Talking Heads

Talking Heads

Come out of Turning Heads at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp and you’ll start looking at the people of Belgium’s second city in an entirely different way. You’ll encounter living examples of the faces you have just seen on wood or canvas in the exhibition galleries, painted four or five hundred years ago by Peter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordaens. And realise that they’re not that different….

This is such a fun show at Antwerp’s newly renovated main art gallery, and an enlightening one. Alongside the great Flemish masters, there are pictures by the stars of the Dutch Golden Age — Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer — and a lot more, exploring a genre that plays a big role in the painting of the Low Countries: the study of heads, both as preliminary sketches for spectacular group pictures and then as works of art in their own right. 

Such paintings are known in Dutch as tronies — portraits that aren’t really portraits but character studies that seek to create an effect through the use of light, costume or expression. Art for art’s sake, and a chance to show off the painter’s skill and imagination. They’re sometimes quite small, but not always. Take this large-as-life example by Jan Lievens, Rembrandt’s close contemporary.

Lievens has put together a selection of random pieces of costume, a turban with a feather, a cape with a gold chain. It’s an oriental fancy-dress outfit (note the earring) carried off with flair by an unknown Dutchman, whose face also appears in two Rembrandt pictures in the show, once as An Old Man in Military Costume with a giant red feather in his cap, and again wearing a fur cap and coat with a shaggy collar. Both originally from Leiden, Lievens and Rembrandt shared a studio in Amsterdam, and you can imagine their sitter turning up in the morning wondering which make-believe character he was going to be today. 
It’s not actually a fully fledged Rembrandt, and only attributed to the artist’s circle, but among the most spectacular pictures in this show is The Man with the Golden Helmet, with the sombre-looking face of a grizzled old man wearing an archaic, exotic piece of headgear. 

It’s a virtuoso piece of work. Even in a digital image, that intricately patterned helmet reflecting the light appears three-dimensional. When you get close up to it in real life, you can appreciate just how the artist has sculpted it in thick blobs of yellow and cream paint. Even if it isn’t by the master himself, it’s got all the hallmarks.  

But let’s head back a bit to the start of the show and the beginning of the 16th century, where the representation of faces and characters was a bit less subtle. The very first painting we see is one of Christ carrying the cross, possibly by Hieronymus Bosch, in which a saintly Jesus is surrounded by a gallery of ugly mugs. And in Quinten Massijs’ The Martyrdom of St John, there’s evident enjoyment on the grimacing faces of the two men stoking the fire under the cauldron in which the evangelist is being boiled alive. Massijs copied faces from grotesques drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, some of which are on display here. 

Those pictures of the peasantry weren’t flattering. In the late medieval period, there was belief that appearance was linked to status, and the elder Pieter Bruegel went out to record the expressions of country people, no doubt with a certain superiority.  

Bruegel would use such characters to populate those peasant scenes of his — weddings, carnivals, biblical events updated to snowy Flemish villages. And so did other, later Flemish artists. A Rubens study of a man in profile in this show was incorporated into The Descent from the Cross, on display just 20 minutes walk away in Antwerp Cathedral.

Abraham Grapheus, seen in the study by Jordaens above, was a regular model for Antwerp painters because he ran the affairs of the artists’ guild. He appears in the same striking pose at the centre of Jordaens’ monumental Offering to Ceres, hung nearby. Another extra in the same picture, supposedly: the woman who did Rubens’ laundry.  
Tronies provided a great opportunity for artists to show their ability to capture a facial expression: See the contorted face of the young man who’s just drunk Adriaen Brouwer’s Bitter Potion, and admire the exhalation of Joos van Craesbeeck’s Smoker, who’s also clutching a large bottle of something presumably alcoholic. 

From a later period come the remarkable sculptures of the Austrian Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, the only thing to induce a yawn in this exhibition. 

Sometimes, you just can’t believe an artwork is as old as it’s dated: When would you think this crisp graphic work is from? The 1970s, perhaps? 

Hendrick Goltzius’s Laughing Jester was actually made around 1600. The Dutch text seems to be about him sewing on that pair of ass’s ears with the bells on that he’s holding in his left hand. It’s a cruel engraving: Right at the centre of the image, a mole sprouts hairs from the jester’s cheek.  

We’d also have put Michael Sweerts’ Head of a Woman down as being painted a century and a half later than 1654. We’re not at all familiar with Sweerts, and his pictures have a much softer feel to them than many Flemish or Dutch artists of the era.

Another Sweerts — a Portrait of a Girl — comes from the art gallery in Leicester, of all places, and that’s one of the remarkable things about this exhibition: they’ve sourced paintings from far and wide, collections famous and obscure. 

The climax? A picture that brings together a lot of essential tronie elements: strong contrasts of light, striking headgear, an expressive face. They weren’t going to let the Girl with the Pearl Earring over the Dutch border, clearly, but they’ve got another Vermeer over from Washington instead. 

We really enjoyed this exhibition. One of the best this year. 


Turning Heads is on at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (usually referred to using its Dutch-language abbreviation as the KMSKA) until January 21. It’s open daily from 1000; the museum shuts most days at 1700, on weekends and holidays at 1800, and on Thursdays at 2200. A full-price adult ticket to the museum costs 20 euros. There’s no extra charge to visit the exhibition, but you do need to book a time slot, which you can do online here. Allow 90 minutes to see the show. The KMSKA is situated to the south of the city centre, about 30 minutes walk from Antwerp’s central station; trams and buses stop right outside. Frequent trains run to Antwerp from Brussels. 

From Antwerp, the show moves to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin from February 24 to May 26. 

While you’re at the KMSKA….

The museum has an extensive collection, and you should plan plenty of extra time to take in some of it. Possibly the most memorable picture is Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim. The Virgin Mary, with one breast bared and the facial features of the King of France’s mistress, Agnès Sorel, is accompanied by the Christ Child and striking red and blue angels. It’s not easily forgotten. In the same room, Jan van Eyck’s tiny but exquisite Madonna at the Fountain.  


Jan Lievens (1607-1674), Man in Oriental Dress, c. 1629-31, Bildergalerie, Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam 
Circle of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), The Man with the Golden Helmet, c. 1650, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, property of Kaiser Friedrich Museumsverein 
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530-1569), Head of a Peasant Woman, c. 1568, Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich
Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Head Study of Abraham Grapheus, c. 1620-21, Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai 
Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), Laughing Jester with Needle and Thread, c. 1590-1610, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), The Yawner, c. 1771-83, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Michael Sweerts (1618-1664), Head of a Woman, c. 1654, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1669, National Gallery of Art, Washington 

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