Peter Boyle's "Group portrait, Delft, late sixteenth century."

Group portrait, Delft, late sixteenth century.
What the painter saw in our faces
stack level too deep
By Claire Nashar on April 2013

Art History – the study of objects of art in their historical contexts – is only one way of thinking about the relationship between art and time.  In this poem by Peter Boyle, the way in which art is “of its time” – embedded in a particular historical context – is contrasted to the personal and intimate world of the artist.

The 1567 arrival in the Netherlands of the Spanish Duke of Alba for the purpose of suppressing civil and religious rebellion among the Dutch, acts as both frame and background to the poem’s central scene: a painter painting a group portrait of the regents of an orphanage in Delft.  As the artist works, he meditates upon the style and purpose of his art.  The “fashion of the age”, the genre painting typical of the Delft School, is knowingly and designedly commemorative (“recording everything precisely as it is”).  It aspires to preservation – to “making present to the touch each thing as it passes into amnesia”.  The painter acknowledges that it’s “[n]ice money if you can get work”, but desires to paint differently, “as bluntly/ as words spoken during an avalanche”,  to capture the “rounded brutal mouths” of the local birds in winter, or the “five servant girls/ penned in their cages/ awaiting the sentence of beheading”.  “[Y]et”, he says, “all’s this inevitable smooth,/ these muted blues”.  

The pun on the word “executing” (both to put death and to carry out, or in this case, to paint) in the poem’s fourth line and the aural resonance between the compound words “lancepoint” (line 3) and “correctly-laced” (line 5), might suggest, among other things, the artifice and narcissism that is involved when art is put to such uses:

I enjoy the delicate way their hands rest on the title deeds

for these most Christian places

even the order “No prisoners” passed along both sides

or another cannonade ripped through the munitions factory

burying in rubble the girl’s school for genteel deportment.

Each year the orphanages increased.

The portraits grew heavier and heavier.