Dutch Artists and Their Tronies

Humans are programmed to focus on faces, and a facial expression can tell you a lot about a person and their current feelings. But expressions are not easy to reproduce. I recently encountered a medieval artwork in which the artist was apparently incapable of painting more than one face, much less an expressive face, and had to resort to hand gestures to relay the crowd's dismay.

Then there were the masters of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Rubens, who studied, explored, celebrated, and reproduced facial expressions in all their varying glory. They captured the most subtle details that we can all recognize, but cannot explain nor describe. They and other artists of the era painted so many of these portraits showing facial expressions that there's a term for them: "tronies." The fact that they were painted at all before photography was available is a tribute to the artists' observational skills and memory, plus their immense talent. You know that none of these subjects sat and posed with their fleeting expressions frozen for an artist.

A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Ireland called “Turning Heads: Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer” celebrates the tronies of the Dutch masters. Get a taste of what's being offered at ArtNet. 

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