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Dutch citizens from the newly affluent mercantile class were as keen to commission portraits of themselves and their families as were their aristocratic counterparts. In accordance with Calvinist tradition, Dutch sitters were mindful not to come across as too ostentatious, wearing predominantly black clothing and often posing in neutral surroundings. Their portraits therefore lack the showiness seen in Baroque portraits by artists such as Van Dyck (see Room 21). Yet the discerning observer would have understood that the refined if muted elegance of the sitter’s clothing signalled their high social status. What these portraits lost in swagger, they often gained in their vivid characterisation and intense focus.

Portraits fulfil, first and foremost, a dynastic function and serve to remind us of the sitters’ position in society. It is in the hands of exceptionally talented artists, however, that portraits become great works of art. This is superbly exemplified by Frans Hals, whose bravura and assured painterly touch transport his portraits to a higher level.