Richard Hoover: ‘Castle portraits’ reflect values of period society

Portrait A
Portrait B
Portrait C
Portrait D
Portrait E
Portrait F

In his wonderful “A Time of Gifts,” British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the first leg of his youthful trans-European hike to Istanbul in the 1930s.

Aesthetically acute and well-read beyond his years, the lad details how beer and brandy often left him at the mercies of kindly strangers, left him waking up mornings in strange surroundings, say, in castles along the Rhine or Danube. There, he invariably found himself surrounded by ubiquitous family portraits, whose subjects were tricked out in breastplates, lace, ribbons, decorations, hussars’ shakos, periwigs and powder. Few of these, he judged, “are at all well painted.”

I would dub this genre of painting “castle portraits” and would guess they left Fermor cold because they lacked the kinds of qualities found in the works of the old masters, qualities which Fermor had trained himself to admire: psychological and spiritual depth, classical purity, and expressive, if not innovative, techniques and styles.

Yet, those who commissioned and sat for castle portraits seem to have held different criteria altogether; primarily, that a work should be judged entirely by its success in projecting how the sitter saw himself, how he wished to be remembered and admired.

I would even argue that, square yard for square yard (of canvas), castle portraits better reflect the values of period society than do the works of the great masters. I mean, which is the broader reflection of values: innovative refinements pioneered by an old master painter, or the stolid, if not immobile qualities demanded by thousands of sitters who pay for traditional work?

My point is that art beholders who would commune with the broad realities of the past, would learn customs and witness past vitalities, cannot shut themselves up with the Old Masters. They ignore castle portraits at their peril!

Here, then, are six castle portraits, taken straight from the bottom rung of Fermor’s fine arts ladder. To be sure, not one of them represents a missing page from the conventional History of Art. Nevertheless, they all engage, draw us into the past.

The grand fellow in black armor in Portrait A, with his almost beaming face and circa 1710 show and tell, proclaims that he is a proud devotee of Louis XIV. Look at the white ostrich plumed helmet, lower left — an homage to the famous white ostrich plume Louis wore in imitation of his grandfather, Henry IV. Note the other Royal attributes — the flaming red cravat and sword belt, both adopted from the uniform of the Croatian regiment which stumbled into 17th century Paris, refugees from Ottoman invasion. Louis enlisted them in his palace guard and adopted the red tie to wear himself (ever wonder about the derivation of the word “cravat?” — from Croat!).

And here, in Portrait B, is Graf Stephan, 1625, a Northern Italian nobleman of German descent. Although lacking refinements which might have made it museum-worthy, this portrait delivers admirably on what was no doubt its main commission — to present this stone-faced noble, overflowing with costly lace and gold braid, as a formidable and enormously wealthy son-of-a-gun with whom it would be inadvisable to meddle!

And here, in Portrait C, is a quartet of castle portraits straight from the last decade of the Napoleonic Wars. Portrait C represents a lower ranking Austrian officer solemnly projecting what probably represented the triumph of his whole lifetime — the Cannon Cross. Made from melted French guns, this decoration was awarded to veterans of the Battle of Leipzig, October 1813. There, the combined Austrian, Prussian, Russian and Swedish forces handed Napoleon the crushing defeat which set him on the road to abdication.

The Cannon Cross, in Portrait D, just to the right of center, tells us that this Austrian-Hungarian hussar, Colonel Mercery, was also at Leipzig. Dead center is the Order of Maria Theresa, presented to those who accomplish heroic deeds, but only while disobeying orders! In Mercery’s case, he refused Austrian General Mack’s order to surrender to Napoleon at the Battle of Ulm, October 1805. Instead, Mercery and his men cut their way through French encirclement, and made it home to Vienna while destroying French stores and trains along the way.

And here’s a Prussian officer in Portrait E. But for his be-medaled chest, there’s little to say, given that his physiognomy betrays none of the deeper qualities that marked the old masters. Nevertheless, there is drama here: above, dead-center, the Russian Order of St. Anne suggests that this Fellow was also at the Battle of Leipzig. The oval medal, which recognizes service in Campaign Year 1815, places him almost certainly at Waterloo. On each end, black Prussian Iron Crosses for valor. The gold cross recognizes his years of service. Could you express to this experienced officer your regret that the painter had not made his face more expressive, more reflective of the battlefield sorrows he has seen, I bet he would be at a loss to know what you were talking about!

Finally, a member of the famous Dutch 8th Hussars in Portrait F. Allied with Napoleon, the 8th went all the way to Moscow before switching sides in support of the restoration of the House of Orange-Nassau in 1814/15. At Waterloo, fearing that the 8th might defect back to Napoleon, Wellington ordered them cut down to the man should they give the slightest indication. To its glory, the 8th remained true to the allies. See the “8” on his shako, and the orange decorations and facings on shako, belt and pelisse, reflecting this regiment’s new loyalties to the House of Orange. As ordinary as you may consider this castle portrait, its subject gives us everything he can — hussar values and, no doubt, what was the best part of his whole life!

I would defend these so-called castle portraits — as stolid, immobile and common as they may be — against young Fermor’s less than generous evaluation. Although bereft of museum quality, they have tremendous powers to instruct, to transport their beholders to the sacred past. Yet, they are under-appreciated, all but ignored. Why? Aesthetically, of course, they simply do not attain the tremendous quality of the old masterworks. Further, investigating what lies behind many of these portraits often requires effort, often depends upon deciphering signs, colors, symbols, decorations and other attributes which moderns find too obscure. And, of course, the realities they often project — class, status, wealth, power, patriotism and martial glory — are not always in present fashion!

Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer who resides in southern Warren County. Growing up near Cleveland, he was raised with antiques from the beginning and introduced early to shops, shows and auctions. He lectures on subjects ranging from Benjamin West and the Venetian Empire to Christian art and American Revolutionary War engravings.

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