The Art of Tronies

by Jim Brubaker

I wrote this story to help you create a greater love for art. When you do, you may want to support a local Creative Arts Foundation, or maybe you will just take time to look at graffiti in a different way, or maybe even a billboard along the highway will be more enjoyable.

Some who view the works of art will love the style of an old master, others the rainbow colors of a six-year-old, or maybe the abstract work of a graffiti artist.

Whichever style you love, if the artwork contains the image of a person, the face is what sets the emotion that the artist wants to convey – fear, contentment, struggle, seductive, or one of many more emotions – the emotion comes through in the facial expression.

Now, I will start at the beginning of my story. Last week my wife, Gloria, was in the comfortable chair beside the couch and I was sitting on the couch – She was focused on the TV – watching a movie of early Gladiator games in the times of Rome’s first Punic war against Carthage. Instead of watching the Hollywood story, I picked up my IPad, and I Googled “Dutch life in 1600.”

My Great Great Great Great Great Grandfather left the Netherlands in 1710 sailing for Pennsylvania. That is why after 300 years we Brubaker are still called “Pennsylvania Dutch.” With my Google request, I thought I would see what life was like in the Netherlands in the 1600’s.

But instead, Google came back with a story of Harmenszoon van Rijn. “Who is this dude Harmenszoon van Rijn?” Well, his full name was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, the famous portrait Dutch painter in the 1600’s.

I am glad Google gave me that response, because, Gloria is an artist. Her last winning art was a portrait of Maya. It looks like a “Rembrandt” painting to me. So, my mind says she must have been a student of his. You know I like to modify photos, to document what my mind wants to see. It brings comfort to my mind to see things as I want them to be. Over Gloria’s left shoulder I see the Master watching this student.

Rembrandt opened his studio in 1624 in Amsterdam. Sometimes he painted and sketched 24 hours a day. Soon, Rembrandt began to accept students, among them was my wife Gloria. (I made that up that).

Rembrandt’s studio was very successful – It had many students and was often commissioned to paint portraits of wealthy and politically important people. His technique of lighting a face with a single source of light – called “Rembrandt Lighting” – is used today in portrait photography. Amazon even sells books explaining Rembrandt’s lighting technique.

However, Rembrandt was not immune to problems and failures. At the time of his death he was broke and was buried in an unmarked grave – he was scorned by the church and sued by a lover for breach of promise to marry.

But, for now, I want to tell you of his successes in painting portraits so that you may grow in your appreciation of art. Gloria and Rembrandt both have a passion for drawing you into their artwork through the expression painted on their subjects’ faces.

In the 1640’s Rembrandt sketched hundreds of faces just to study facial expressions. He liked to study wrinkled, lived-in faces, often with exaggerated expressions. These sketches are called tronies. – Tronie is the Dutch word for face.

Like Rembrandt, Gloria puts a lot into the facial expressions. When she is creating in her studio and takes a break to visit me in my office, her conversation is often about the challenge of getting the right expression on the face of the subject she is working on.

The artist in her says, “The inner person is to be projected through the eyes, the lips, eyebrows …, – they must all come together in some mysterious way to capture the expression in the face – only the artist’s brush can bring the emotion out.”

That inspired me to check her studio for tronies. Camera in hand, I went to her studio. I did not find any tronies, so I photographed some of her art pieces and selected only the subject’s face – a hidden tronie. You can see her artwork at

Look on the walls of restaurants, in the Mall, on FaceBook, in the art museums. Ignore the background and study the expressions found in the hidden tronie.

If you develop the habit of looking for hidden tronies, your appreciation for the artist will grow, and you will have more fun.



  1. Jim, Enjoyed your article. Made me revisit the significance of faces and the very important part they play in what we see.


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