Susan Koslow

Historians of Netherlandish Art, Antwerp, March 14—16, 2002

Session: "Constructing Political Ideologies, Ideals of Sovereignty, and National Identities in Netherlandish Art"

Barbara Haeger, Nicola Courtright and Susan Koslow, co-chairs

Representing Sovereignty in the Netherlands and the State Portrait: on this side, the Archdukes; over there, Lion, Maid, Map, or Blazons?


This presentation considers the state portrait, a hallmark of early modern European court culture, in relationship to the theories and practices of sovereignty in the United provinces and the Spanish Netherlands. After setting forth the origin of the two states, the bases for their existence, and the structures where governance was conducted, examples of state portraits as instruments of diplomacy will be discussed and the dilemma they posed for the United Provinces.

In 1568 armed rebellion erupted in the Low Countries fracturing its unity, which Charles V had secured with the 1549 Pragmatic Sanction. This agreement severed the Netherlandish provinces from the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire and placed them under a unified rule with centralized institutions. As the conflict evolved in later decades two states were born, the United Provinces or Dutch Republic in the 1580s-1590s and the Spanish or Catholic Netherlands, around 1600. The northern entity was anomalous, its existence justified by radical resistance theories which rejected the well-nigh universal belief that a subject owed absolute obedience to his ruler. Although all seventeen provinces had been caught up in the strife, only seven successfully resisted Spain. Having deposed Philip II, the provinces lacked a head to govern and unify the polity. Various arrangements were tried, but when both Henry III of France and Elizabeth of England refused offers of sovereignty, and the earl of Leicester's governorship failed, the confederacy of the "free" provinces chose a radical solution: to recognize themselves as sovereign, on the principle that sovereignty resides in the commonwealth and that the people establish states, not God. By the 1590s, the confederacy had become a Republic, with an effective governmental structure in place, led by the States General, the  provinces' representative body.

From 1593 until the close of the eighteenth century, the States General met permanently at The Hague in the Binnenhof, the seat of the Counts of Holland, who had erected a palatial hall in the thirteenth century (Fig. 1). In subsequent centuries, the monumental hall was enclosed by a courtyard formed by an undistinguished melange of small administrative service structures; with the foundation of the Republic, these buildings were taken over to serve the new government. Renovations were minor and the general effect unimposing; indeed, in 1620 the ambassador Trevisiano called the States General chamber "paltry," an estimation not unexpected from a Venetian used to the magnificence of the Doge's Palace. But most importantly, the United Provinces lacked indispensable apartments associated with governance in the seventeenth century--the Audience or Presence chamber and portrait galleries. The former signified the state's authority vis-à-vis other powers, because it was here that the enthroned prince received ambassadors in state, while the latter indicated prestige and reputation by situating the sovereign among his peers. We will return to this point shortly.

In contrast to the United Provinces, the Spanish Netherlands was created as an appanage, in accordance with feudal custom. In the Act of Cession of 6  May 1598, Isabella Clara Eugenia was ceded the Netherlands and the Franche Comté as her dowry, when she married her cousin Archduke Albert. The couple were to rule as joint sovereigns but with limited sovereignty; matters concerning warfare and treaties, two of the chief duties of governance, were reserved to the Spanish crown but the archdukes, as they were titled, were permitted to make laws, administer justice, mint coinage and receive ambassadors. That the southern Netherlands were never intended to gain more than nominal independence is indicated by the Act of Cession's articles concerning inheritance: if  a daughter was born to the archdukes, she was required to marry the king of Spain or his heir while a son could marry only with the crown's consent. In the event that the marriage was childless--which proved to be the case-- sovereignty reverted to Spain. To further limit the archdukes' authority, a secret clause stipulated that Spanish troops were to be stationed permanently in Antwerp and in other key cities. Despite these infringements on his sovereign rights, Albert still attempted to establish an independent Habsburg state, as applications to the papacy for a royal crown indicate; moreover, he did not follow Spanish directives in prosecuting the war with the rebel provinces. His autonomous policies even prompted a plan to transfer the archdukes to Portugal, which would have divested them of their sovereign dignity. In the end, this scheme was rejected. The archdukes remained in the Netherlands where they held titles of lordship, duke and duchess, count and countess, sovereign, but never king and queen.

Upon their arrival in Brussels, in September 1599, the archdukes took up residence at the Coudenberg palace, the traditional seat of Burgundian government. Administrative offices were housed there, as they were at the Binnenhof, but the palace was also the rulers' court. Hence, Albert and Isabella each had their own apartments: these included audience chambers and a state dining room, with appurtenances of sovereignty, a dais and cloth of state. Though a gallery devoted exlusively to painted portraits has not been identified in the palace, numerous portraits were present in the archdukes' collection, including sculpture series of emperors.

