GEM: An early modern author portrait

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Pictured above is a miniature oil on copper portrait (11×9 cm.) by the eighteenth century Dutch painter Jan Maurits Quinkhard. As a small inscription on the back of the portrait indicates, the individual depicted is Matthijs de Castelein, a sixteenth century Flemish priest and rhetorician poet and playwright. The painting belongs to an extensive series of portraits of about the same shape, size and material that Quinkhard made of writers from the early modern Low Countries. Other authors in the series, which is now conserved in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, are Jason Pratensis, Nicolaas Heinsius, Jacob Lascaille and Constantijn Huygens.

When Quinkhard painted his portrait of De Castelein the author had been dead for about two hundred years. Quinkhard probably made the painting on the basis of an older engraving, a technique that he also used for other portraits in his series. Two extant early seventeenth-century editions of works by De Castelein, printed by Felix van Sambix in 1612 and by Jan van Waesberghe in 1616, contain an almost identical portrait, probably the same one that Quinkhard knew.

Thanks to the portrait in the 1612 and 1616 prints, Matthijs de Castelein is the oldest Dutch rhetorician of whom we know (or believe that we know) what he looked like. Quinkhard’s skill as a portraitist and his use of the medium of oil paint has added a more genuinely human countenance to the somewhat sketchy face in the copper engraving. Looking at Quinkhard’s portrait thus provides the viewer with a sense of immediacy and physical presence of an author who lived almost five centuries ago. For anyone interested in authors and authorship from that period, this is a rare and therefore all the more exhilarating sensation.

But what is it that we are actually looking at? The reason why we (and probably Quinkhard as well) believe the face in the engraved portrait to have been De Castelein’s is that it has been included in the title page of an edition of his works. Unfortunately there are no other evocations of the poet’s face, either in image or word, to compare with. The only thing we have to go on are the 1612 and 1616 editions of De Castelein’s works. However, an investigation and comparison of these sources seriously problematizes the identification of the bearded laurel crowned figure. First of all, the engraving only appears in editions of De Castelein’s work printed in Holland (Rotterdam) in the seventeenth century. It does not feature in publications that are closer to the author both in time and space, such as the 1555 edition of his Const van Rhetoriken (The Art of Rhetoric) printed in Ghent by Jan Cauweel, or in the 1571 and 1573 compilations of his work produced in the same city on the presses of Gillis vanden Rade and of the widow of Ghileyn Manilius respectively.

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There is actually more that links the portrait of De Castelein to other works printed in Holland in the early seventeenth century than to the earlier Flemish editions of the works of the poet. Most notable are the full profile posture of the figure and the laurel wreath on his head. Both features are relatively rare for the period. They do, however, also appear in other portraits in books printed by Van Waesberghe. In these cases we can be certain that the portraits were not based on the actual faces of the individuals they claim to represent. In his editions of the Dutch translations (by the Antwerp rhetorician Cornelis van Ghistele) of Virgil’s Aeneid (1599) and Ovid’s Heroides (1607) Van Waesberghe included full profile laurel crowned busts that, also as in the case of the De Castelein portrait, are accompanied by the name of the poet in the editions of whose works they feature.

There thus seems to be some ground to assume that the portrait in the 1612 and 1616 editions of De Castelein is an invention of the printer or of an engraver in the printer’s service rather than a physical rendering of the face and upper body of the Flemish poet. This does not mean, however, that there is no relation between the portrait and the individual it claims to represent. It is highly unlikely that the author has ever been crowned with laurel wreaths. There are, in any case, no traces that this practice existed among sixteenth-century Netherlandish rhetoricians. However, De Castelein did use the image of the laurel wreath quite prominently in his already mentioned Const van Rhetoriken. In an evocation of a dream that incited him to write this vernacular poetics the poet describes how the god Mercury came down from mount Parnassus to assign him to compose his text and brought along a laurel wreath that, as Mercury states in the poem, is placed around the heads of poets (stanzas 21-22). By actually depicting the poet with this object the seventeenth century printers probably wanted to stress the humanistic aspects in the work of De Castelein and thus make it more commercially appealing for en early seventeenth century audience.

If the above hypothesis is correct, the 1612/1616 engraved portrait of Matthijs de Castelein is a translation in the form of a human countenance of, partly, how the author presented himself in his text and, partly, of how a printer and his audience interpreted or liked to interpret that text. Jan Maurits Quinkhard does not seem to have been aware of this when he copied the portrait. His rendering of De Castelein might thus be considered an example of a lack of historical critical awareness, of the ability to assess the nature and status of historical sources. To the literary historian fascinated by late medieval and early modern individual authorship in a period in which non-literary traces of authors were rare, however, this small oval object can also be highly confronting regarding the nature of his own scholarship. To what extent are the individuals that we believe to recreate in words comparable to the individual that Quinkhard believed to recreate in oil painting? Are the late medieval and early modern authors that we study the producers or rather the products of their writings? Is scholarship on early modern authorship concerned with individuals or rather with spectres, unreal objects of thought, phantasms of the brain?

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