chapter  5
24 Pages

Courtiers and Burghers

the depiction of ‘freaks’ north of the Alps
WithBarry Wind

Terata were the amusements of the privileged class. The number of images of deformity depicted for the courts of Italy and Spain demonstrate this. On the other hand, images of terata are not as extensive in Northern Europe. The Northern artists Rubens and Van Dyck, of course, worked for courtly patronage in the south as well as north of the Alps. They, like their southern counterparts, portrayed dwarfs as foils to elegant mistresses, thereby aggrandizing their aristocratic sitters. Yet in contrast to many of the images of the malformed found in Italian and Spanish art, Rubens painted but two known portraits and Van Dyck only one in this vein. And in the Northern Netherlands, where the court was not so firmly established, the traditional derisive portrait of the misshapen is not in evidence. 1 To be sure, this court, like others in the seventeenth century, displayed a taxonomic interest in the unusual. A letter written in 1625, describing a tour of North Holland taken by the Winter King and Queen, Frederick I and Elizabeth, relates how the party was amazed at Enkhuizen by an elephant’s penis and at Edam by a nine-year-old of great height. 2 But the incorporation of terata into portraits to satisfy the whims of aristocratic patronage is not found in Holland. The Dutch artists, Van de Venne, Molenaer, Hals and Steen, did portray dwarfs and hunchbacks. However, with the exception of Hals, whose vivid depiction of the militiaman Nicolas Le Febure, a dwarf who is included in the group portrait of the Banquet of the Officers of the Militia Company of St George, Dutch artists chose to present the dwarf within a narrative or symbolic context. In this chapter we will consider the Dutch and Flemish responses to deformity.