Summer Program Course Description

The Role of the Portrait and Self-Portrait in Netherlandish Renaissance and Baroque Painting Compared to Digital Photography


Five Weeks at Kasteel Well, with Academic Excursions to London, Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft and Haarlem and Ghent and Bruges.

  • 8 undergraduate credits in Visual and Media Arts
  • VM 368 Topics in Art History and Digital Photography (fulfills the Aesthetic Perspective of the General Education requirements)
  • May 22 - June 30, 2014

The goal of this summer program is to study and compare two different means of artistic expression made in two completely different time periods: The "pre-modern," more artisanal style, method, technique, and the meaning and methods of interpretation of old master paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque periods will be compared and contrasted to the methods, meaning, and modes of interpretation of modern means of image-making, in particular of digital photography. The particular focus this summer will be on the Netherlandish (Dutch and Flemish) portrait and self-portrait studied within the European/international context.

The Art Historical Component

We will examine the cultural and artistic exchange in Early Modern Europe when international trade, migration, and the process of cross-cultural awareness had just started to develop. Netherlandish painting which includes the southern, Flemish part of the "Low Countries" (present-day Belgium), of the Renaissance and Baroque period i(circa 1400–1650) will serve as a case study for commercial, cultural and artistic interaction and exchange in Europe as reflected in these artworks.

The commercial revival of the late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance generated the rise of flourishing urban centers all over Europe and instilled an ever-increasing self-awareness in its citizens. We see this reflected in the artworks of that time period. Within this context Netherlandish portraiture will be at the specific center of our attention. The development of this genre will be analyzed and compared to the portraits of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque. Flemish painting of the early Renaissance at first developed completely independently from the stylistic and iconographical developments in the Southern parts of Europe. The same can be said of Italian art. Long distance trade that had developed since the Late Middle Ages fostered international relations within Europe and consequently intellectual and cultural exchange. This interaction, notwithstanding political tensions and wars, transformed the vernacular style and modes of expression of the visual arts in the different European cities. Artists also started to travel long distance. The changes that all this caused were gradual at first but became quite substantial while time progressed. This process of cross-fertilization contributed to the rise and dissemination of the Renaissance style and mentality, and the potential for an international community and a shared visual (and spoken) language of communication was thus created. At the same time, however, differences in style, taste and esthetics continued to exist. We will study all the intricate dynamics in the visual arts of our chosen time period within its broader historical context.

In this course, particular emphasis will be placed on the emergence of individualism and self-awareness of "the trade" middle class. This increased self-esteem rekindled in the visual arts the genre of portraiture, which had died out since Antiquity and now flourished as never before. We will examine the methods of inquiry we should employ to come to answers on questions such as:

  • How important was likeness?
  • How realistic, idealized or political were these portraits?
  • What type of portraits or self-portraits existed in the Renaissance and the Baroque?
  • What was the purpose of the portrait?
  • What does the portrait reveal of the inner self, of the inner emotions and thoughts; of the artist?
  • How does it reflect the mentality of that time period?
  • What was the relationship between the sitter, often the commissioner, and the painter?
  • How did cultural and artistic exchange take place in the Renaissance and how did it affect the evolution of style in this ‘new’ genre?

In general, we will investigate the questions we should pose to the visual object under scrutiny and we will ask ourselves whether the questions we raise were relevant to the time period and relevant in particular to the development of Netherlandish portraiture.

The Digital Photography Component

This part of the program contains both a theoretical/historical and a practical part. It will reflect upon and critically analyze the medium of photography in general, and of digital photography in particular, both from an ethical and an aesthetical point of view. The course investigates the use of the portrait in photography throughout its history, with, again, a focus on Dutch and Flemish photography. We will examine visual experience and representation in our modern visual culture, with a particular emphasis on the representation, the fashioning and the shaping of the inner and outer self. The subsequent internet revolution enables people to present themselves instantly before an audience of millions. This implies that we can become the photographer, the sitter, the editor, the publisher and the spectator ourselves.

The same or comparable questions raised about painted portraiture and its function in the Renaissance and Baroque will be raised here. The practical side of this component includes a creative, hands-on part designed to increase students’ practical understanding of digital technology with all its creative, expressive, communicative and manipulative possibilities. While working with the digital camera and learning the technique of editing, students will develop and extend their artistic and critical understanding of image making and of the making of meaning, and reflect on the effect of mass reproduction. Students will be exposed to different ways of seeing and of representation, which depend as much on mentality, fashion, personal taste and style as on intention, purpose and function. Through analysis, comparison and hands-on experience focused on a clearly circumscribed theme, the portrait and the self-portrait, students will gain a deeper understanding of the role and expressive meaning of this new medium in modern-day society.


Participants will reside at Emerson College’s Kasteel Well, a medieval, double-moated castle situated in the heart of Holland’s Limburg region. The castle is located in the village of Well in the southeastern part of the Netherlands. Well is five minutes from Germany, approximately two hours from the French-speaking region of Belgium, is easily accessible by mass transit and has a regional airport, Airport Weeze, in its direct vicinity that offers access to many European destinations. Students will travel to Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft and Haarlem and Ghent and Bruges.


  • Rob Dückers, Dulcia Meijers (Art Historians).
  • Gerlo Beernink (History of Photography/Photographer)

View Course Requirements for Digital Camera and Computer »