FATHOM close
Van Dyck
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.50
Flemish, active Italy and England, 1599-1641
Philip, Lord Wharton, 1632
Oil on canvas

The sumptuous portrait of Philip, Lord Wharton illustrates the importance of the pastoral tradition in the social role-playing of the seventeenth century.

The aristocratic demeanor of the Stuart nobleman might seem to a modern eye oddly counterbalanced by the rustic shepherd's crook in his arm; likewise, the courtly lace collar is in apparent counterpoint to the casually bucolic robe. But for the baroque mind, pastoral simplicity and aristocratic cool were perfectly congruous. Indeed, there was no better way to display cultural refinement than to play the role of the idealized shepherd or shepherdess, lucky members of the rural leisure class with nothing more to do than compose love sonnets and improve their manners in pursuit of their beloved.

It was the dramatic enactment of pastoral dialogue on stage, enriched by bucolic costumes, sets, gestures, and singing, that most effectively drove this cultural craze. Guarini's Il Pastor Fido of 1590 was an enormous international success, and for much of the next century Europe's theaters were overwhelmed with pastorals. Audiences throughout Europe modeled their social performance on the idealized pastoral roles portrayed on stage; in seventeenth-century Paris, leading salon members went so far as to salute one another regularly not by their names but by self-assumed pastoral pseudonyms. Throughout the century and well into the next, elites dressed up, or rather dressed down--playfully and elaborately down, of course--for portrait painters like Van Dyck so as to be captured for eternity transformed into their favorite pastoral character.

©2001 The University of Chicago