We tend to think of public relations as a modern invention, but the desire for self-promotion is hardly new. In the days before the news release and the photo call, the most effective means of image control was the painted portrait.
In the early 16th century, a format of portraiture developed that was stunning in its impact, showing subjects life-size, full-length and standing. The scale was unprecedented in secular art, being previously reserved for depictions of God and the saints. It was also the most expensive form of self-promotion that money could buy. Such a portrait conferred instant status.
Originally the preserve of monarchy and of the high nobility, the full-length portrait was later adopted by those a little lower down the social scale. But they all used the format to communicate who they were — or who they would like to be.
In the exhibition “High Society,” running through June 3, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has gathered almost 40 magnificent full-length portraits from the 16th to the 20th centuries by the leading artists of their day. The paintings offer a fascinating insight into the messages that the great and the good sought to convey about themselves.
The Habsburg emperor Charles V popularized the full-length portrait for the Europe’s ruling elites in the 16th century. Fully aware of its religious origins, he was effectively declaring himself God’s representative on Earth. He had five such portraits made during the 1530s to be hung in palaces across his vast territories, which included the Holy Roman Empire in Europe and the Spanish Empire that stretched to Asia and the Americas. He was evidently eager to make sure his subjects absorbed the powerful message.
“It was all about propaganda and PR,” said Jonathan Bikker, the curator of the Rijksmuseum exhibition. “I think that’s why the monarchy and the high nobility had such a strong hold on that format. They made it associated with them and them alone.”
The nobility would often use the full-length portrait to celebrate the union of two influential families. Such was the case with Henry IV, duke of Saxony, and his bride, Catherine of Mecklenburg, whose 1514 portraits by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder were opulently adorned in the colors of their coats of arms. The continuation of a powerful dynasty could also be emphasized by the inclusion of children.
The association of the nobility attracted the Dutch bourgeoisie to the format in the 17th century. Having gained wealth and power, they used their portraits to claim a comparable importance.
Through Opera, Debussy Reaches a New Audience 歌劇之美 讓德布西有了新知音
It may seem a paradox that one of the most influential composers of modern sung theater completed only one opera. “Pelléas et Mélisande” brought French composer Claude Debussy instant fame in 1902, but the stage work achieved such a perfection of his artistic ideals that he never managed to repeat the success.
Skeptical of the theater establishment, relentlessly self-critical and plagued by illness in his final years, Debussy left behind a legacy that musicologists are, to some extent, still working to reconstruct. Even after a premiere performance, he would continue making adjustments, sometimes to more than one copy of a given score. And he left the majority of his stage works unorchestrated before dying at age 55.
The centennial of the composer’s death this year provides an occasion to revisit the lesser-known corners of his oeuvre. The label Warner Classics in January released the first compilation of Debussy’s complete works, a 33-CD set that includes four premiere recordings of vocal music.
On May 1, the Staatskapelle Berlin, under its music director, Daniel Barenboim, will perform “La Damoiselle Élue,” which Debussy called a “little oratorio,” and the “Trois Ballades de François Villon,” among the few songs he orchestrated himself.
The légende dansée (danced legend) “Khamma,” which had its premiere posthumously in an orchestration by Fauré protégé Charles Koechlin, will be heard at the Philharmonie de Paris on June 9 in a program of the Orchestre de Paris under Fabien Gabel. “Pelléas” also remains in repertoire on the world’s stages, with a new production by Norwegian-German director Stefan Herheim coming up at the Glyndebourne Festival on June 30 and a revival of Ruth Berghaus’ 1991 production at the Staatsoper Berlin from May 27 to June 14.
Barenboim said Debussy, despite being “one of the most important composers in the history of music,” had “yet to really achieve his place in musical life.” He emphasized the composer’s deep connection to both literature and nature: “I think he was fascinated by nature not in the sense of what nature inspires the human being to think about but what nature in itself is.
“Pelléas” represents the culmination of years of exploring the possibilities of vocal music. Debussy wrote about 100 songs, half of which he produced from 1880 to 1886, before he turned 30. The composer was the first to set the poetry of Paul Verlaine, in 1882, while involved in a passionate affair with amateur soprano Marie Vasnier, the wife of a building clerk.