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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Rembrandt van Rijn/Portrait of a Man in a Tall Hat/c. 1663,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/1208 (accessed September 29, 2016).

 

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Overview

After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist, specializing in history paintings and portraiture. He received many commissions and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.

The identity of this distinguished sitter has long been lost, but his dress and demeanor indicate that he was a well-to-do man, probably an Amsterdam merchant. Similarities between this work and Rembrandt's Syndics of the Cloth Drapers' Guild of 1662 suggest that the two paintings are not far removed in date. The sitter's hairstyle and costume, particularly his wide, flat collar with its tassels, are similar, as is the self-assured gravity that he projects as he focuses his eyes on the viewer from beneath his wide-brimmed black hat.

Unfortunately, large portions of the painting have suffered from abrasion and overpainting, and a thick layer of discolored varnish covers the work. Nevertheless, the sitter’s face has been well preserved, so that the painting retains its powerful presence and the sitter his imposing dignity.

Entry

The identity of this imposing sitter has long been lost, but his dress and demeanor indicate that he was a well-to-do burgher, probably an Amsterdam merchant. The date of the portrait is also unknown, but similarities between this work and Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Cloth Drapers’ Guild of 1662 [fig. 1] suggest that the two paintings are not far removed in date. The sitter’s hairstyle and costume, particularly his wide, flat collar with its tassels, are similar, as is the dignified gravity that he projects as he focuses his eyes on the viewer from beneath his wide-brimmed black hat. Even the herringbone canvases that Rembrandt used for these paintings are comparable.[1]

The vigor and surety of Rembrandt’s brushwork are particularly evident in the head. He has modeled the man’s face with broad strokes heavily loaded with a relatively dry paint. Since it is mixed with little medium, the paint has a broken character that enhances the sitter’s rough-hewn features. Stylistically, this manner of execution is broader than that found in the Gallery’s A Young Man Seated at a Table (possibly Govaert Flinck), with which it is often compared,[2] and, to a certain extent, even broader than that of the Syndics of the Cloth Drapers’ Guild, an evolution of style that suggests a date of execution subsequent to these works, perhaps 1663.

Unfortunately, aside from the well-preserved face and the relative disposition of the figure, it is extremely difficult to make precise assessments about this painting. The basic problem is that the original character of the painting has been distorted through flattening, Abrasion, and discolored varnish.[3] Infrared examination [see Infrared Reflectography] reveals that extensive abrasion in the reddish brown background has been heavily restored. The degree to which the massive black form of the man’s robes has been damaged by abrasion and/or reworking, however, cannot be determined. Presumably, this illegible mass once had some definition of form that would have related to the three-dimensionality of the man’s body.

The issue about the condition of the robe is of some consequence because the X-radiographs [see X-radiography] reveal significant Pentimenti in the figure’s body. Rembrandt originally had depicted the gentleman with an even longer collar and with his hands in quite different positions. The sitter initially held his left hand higher, at waist level [fig. 2]. His cuff was visible, and he held a pair of gloves. The right hand, clasping the armrest of a chair, is harder to read, but it appears as though it used to extend downward in front of the sitter, perhaps resting on or holding some object. To judge from the X-radiographs, these hands were fully modeled. Sharp ridges of lead white paint along their forms indicate that Rembrandt used a palette knife in creating them, a technique not otherwise evident in this painting, but one that Rembrandt began exploiting during the mid-1660s.[4]

As is also clear from the X-radiographs, the different placement of the hands affected the position of the arms. As a result the contour of the body is now much larger than it was originally. It may well be that the sitter initially did not have a cloak draped over his shoulders. X-radiographs also indicate that the crown of the hat was slightly smaller and was silhouetted against a lighter background than at present. At the time that the composition was changed, it is likely that the dimensions of the painting were also reduced.[5]

