way that cultural conventions are communicated through costume, pose, format and attributes.The concept of ‘self-fashioning’ is a vital topic of inquiry today, with the far-reaching visibility of social media and the seemingly infinite variety of choices available for self-expression,” says Dr. Coutré. She goes on to explain that the related topic of character studies is equally fascinating, for these paintings reveal period approaches to standard types, like the “Eastern figure” and the "pious old woman."

To the viewer, the exhibition raises many questions. Michael Sweerts’ self-portrait shows the artist poking his finger into the cavity of a skull. Was he being irreverent, mischievous, or was there something else at play? In Jacob van Campen’s Old Woman with a Book, an elderly woman with almost translucent skin clings to a book. Is it a holy book? Or a diary? Each portrait poses a series of questions, inviting viewers to get involved with the subjects, to engage and to question.

[Michael Sweerts painting]
Self-Portrait with Skull (c.1661) by Michael Sweerts

An exciting addition was added to the exhibition on April 29, when Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo took its place between Head of an Old Man in a Cap and Head of a Man in a Turban, which have been hanging in the gallery since 2003 and 2007, respectively. The two small studies have formed the centrepiece of The Bader Collection.

Through the use of dramatic lighting and evocative clothing, the artist sought to create compelling depictions of aged, pensive men as visual expressions of sagacity, humility and virtue. The newly acquired Rembrandt is a much more imposing portrait, both in its size, (107.4 by 87 cm) and in its boldness – the unknown man’s steady gaze captures the eyes of the viewer.

An incredible learning experience

With the Agnes an integral aspect of the academic program at Queen’s, exhibitions like Singular Figures provide valuable teaching opportunities. Just ask fourth-year art history student Madeleine Leisk. “I had been inspired by Professor Dickey’s Dutch Baroque class. I knew that I had found my passion. I hoped to continue exploring Dutch Baroque art through my own research with the assistance of an undergraduate student summer research fellowship. It was wonderful timing as Professor Dickey was considering an exhibition based on northern Baroque portraiture at the Agnes for 2016. She graciously invited me to assist with the exhibition,” says Ms. Leisk.

Working on Singular Figures has been an "incredible learning opportunity" for her. She credits Drs. Dickey and Coutré for giving her an experience that she would not likely have received anywhere else. She was involved in the process from beginning to end, from the selection of works to the layout of the exhibition, from research of individual works to digital promotion of the exhibition.

While Dr. Coutré sees the exhibition as an exploration of how identity was shaped in early modern Northern Europe, she knows it also raises issues of self-presentation today.

"It serves students of art history, as well as those in cultural and gender studies, in investigating the norms of a specific historical moment. But it speaks to a wider public in its celebration of that most popular and intriguing of artistic subjects, the human face," says Dr. Coutré.

Dr. Dickey agrees. “People are always fascinated by other people. There is an inherent need to understand the human condition. Art can help us do that.”

Singular Figures: Portraits and Character Studies in Northern Baroque Painting runs until Dec. 4, 2016.

[exhibition photo]
Visitors can now study Queen's newly acquired Rembrandt portrait side-by-side with the artist's two other works on display at the Agnes. (Photo by Garrett Elliott)


thumbnail: Alumni Review coverOther feature stories of the Alumni Review's Rembrandt issue:

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 2-2016]

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