A “Golden” experience

Fralin exhibit of portrait-esque "tronies" truly shines

I know it’s probably been a while since you memorized vocabulary for the SATs, but here’s a word too fun to ignore: tronie.

Neither a troll mixed with a pony nor a misspelled version of “phony,” “tronie” is 17th century Dutch for “face,” also referring to a style of artwork which focuses on people’s faces and emotions. Intrigued? You’re in luck — the Fralin Museum of Art is displaying a collection of 17th century Dutch tronies from now until August.

“Portraying the Golden Age” is an understated but inspiring exhibition at the University art museum. It is split into two parts: the first on display until April 27, the second from May 2 to Aug. 10.

At the foot of the Fralin’s stairs, the exhibition’s framed drawings are mounted on the walls, curated by Luzak-Linder Graduate Fellow John Hawley. It is easy to walk passed these works — only a few of the 10 have color, and most dwarf conventional paintings in size. Done in pencil or light watercolor on vellum, a surface only slightly fancier and more durable than paper, the drawings seem faded, cheap and uninteresting at first glance. Upon closer examination, however, the details bring these works to life and truly warrant repeated viewings.

Among the featured works is “Bust of an Old Woman in Profile” by lesser-known Dutch painter Jan Lievens. This portrait is of such high quality that for many years it was attributed to Rembrandt, with whom Lievens collaborated. The details of the portrait are incredibly heightened — fine pencil marks and shading replicate exact likenesses and the texture of clothing. Details also come to life in Cornelis Visscher’s drawing “Head of an Old Man,” in which the sitter’s fur-lined hat is absolutely breathtaking, every stroke of pencil immortalized as a soft strand of fur.

Also be sure to take particular note of “Man with Cloak and Polished Hat,” another Visscher portrait. At first glance, it may just seem like an old European guy staring out from under a big, fuzzy hat. However, comparing this piece to Visscher’s portrait “Head of an Old Woman,” it becomes clear that Visscher merely added hair and a hat to the old lady’s bonnet to create the “Man” portrait. Discovering the man and old woman have almost identical faces and expressions was a particularly exciting revelation.

While “Portraying the Golden Age” may appear small and inconsequential, the craft and beauty which went into these portraits and tronies is admirable and inspiring — and that alone is worth the trek to the Fralin.

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