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Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief: Rembrandt's "Night Watch" and Other Dutch Group Portraits.

Harry Berger. Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief: Rembrandt's "Night Watch" and Other Dutch Group Portraits.

New York: Fordham University Press, 2007. xxii + 272 pp. + 16 color pls. index. illus. $30. ISBN: 978-0-8232-2557-6.

"Did anyone actually sit for this?" The question comes up repeatedly in Harry Berger's initial look at Rembrandt's Night Watch. His battery of questions about the painting--Why is someone shooting a gun off? Where did the shooter's bullet go? What would the patrons have made of such disarray?--forms the introduction to this singular study of Dutch group portraiture. Confronting the oddities of the Night Watch and turning his questing, skeptical eye on other portraits as well as genre scenes, Berger reads portraits as keys to the competitive tensions of domestic and civic relations as a whole.

Berger sees sitters as "agents of self-portrayal." His analysis of portraits as a whole depends on his notion of performance anxiety: the subjects want to look good, hence portraits depict people being shown wanting to look good. This is the leading feature of his project, which is to look not only at portraits but genre scenes "posographically": assuming that people have sat for these images, and how the sitters look not only in relation to one another but to the viewer-artist.

Following his first foray into the Night Watch, Berger traces the development of group portraiture from the 1580s to the late 1660s, looking at images by Frans Hals and others of both military and charitable institutions, and commenting on their formal arrangements, the poses, gazes, and gestures of the sitters. He looks at the "disaggregation" of most typical sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century group portraits, where hand gestures and gazes and direction of heads are meant to create the impression of unity and sociability. In fact, he observes that the sitters can look comically disconnected or competitive, as if vying for the viewer's attention: often the sitters point at nothing and do not actually look at one another, as Berger puts it, "misfire." "The safe definition of a group portrait is that it is a picture in which sitters pretending to pose together actually posed separately" (49). Berger goes on to show how genre scenes also participate in this fiction of dramatic collectiveness, reinforcing, as so many scholars have done, the contrived, artificial nature of their seemingly effortless naturalism.

Berger then turns to the social aspects of the images, arguing that the source of this performance anxiety resides in the much-studied culture of the Dutch Republic. Hence the post-Reformation insistence on the nuclear family, the cult of the increasing split between public and private activity, and the way in which contemporary writers employed gender terms for the specialization of labor: that is, nation building and commerce (male) versus domestic activity (female). This anxiety is specifically masculine, "aroused by a volatile market economy" and assuaged by the "controlled arena ... of women, children and domestic virtue" (136).

The threat to the domestic harmony so idealized in prescriptive literature and genre scenes is not, as Berger sees it, sexuality per se, but cross-gendered domesticity--that is, the presence of both men and women in the domestic scene. This is most acutely realized in marriage portraits. Berger investigates the gestures, poses, and expressions in a number of marriage portraits, both double and pendant types, noticing how these scenarios of cooperation and hierarchy reveal curious tensions and resistance. Family portraits, too, reveal the possibilities of competition between the generations as well as the sexes.

The discussion of these three domestic genres--pendants, double portraits, and family portraits--reintroduces the Night Watch and other images of all-male association, or "homosocial pastoral." This last section, perhaps the most exhilarating in an already lively and piercing analysis, is conceived as a mystery, with hints along the way of the solution. Berger takes on each chaotic element--sitters blocking one another, the extra supernumeraries who outdo the regular company, the drummer, the misfired gun, the little girl--in a spirited dialogue with other interpreters. He points out elements of parody and irony as well as stagecraft. In a masterful touch, Berger characterizes the captain and his lieutenant as a kind of marriage portrait, with all the tensions and power relations of the masculine/feminine dialectic. Finally, he closes with the final mystery at the painting's heart: the little "chicken girl," an element in, but not of, the all-male company, facing the wrong direction; painted in a thinner, more ethereal manner, unnoticed by everyone but keenly looking on.

Mischief, of course, is not only the subject of this book but the focus of Berger's enterprise. Underlying his relaxed wit and gracious engagement with other scholars is a formidable rigor about the act of interpretation. To make mischief is to interrogate the strangeness of the Night Watch and other portraits head-on, insisting on explaining this strangeness without explaining it away.


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Author:Hollander, Martha
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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