A tronie (16/17th-century Dutch for "face") is a common type, or group of types, of works common in Dutch Golden Age painting and Flemish Baroque painting that shows an exaggerated facial expression or a stock character in costume. It is related to the French word “tronche” which is slang for “mug” or head.
The term 'tronie' is not clearly defined in art historical literature. Literary and archival sources show that initially the term 'tronie' was not always associated with people. Inventories sometimes referred to flower and fruit still lifes as 'tronies'. More common was the meaning of face or visage. Often the term referred to the entire head, even a bust, and in exceptional cases the whole body. A tronie could be two-dimensional, but also made of plaster or stone. Sometimes a tronie was a likeness, the depiction of an individual, including the face of God, Christ, Mary, a saint or an angel. In particular a tronie denoted the characteristic appearance of the head of a type, for example a farmer, a beggar or a jester. Tronie sometimes meant so much as a grotesque head or a model such as the type of an ugly old person. When conceived as the face of an individual and of a type a tronie's aim was to express feelings and character in an accurate manner and must therefore be expressive.
In modern art-historical usage the term tronie is typically restricted to figures not intended to depict an identifiable person, so it is a form of genre painting in a portrait format. Typically a painted head or bust only, if concentrating on the facial expression, but often half-length when featured in an exotic costume, tronies might be based on studies from life or use the features of actual sitters. The picture was typically sold on the art market without identification of the sitter, and was not commissioned and retained by the sitter as portraits normally were. Similar unidentified figures treated as history paintings would normally be given a title from the classical world, for example the Rembrandt painting now known as Saskia as Flora.
The genre started in the Low Countries in the 16th century where it was likely inspired by some of the grotesque heads drawn by Leonardo. Leonardo had pioneered drawings of paired grotesque heads whereby two heads, usually in profile, were placed opposite each other in order to accentuate their diversity. This paired juxtaposition was also adopted by artists in the Low Countries. In 1564 or 1565 Joannes and Lucas van Doetecum are believed to have engraved 72 heads attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder that followed this paired arrangement.
This paired model was still being used by some artists in the 17th century. For instance, the Flemish artist Jan van de Venne who was active in the first half of the 17th century painted a number of tronies juxtaposing different faces.
Several Rembrandt self-portrait etchings are tronies, as are paintings of himself, his son and his wives. Three Vermeer paintings were described as "tronies" in the Dissius auction of 1696, perhaps including the Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Washington Young Girl with a flute. Frans Hals also painted a number of tronies, which are now among his best-known works, including the two tronies known as Malle Babbe and the Gypsy Girl (see gallery).
Adriaen Brouwer was one of the most successful practitioners of the genre as he had a talent for expressiveness. His work gave a face to lower-class figures by infusing their images with recognizable and vividly expressed human emotions—anger, joy, pain, and pleasure. His Youth Making a Face (c. 1632/1635, National Gallery of Art) shows a young man with a satirical and mocking gesture which humanises him, however uninviting he may appear. Brouwer's vigorous application of paint in this composition, with his characteristically short, unmodulated brushstrokes, increases the dramatic effect. Genre painters often returned to the old theme of the allegory of the five senses and created series of tronies depicting the five senses. Examples are Lucas Franchoys the Younger's A man removing a plaster, the sense of touch and Joos van Craesbeeck's The Smoker which represents taste.
The tronie is related to, and has some overlap with, the "portrait historié", a portrait of a real person as another, usually historical or mythological, figure. Jan de Bray specialised in these, and many portraitists sometimes showed aristocratic ladies in particular as mythological figures.
Frans Hals, so-called Gypsy Girl
Lucas Franchoys the Younger, A man removing a plaster, the sense of touch
- Joseph Ducreux - French 18th century portraitist whose less formal works use extreme expressions
- Franz Xaver Messerschmidt - Austrian sculptor best known for his extreme "character heads"
- Jan Muylle, Tronies toegeschreven aan Pieter Bruegel, in: De zeventiende eeuw. Jaargang 17. Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum 2001, p. 174-203 (in Dutch)
- Brouwer, Adriaen, Youth Making a Face at the National Gallery of Art
- A man removing a plaster, the sense of touch by Lucas Franchoys the Younger at the Wellcome Library, London
- Hirschfelder, Dagmar: Tronie und Porträt in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2008. ISBN 978-3-7861-2567-9
- Gottwald, Franziska: Das Tronie. Muster - Studie - Meisterwerk. Die Genese einer Gattung der Malerei vom 15. Jahrhundert bis zu Rembrandt, München/Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2009. ISBN 978-3-422-06930-5
- Hirschfelder, Dagmar / Krempel, León (Eds.): Tronies. Das Gesicht in der Frühen Neuzeit, Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2013.