Portrait collections assembled by rulers, princes and great nobles were arranged in halls, where family, friends, and foes formed a virtual court, portraying networks of lineage and clientage as well as princely alliances. While physiognomics and looks mattered, so too did stance, gesture, attributes, setting and especially attire. The cut and color of the garment or armor, whether it was styled in the Spanish, Italian or French manner, was subject to political discourse as were its embellishments, including insignia. To assert rank and reputation among the great placed great demands on patron and artist. Painters of the Low Countries were instrumental in fashioning such portraits, developing patterns and variants to suit the aspirations of their patrons.

When the new sovereigns Albert and Isabella took possession of their Netherlanish territories, they immediately commisioned state portraits, entrusting the task to Frans Pourbus the Younger. The images he devised were regarded as official and treated as models by other painters, such as the van Veen brothers, Otto and Gysbrecht, and even Rubens.

At least one pair of these state portraits were sent to King James upon his accession to the English throne, after the death of Queen Elizabeth on March 24, 1603. The portraits were gifts included in a diplomatic initiative undertaken principally by Archduke Albert to establish a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Netherlands. Count Charles of Arenberg, the archdukes' envoy to England, carried the pictures with him when he arrived in London on June 17 to take up his duties. However, because negotiations were problematic at this moment, Arenberg postponed his audience with James for over forty days, pleading gout. Finally, they met, and at this event the portraits presumably were presented. Although James's response to them is unrecorded, we are informed about his queen's. Anne of Denmark, according to the Venetian ambassador, remarked that "she expressed her pity that so great a lady should endure the sorrow of not enjoying the sweet name of mother." This comment has been characterized as "poignant," and interpreted as showing Anne's sympathy for Isabella. But in fact, it may be taken as an expression of dynastic triumph.

You will recall that a fervent campaign had been waged on behalf of Isabella's right to the throne of England, based on her lineage, which was traced to the fourteenth century-Lancastrian John of Gaunt, among other British notables. In 1595, the English Jesuit Robert Persons' The Book of Succession argued that Isabella was the most desirable successor to Elizabeth, a view also espoused by Philip II, who considered a plan to unify England and the Netherlands to form a new state. When James learned of Persons' arguments, he became infuriated, because it challenged his right of sucession. Though this matter was in the past when the archdukes' portraits were delivered, James may still have recalled his earlier passion. As for Anne, she could gloat over her success as consort. She had given birth to three viable children, thus providing for a secure succession for the House of Stuart. Moreover, if her husband died, she could still retain power as regent or dowager queen. As Anne studied Isabella's portrait she surely pondered the messages encoded in the archduchess' splendid gown, emblazoned with fleur-de-lis, rings, golden ribbons and flowers and noted the dwarf as well, and what her presence signified. Although Anne considered disposing of the portraits as gifts in 1605--a sign of her displeasure?--the pictures remained in the royal collection, hanging in 1613 alongside other ruler portraits at Whitehall.

The archdukes' portraits and Isabella's in particular has been singled out to underscore the role state portraits played in politics and seventeenth-century court culture. And in this connection it should be added, that it was customary to place a state portrait beneath a canopy or cloth of state to symbolize sovereign authority. Etiquette and ceremony demanded obeisance before such images, as if the ruler were actually present. The importance of the state portrait as a diplomatic instrument cannot be underestimated.

Given this assertion, the dilemma of the United Provinces is apparent. The Republic could not participate in this aspect of court culture and political diplomacy. The symbols of sovereignty and statehood (Fig. 6) that the Dutch Republic used so extensively on coinage, prints, and everday items--fierce rampant lions, a young woman personifying the Republic, coats of arms of the provinces, and maps figured as Leo Belgicus--never could be sent as diplomatic gifts to hang beside a prince, whose portrait embodied the state. Nor was it feasible or even proper to have a group portrait of the States General, since the men did not signify sovereignty itself. Alhough extremely sensitive about their standing in the political world of the seventeenth century, the Dutch refused to compromise their freedom, insisting at all costs that sovereignty was vested in the people and not in a person. As you well know in this narrative, I have omitted the office of stadholder and the house of Orange. Though sovereign in Orange, the Oranges  were not sovereigns in the United Provinces in the first half of the 17th century. The States General, after deliberating from January to August 1651, concluded that the United Provinces, after all, did not need a Stadholder for goverance, a decision reached in the Great Hall of the Binnenhof (Fig. 7), where the ancient building, its war trophies and the representatives of the provinces insured that a stadhoulder would not become a new despot, to replace the one deposed almost 100 years earlier. 

Fig. 1

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Fig. 6

Fig. 7



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