These changes may have been undertaken to give the sitter a greater presence and added austerity. Moreover, by minimizing the activity of the hands, the head received added emphasis. Unfortunately, large portions of the figure in its present appearance are without visual interest. Because of the thick layers of discolored varnish, it is virtually impossible to determine whether the lack of modeling in the robes results from the condition of the painting or from the quality of the artistic representation. One should not exclude the possibility that someone other than Rembrandt made these changes. In the hands, the only area of the body that can be seen properly, the evidence is not conclusive. The portrayal of the right hand is particularly unsuccessful, and the arm of the chair floats disconcertingly in the midst of the robes surrounding it.[6] Nevertheless, the sitter's left hand is firmly modeled in a manner not unlike that of the face, so an ultimate judgment as to who executed these changes of composition must be reserved until the painting is restored.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014

Provenance

Stanisław August Poniatowski, king of Poland [1732-1798]. (Mr. Noe, Munich). Gasser collection, Vienna. Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich [1773-1859]; purchased by (Otto Mündler, Paris); sold 1865 to Ivor Bertie Guest, 1st baron Wimborne [1835-1914], Canford Manor, Dorsetshire.[1] (Arthur J. Sulley & Co., London); Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, by 1912; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1969
Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art [Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Artist's Death], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no. 21, repro.
Bibliography
1883
Bode, Wilhelm von. Studien zur Geschichte der holländischen Malerei. Braunschweig, 1883: 530, 579-580, no. 148.
1885
Dutuit, Eugène. Tableaux et dessins de Rembrandt: catalogue historique et descriptif; supplément à l'Oeuvre complet de Rembrandt. Paris, 1885: no. 49.
1888
A catalogue of the pictures at Canford Manor in the possession of Lord Wimborne. England, 1888: 62, no. 153, as Portrait of a Dutch Burgomaster.
1893
Michel, Émile. Rembrandt: Sa vie, son oeuvre et son temps. Paris, 1893: 555.
1894
Michel, Émile. Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, and His Time. 2 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. New York, 1894: 2:237.
1897
Bode, Wilhelm von, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. The Complete Work of Rembrandt. 8 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. Paris, 1897-1906: 7:3, 36-37, no. 487, repro.
1899
Bell, Malcolm. Rembrandt van Rijn and His Work. London, 1899: 140.
1904
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart, 1904: 241, repro.
1906
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1906: repro. 368.
1907
Bell, Malcolm. Rembrandt van Rijn. The great masters in painting and sculpture. London, 1907: 124.
1907
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 6(1916):365, no. 781.
1907
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907-1928: 6(1915):327, no. 781.
1907
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. New York, 1907: 368, repro.
1908
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 3rd ed. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1908: repro. 500.
1909
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: Des Meisters Gemälde. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1909: repro. 500.
1913
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis, and Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Pictures in the collection of P. A. B. Widener at Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania: Early German, Dutch & Flemish Schools. Philadelphia, 1913: intro., repro.
1913
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. 2nd ed. New York, 1913: repro. 500.
1914
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. The Art of the Low Countries. Translated by Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer. Garden City, NY, 1914: 249, no. 88.
1921
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Classics in Art 2. 3rd ed. New York, 1921: 500, repro.
1921
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt: wiedergefundene Gemälde (1910-1922). Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 27. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1921: 500, repro.
1923
Meldrum, David S. Rembrandt’s Painting, with an Essay on His Life and Work. New York, 1923: 203, pl. 431.
1923
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1923: unpaginated, repro., as Portrait of a Man Holding a Letter.
1930
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. "Important Rembrandts in American Collections." Art News 28, no. 30 (26 April 1930): 4, pl. 29.
1931
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 66, repro., as Portrait of a Man Holding a Letter.
1931
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt Paintings in America. New York, 1931: intro., no. 160, repro.
1932
Hind, Arthur M. Rembrandt: Being the Substance of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures Delivered before Harvard University 1930-1931. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1932: 89.
1935
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Gemälde, 630 Abbildungen. Vienna, 1935: no. 313, repro.
1935
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Schilderijen, 630 Afbeeldingen. Utrecht, 1935: no. 313, repro.
1935
Tietze, Hans. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935: 320, no. 167.
1936
Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. New York, 1936: no. 313, repro.
1939
Tietze, Hans. Masterpieces of European Painting in America. New York, 1939: no. 167.
1941
National Gallery of Art. Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1941: 165, no. 77.
1942
Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. 2 vols. Translated by John Byam Shaw. Oxford, 1942: 1:no. 313, repro.
1942
National Gallery of Art. Works of art from the Widener collection. Washington, 1942: 6, no. 665.
1948
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. Washington, 1948: 45, no. 665, repro.
1956
Knuttel, Gerhardus. Rembrandt: de meester en zijn werk. Amsterdam, 1956: 219-220, 273.
1959
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. Reprint. Washington, DC, 1959: 45, repro.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 314, repro.
1965
National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 111.
1966
Bauch, Kurt. Rembrandt Gemälde. Berlin, 1966: 23, no. 437, repro.
1968
Gerson, Horst. Rembrandt Paintings. Amsterdam, 1968: 442, repro., 504, no. 401.
1968
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 97, no. 665, repro.
1969
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings. Revised by Horst Gerson. 3rd ed. London, 1969: repro. 241, 574, no. 313.
1969
National Gallery of Art. Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art: Commemorating the tercentenary of the artist's death. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1969: 7, 31, no. 21, repro.
1975
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 290-291, repro.
1977
Bolten, J., and H. Bolten-Rempt. The Hidden Rembrandt. Translated by Danielle Adkinson. Milan and Chicago, 1977: 202, no. 546, repro.
1984
Schwartz, Gary. Rembrandt: Zijn leven, zijn schilderijen. Maarssen, 1984: 338, no. 395, repro.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 279, no. 364, color repro.
1985
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 333, repro.
1985
Schwartz, Gary. Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings. New York, 1985: 338, no. 395, repro.
1986
Tümpel, Christian. Rembrandt. Translated by Jacques and Jean Duvernet, Léon Karlson, and Patrick Grilli. Paris, 1986: repro. 324, 413, no. 219.
1990
Broos, Ben P. J., ed. Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The Hague and Zwolle, 1990: 43 fig. 30, 391 fig. 6.
1995
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 276-279, color repro. 277.
Technical Summary

