“We weep with the weeping, laugh with the laughing, and grieve with the grieving. These movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body.” This line, which comes from Della Pittura (1435), Leon Battista Alberti’s famous treatise on the theory of art, perfectly encapsulates the reasons behind my fascination with body language in art, as it so explicitly emphasizes the importance of body language in evoking reaction. Whereas we regularly interact through words, the vast majority of our communication is nonverbal. We continuously converse with our body, from the gestures we make to the way we bend, place our feet, or turn our heads; it always means something, always speaks to someone.
My doctoral dissertation focuses on the interplay between body language and context, specifically in 17th-century Dutch portraits of men. One of my case studies is the seated Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen (1634), painted by the famous Haarlem artist Frans Hals (1582–1666). Interestingly, it shows Van Heythuysen with his legs wide open and crossed, a rare pose in portrait paintings of single figures. In fact, according to extant works, Hals was the only artist to use this pose in a single-figure portrait at the time.
Through my CNA fellowship I got the opportunity to work closely with the MFA’s collection and visit other collections across the United States. One object that had a major impact on the way I looked at Hals’s unusual single-figure portrait of Van Heythuysen was An Elegant Party Making Music (1621), by Frans’s brother, Dirck Hals (1591–1656). At the time Dirck was famous for his paintings of so-called merry companies—fashionable youngsters who enjoyed their time dining, drinking, smoking, and making music in dreamy landscapes or fancy rooms. An Elegant Party Making Music, currently on view in the MFA’s Dutch and Flemish art galleries, is a clear and early example of this kind of painting. Looking at this work I’m most struck by the middle figure, who sits with his legs wide open and crossed. Dirck used this pose time after time in his merry company paintings. It was truly a stock figure; a template Dirck adjusted and rendered, sometimes only slightly, when using it in paintings of groups large and small.
We shouldn’t consider it a coincidence that Frans Hals used this same open-legged posture in his portrait of Van Heythuysen around the same time his brother painted a large amount of merry companies with sometimes the exact same pose. The close connection between Frans and Dirck Hals—brothers living and working in the same city—demonstrates the importance of considering context when trying to understand the meaning of poses in paintings. The question becomes: Why, in his portrait of a single figure, did Frans depict a merchant in a pose associated at the time with revelry?
We still have the inventory of Willem van Heythuysen’s estate at the time of his death. Multiple items in this inventory describe merry companies. It’s interesting that Van Heythuysen decorated his house with merry companies alongside a portrait of himself portrayed in a pose associated with these types of pictures. What Van Heythuysen accomplished is similar to what curators do: juxtaposing images to create a narrative that encourages viewers to draw connections and evoke questions. In doing so, Van Heythuysen fosters his viewers to connect his portraits with merrymaking scenes, and includes himself in the narrative.
We know merry companies were very popular at the time Frans Hals painted Van Heythuysen’s portrait. Because of this we can assume contemporary viewers would connect the portrait with merry companies. This is very different for us today, since merry companies are not part of our immediate visual culture. We have to unravel the scenes to be able to understand the connections, but for a contemporary of Dirck Hals, Frans Hals, and Willem van Heythuysen, it would have been clear. In psychological research this is known as the priming effect. Very briefly stated, this means that if you see an image such as a merry company, any image you see thereafter, such as a portrait referring to merry companies, you’re more likely to connect the portrait with merry companies than you would have had you not seen the first image. This is exactly what happened in Van Heythuysen’s house. His visitors knew merry companies, which were displayed en masse at the time, and they would again see them when entering van Heythuysen’s place. So, when they saw Van Heythuysen depicted with a pose so unusual in portrait paintings, but so very popular in merry companies, they must have made an instant connection, associating Van Heythuysen with the many revelers and related connotations.