Sunday, March 18, 2012

Holding hands

Texting from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, my friend asks me whether it is uncommon for sitters in seventeenth-century Dutch portraits such as this one by Aelbert Cuyp, A Chief Merchant of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, Probably Jacob Mathieusen and His Wife, to be shown holding hands. My instinct was to respond straight away and assure him that this convention was widespread, especially in betrothal or marriage portraits—I suppose one need only think of The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck in the National Gallery in London, but now I wonder if we can adequately describe that proprietorial gesture as “holding hands” in the familiar sense of genuinely mutual attachment. That is, after all, more a case of Signor Arnolfini holding hers, and definitely not vice versa. A quick search online soon yielded the Berlin Double Portrait of the Painter Frans Snyders and His Wife by Anthony van Dyck, but again I doubt if we could ever describe that tender conjunction of hands as “holding” in the current sense, and the same certainly applies to the Self-Portrait with Isabella Brant by Peter Paul Rubens in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. As usual, when you come to grips with a deceptively simple question, the answer can become slightly more elusive and complicated than one anticipated at first. Maybe holding hands in public—than which I think, I know, there is no more heartening nor intimate gesture of tenderness short of the kiss—is a profoundly modern practice. And we are not talking about the formal handclasp or handshake that has been much in evidence since antiquity as the public demonstration of agreement and, at times, reconciliation: commercial, political, social. No doubt more intimate hand-holding was no more scarce in the seventeenth century than it is now, but it seems to have been far more restricted to the domestic environment and not nearly as often permitted to stray into portraiture and other formal spheres. Things evidently began to loosen up in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, and I can think of a few good examples among the conversation pieces in our collection: the Lovers in a Landscape by Pieter Jan van Reysschoot (formerly attributed to Francis Hayman), for example. Yet, as before, such gestures can more often than not be geared towards a gentleman taking the hand of a lady or a child, or else the lady taking the arm of her husband, and not so much the mutual holding of hands that these days we recognize as a sign of truly mutual attachment (except, of course, when presidents of the United States are obliged to greet in person the King of Saudi Arabia). So, for example, Mrs. Oliver’s eldest son takes the hand of his soon-to-be-married sister on the right margin of The Oliver and Ward Families by Francis Wheatley, or Mr. Drummond gives his youngest son a helping hand in The Drummond Family by Johan Zoffany. Yet even in a scene as lively and mysterious as The Portrait of a Family by William Hogarth, there are plenty of signs of intimacy, some of them highly suggestive, but no hand-holding. Curious. Incidentally, when we hold hands my friend has the limitlessly appealing habit of lightly stroking with his thumb-tip the proximal knuckle of my second digit!

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