In 1657, Rembrandt’s pupil and close friend, Gerbrand van der Eeckhout, was commissioned to paint a group portrait of Four Officers of the Amsterdam Cooper’s and Wine-Rackers’ Guild. The four Amsterdam burghers sit at a table on which are important-looking books and a document with a round, red wax seal.
Three of these important men wear tall, wide-brimmed black hats, and except for the Master are dressed in black with broad, white collars. The Master, whose importance is accentuated by posing in front of a white background, also wears black clothing, but sports a white ruff – giving him a certain gravitas.
They are serious men, important and wealthy, secure in their positions of power in Holland’s Golden Age.
They are there to be recorded for posterity, and have succeeded in life. The proof of this success on the part of the artist and his sitters is that we are now able to admire the picture, hanging in room 22 of London’s National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square. But it is not the Officers that steal the show, it is a dog.
This small, long-legged creature with short ears sits at his master’s feet, the Master, in the lower left-hand corner of the painting. He has a small tail, is pale brown with areas of white, and is marked by a V-shaped white patch on his head.
Dogs are happy with a job to do, and this dog does it splendidly. His duty is to keep an eye on everyone who might upset his master in any way. So he watches you, trusting no one.
Stand in front of the painting, wherever you will, and his eyes are on you. Walk across in front of him and he will follow you with his attentive gaze. There is no escape from his beady eyes. He might well bite should you get too near.
So the rope around the painting is not for its safety, it is for yours.