Is there a significance to the fact that some of the portraits have animals in them, but most do not?
For John Van Cortlandt and his family, this white-tailed deer was a symbol of the fauna of the New World. They were making a name for themselves in America and wanted to demonstrate both their strong European roots (with the style of the portrait) as well as distinguish themselves (with the deer).
Part of the idea was also that America was more wild than Europe (remember this is 1731) and people lived much closer to nature.
Great, thank you very much!
Why do they point their index finger?
Hi there! Pointing this way is a common pose throughout portraiture in Europe and the European colonies dating back many centuries.
I believe it can be traced to ancient Rome when a pointing pose was often a symbol of a statesman or an orator. Some suggest that the direction in which one points might convey their path in life and their level of progression on said path. Let me see what I can confirm.
If you take a look at the nearby painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart you'll see another pose drawn directly Roman images of statesmen. I'm having trouble finding if pointing down has a different connotation, but it certainly built out of the same tradition.
You're welcome! As you many know, the European art tradition frequently looks to the Classical period for inspiration. There is a gallery of Neo-classical sculpture nearby where you'll see many references to Greek and Roman myth!
Who is this boy?
The subject of this portrait, John Van Cortlandt, was about 13 years old when he posed. The Van Cortlandts were one of the city's wealthiest Dutch families and owned large amounts of property north of Manhattan.
While the artist is unknown, it's clear they were looking to Mezzotint prints of portraits of British nobility for the pose as well as the setting. These portraits functioned as a status symbol in the home, indicating both wealth and cultural ties to Europe.