The support is a medium-weight, herringbone-weave fabric consisting of two pieces seamed horizontally at center, 65 cm from the top. The seam protrudes slightly. The support has been double lined using a gauze interleaf, which is visible in the X-radiographs. The tacking margins have been removed. Absence of cusping on all sides suggests a reduction of the original dimensions. Although a thin ground is present, the color could not be determined because it is obscured by a thin, black layer, which is probably a painted sketch. An additional reddish brown underpainting occurs in selected areas such as the face.

Paint was applied as thick pastes with complex layering and lively brushmarking in the features. Brushes and a palette knife were used to apply the paint, and lines were incised with the butt end of a brush. The figure was painted after the background. The red paint of the table continues underneath the black cloak. Several artist’s changes are visible in the X-radiographs. The proper left arm was originally lower at the shoulder, but bent sharply at the elbow with the hand resting just above the sitter’s lap holding a pair of gloves. The proper right arm originally extended downward, ending in a hand that grasped some draped object. White cuffs were eliminated from both sleeves, the left collar tassel was moved to the right, the collar was shortened, and the hat was slimmed.

Numerous small losses have occurred in the white collar and scattered minor losses are located overall. The face is intact save minute flake losses. Severe abrasion in the background and costume has been inpainted. The paint texture has been flattened, probably due to an aggressive lining procedure. A thick, discolored varnish layer covers the surface.

Related IconClass Terms
31A533
style of hair
41D
fashion and clothing
41D221
hat
41D222
collar
46A131
burghers
48B124
palette knife
48C51
herringbone weave
61B1
portraiture
61B2
portrait +burgher