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  • Herman Cohen Stuart

Tronies: A Surprising Link Between Edward S. Curtis and the Art of Painting


Left: Rembrandt van Rijn, Tronie of an Old Man. Right: Edward S. Curtis, Eskadi-Apache
Left: Rembrandt van Rijn, Tronie of an Old Man. Right: Edward S. Curtis, Eskadi-Apache

In Antwerp, Belgium, an exhibition titled Turning Heads (Krasse koppen) ran from October 2023 to January 2024 at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA). On display were paintings of so-called "tronies" (an old Dutch word for faces). Typically, these are renderings of human faces that differ in, for instance, head position, expression, and direction of gaze. They are intended to be used as objects of study and, of course, to be sold on the market.


The tronie, primarily a Dutch and Flemish art form dating back to the 17th century, differs from a traditional portrait in that the identity of the person represented does not matter and is thus not mentioned: a tronie is solely about the head itself. In the exhibition, which featured work by painters such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer, a number of aspects of tronie paintings emerged from which various connections can be made with Curtis's book series, The North American Indian (NAI). As it turns out, his work reflects several tronie-painting traditions.

 

Curtis produced many very personal portraits, with names and sometimes brief biographies, but he also created anonymous photographic “tronies.” This distinction is not usually made in analyses of his work, but it is relevant. For example, he produced many portraits in the anonymous tronie style, often naming them generically with titles such as A Cowichan Warrior or Typical Nez Perce. These portraits, however, were not intended to study facial expressions. Curtis wanted to show facial features, hairstyles, clothing, and head coverings.

 

Tronie painters used shadows in many degrees, ranging from sharp to soft, and even barely visible shading. Rembrandt was an absolute master in the use of light and shadow, but Curtis, too, in his way – and with his medium – was extraordinarily skilled at it. At least 448 NAI photographs show facial shadow in every possible degree. In addition, photographic backgrounds range from light, through dim, to distinctly dark.

 


Left: Rembrandt van Rijn, Tronie of a Man with a Feather Beret (1635-40). Right: Edward S. Curtis, Chief Garfield, Jicarilla (1904).
Left: Rembrandt van Rijn, Tronie of a Man with a Feather Beret (1635-40). Right: Edward S. Curtis, Chief Garfield, Jicarilla (1904).

One of the functions of head coverings as portrayed by painters (turbans, helmets, very elaborate but also very simple hoods and caps) is that they (the head coverings) indicate the social positions of their wearers. In the NAI, head coverings come in many different forms, from hairbands to small and large caps in a multitude of varieties, hats, headscarves, and feathers. Particularly significant headdresses are the well-known Plains war bonnets: these head coverings eminently indicate the social position of their Native wearers.

 

Left: Edward S. Curtis, A Hesquiat Maiden (1915). Right: Jan Lievens, Portrait of an Old Woman (ca. 1630)
Left: Edward S. Curtis, A Hesquiat Maiden (1915). Right: Jan Lievens, Portrait of an Old Woman (ca. 1630)

In another respect, Curtis did precisely not adhere to tronie painters’ traditions. The exhibition showed a number of tronies wearing very pronounced facial expressions, such as wide-open mouths, deeply furrowed brows, faces expressing emotions such as great mirth, terror, and deep disgust. Compare, for example, the expression of the man portrayed in The Bitter Potion (1636-1638) by Adriaen Brouwer. In Curtis's portrait work, expressions are more even. Cheering, raging or hooting individuals are not seen in the NAI. Displaying intense emotions of those photographed was not Curtis's goal.


Left: Adriaen Bower, The BItter Potion (1636-38). Right: Edward S. Curtis, Typical Nez Perce (1910).
Left: Adriaen Bower, The BItter Potion (1636-38). Right: Edward S. Curtis, Typical Nez Perce (1910).

 Curtis’s work reflects another tronie-painting tradition in that he depicted people from different angles. Painters had been painting portraits in this way for centuries. Whereas theirs were artistic head studies, Curtis's inspiration for his frontal and profile photographs, often called "types" and “profiles” in the NAI, originated primarily from the scientific tradition of his time. In addition, however, he produced many portraits showing heads in other positions, including three-quarter portraits. The latter may be characterized as artistic – apart from the degree to which they exhibit shading, the criterion I used in my research (see below) to determine the artistry of Curtis's portraits.


Left: Peter Paul Rubens, Head Study of an Old Woman (1617). Right: Edward S. Curtis, Klamath Woman (1923).
Left: Peter Paul Rubens, Head Study of an Old Woman (1617). Right: Edward S. Curtis, Klamath Woman (1923).

An important question is whether this way of depicting anonymous people's heads is in any way degrading to the persons involved, as has been remarked about Curtis's unnamed portraits. Gerald Vizenor in particular has been very critical of anonymous portrait paintings and photographs of Natives: he saw them as nothing more than ethnographic simulations, fabricated by a dominant group. In terms of the above, one could say he was discussing tronies.


Because this is a complicated point, just a single comment here. Very succinctly put, portraits and tronies have different functions. The former serve to depict individual persons, whereas tronies are intended to study the many variations in human heads. From the point of view of the tronie painter, the latter function will be paramount, but for the individual in the picture and those close to him or her, especially family and descendants, as well as (see Vizenor) for the group to which he or she belongs, the defining aspect of a human being is precisely their person, not head shape.

 

This depersonalization issue deserves a broader consideration than is possible within the scope of this article. By distinguishing the concept of tronie, it becomes possible to consider Curtis's portrait photography against a background that differs from the usual context of his scientific and artistic (Pictorialist) approaches. However, the issues mentioned above that may pertain to types and profiles as well as tronies, should be taken into account in further elaborations on the subject of Curtis's unidentified portraits. 



Herman Cohen Stuart is the author of Unraveling Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian. He lives in The Netherlands.

 

Sources:

Baaij, Jeroen de. Wat is een ‘Tronie’? https://kunstvensters.com/2020/08/21/wat-is-een-tronie/, August 21, 2020

Cohen Stuart, Herman. Unraveling Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2023.

Hout, Nico Van, Koen Bulckens, Michael W. Kwakkelstein, Lizzie Marx and Frederike Schutt. Turning Heads. Catalog accompanying the exhibition Turning Heads - Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt. Hannibal Books and KMSKA, 2023.

Vizenor, Gerald. Fugitive Poses. In: Katakis, Michael (ed.). Excavating Voices. University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1998.

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1 Comment


Janet Steins
Apr 20

So informative, Herman! I think your comparison between Rembrandt's subtle, and non-so-subtle, use of shadows and Curtis's similar practices in many of his portraits is right on the mark. I was unfamiliar with tronies, and I appreciate the distinctions you make between them and portraits, distinctions I am now more prepared to draw in my work with the photograph collections in Harvard's anthropology library (where I served as collections librarian for many years). Both portraits and photographs that represent various physical "types" are housed in that 150+year old library. Though retired now, it is my ongoing hope to bring these photographs to the attention to more researchers.

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