Johannnes Vermeer, 'Girl with the Red Hat' (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

Known by its Flemish acronym KMSKA, the museum’s first major exhibition since reopening in 2022 after an 11-year, €100 million makeover is Turning Heads: Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt (until Jan 21, 2024), which focuses on the development of a new 17th century genre, the head study – or ‘tronie’ in old Dutch (for ‘face’) – when Old Masters poured their talent into painting the human likeness.

The Old Masters were narrators, especially of stories from the Bible or mythology. That is why they were so fascinated with faces, which brought their stories to life and expressed what the characters in their paintings were experiencing. They let the faces do the talking. Over time they built up an inventory from which they and their assistants could copy samples to incorporate into paintings. The exhibition includes several examples of individual faces shown alongside larger works in which they were used.

These are not portraits designed to identify a sitter or mark their place in society. (Portraiture as a genre came later.) Here, the subject is not important. The models are ordinary, anonymous individuals chosen for their remarkable features and expressions and depicted from various angles.

Also including works by Dürer, Jordaens, van Dyck, Hals and Vermeer, the exhibition features loans from the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam