The early history of Portrait of a Gentleman with a Tall Hat and Gloves and Portrait of a Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan [fig. 1] is shrouded in mystery, although it seems likely that they were the pair of portraits by Rembrandt listed in the Gerard Hoet sale in The Hague in 1760. They had entered the Yusupov collection by 1803, when the German traveler Heinrich von Reimers saw them during his visit to the family’s palace in Saint Petersburg, then located on the Fontanka River. Prince Nicolai Borisovich Yusupov (1751–1831) acquired the core of this collection on three extended trips to Europe during the late eighteenth century. In 1827 he commissioned an unpublished five-volume catalog of the paintings, sculptures, and other treasures (still in the family archives at the Arkhangelskoye State Museum & Estate outside Moscow) that included a description as well as a pen-and-ink sketch of each object. The portraits hung in the “Salon des Antiques.” His only son and heir, Prince Boris Nicolaievich Yusupov (1794–1849), published a catalog of the collection in French in 1839. An 1864 publication by the director of the Berlin Museum, Gustav Waagen, included a discussion of the Yusupov collection, and his comment about the pair of Rembrandt portraits, that they were “von ausserordentlicher Energie” (of extraordinary energy), was the first of many subsequent positive responses to these works.
The paintings remained secluded and unavailable to most Americans and Europeans until they were shown at the great Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam in 1898. There they made a tremendous impact. By 1911, when Roger Fry reviewed a publication describing an exhibition of old master paintings from Russian private collections held in Saint Petersburg in 1909, he singled out these portraits as follows: “There are, it is true, many interesting and curious works, but very few masterpieces—none indeed of the first rank, if we except the already well-known Rembrandt portraits of the Youssoupoff collection. These, indeed, are of unsurpassed beauty; the woman especially must count, I think, among the greatest of all Rembrandt creations.”
For those who had not had the opportunity to view the paintings in Amsterdam in 1898, engravings of the works in the commemorative volume of that exhibition or in Dr. Wilhelm von Bode’s monumental catalog of Rembrandt’s paintings, published in 1902, provided excellent visual images. Perhaps it was through Bode’s publication that the paintings became known to Peter A. B. Widener, who, according to his grandson, made a special effort to visit Saint Petersburg to see these two works. Widener apparently managed to see the paintings, probably in 1909, even though Prince Felix Yusupov was reluctant to show them to visitors. “The minute [Widener] saw them, he wanted them. He made an offer, but it was promptly rejected. . . . He was very much disappointed.”
Peter A. B. Widener had not as yet developed into the remarkable collector of Rembrandt paintings he was to become, but it was clear that these works made a lasting impression on him. After having been rebuffed by Yusupov, Widener turned to his London dealer, Arthur J. Sulley, to ask him to find a way to convince the prince to part with his treasures. On April 7, 1911, Sulley wrote to Widener saying that he would try to approach Yusupov in the same way that he had approached the Marquis of Lansdowne concerning Rembrandt’s The Mill: “That is to say that my friend is getting an introduction to the owner from one of his personal friends, and is trying to get him to name a price. If the owner will not name any price, I propose (if you agree) to offer him one million rubles, which is about £100,000.” Apparently, though, negotiations proved to be more difficult than Sulley had expected; in a subsequent letter of May 12, 1911, he wrote to Peter’s son, Joseph Widener, that “as far as it is possible to understand anything if anyone gets the Russians we will but as I wrote you last week it is very difficult. I do not think Agnew or anyone else is working at that business now. It has been tried so often without success that people are discouraged. If I do not succeed it will not be because I have left any stone unturned.” The elder Widener died in 1915 without having succeeded in purchasing the paintings.
Although the allure of Widener’s money did not in and of itself convince Prince Yusupov to sell his paintings, these offers clearly pointed out to him the immense value collectors placed upon his two Rembrandt portraits. Thus, when the Russian Revolution forced the Prince’s family to leave Russia, his son, Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov (1887–1967), took with him, among other personal possessions and family jewels, the two Rembrandt paintings. When the younger Yusupov, notorious as the assassin of Rasputin, arrived in London in April 1919, stories of his dramatic escape quickly spread, enhancing the appeal of the Rembrandt paintings. Yusupov sought to exploit his circumstances by offering the paintings for sale at extraordinary prices. Newspapers reported an asking price of £500,000.
In the fall of 1920, Joseph E. Widener (a collector in his own right, as well as caretaker of his father’s collection) received a letter from a Mr. Harold Hartley offering him Yusupov’s paintings for £210,000. Hartley indicated that the prince preferred to sell to an “approved buyer” rather than to a dealer, and also mentioned that the “Prince considers both paintings far superior to ‘The Mill’ and of greater value.” Apparently Widener did not agree to the price, for on July 26, 1921, he received a letter from Francis Tarbox offering him the paintings. “These are being offered for sale at a very low cash price and I am in a position to negotiate same at much lower figure than they can ever again be obtained.”
Joseph Widener arrived in London during the summer of 1921 and examined the paintings in a bank vault where they were being kept as collateral for a loan to the prince. Perhaps totally in good faith, or perhaps as a way to purchase the paintings for a lower price, Widener offered to pay the prince £100,000 with the stipulation that Yusupov could repurchase them within three years at eight percent interest should his financial situation improve to the point where he could once again “keep and personally enjoy these wonderful works of art.” After a series of negotiations, including transatlantic cables, Yusupov agreed, and the paintings were shipped to Lynnewood Hall with much public acclaim. The £100,000 was paid to the prince by Widener’s London agent, Arthur J. Sulley, some ten years after the dealer had begun negotiations to acquire them for Widener’s father.
The story of Joseph Widener’s acquisition of these extraordinary paintings does not, however, end with the events of 1921. Shortly after Widener acquired them, the collector Calouste Gulbenkian was told by the dealer Joseph Duveen that he had “just lost the two best Rembrandts in the world to Widener. He bought them both for a hundred thousand pounds, and each of them is worth that.” Gulbenkian, knowing of Widener’s arrangement with Yusupov, then offered to lend the prince £200,000 to allow him to reestablish his financial position, an offer Yusupov found hard to resist. He thus tried to force Widener to return the paintings. Widener refused, and from this ensued a notorious lawsuit in 1924–1925 over the nature of the arrangement between Widener and Yusupov. Eventually, the case was decided in Widener’s favor, and the paintings remained, along with The Mill, at the core of the collection of Rembrandts at Lynnewood Hall, the Widener estate in Elkins Park outside Philadelphia.
Neither painting appears to be signed or dated, although Valentiner in his 1931 catalog of the Widener Collection noted that the portrait of the woman was signed, “Rembrandt f. 166’ [the last figure illegible].” Dates given to the paintings have all been in the 1660s. When the portraits were exhibited in Amsterdam in 1898, they were dated c. 1660. Bode placed them c. 1662 in his catalog of 1902. Valentiner redated the paintings in 1921 to c. 1668, probably because he tried to identify the figures as Rembrandt’s son Titus and Magdalena van Loo, who were married in that year. Although Valentiner’s identification found little approval, a date of c. 1667 was retained for the paintings in the catalog of the Widener Collection of 1923. Valentiner revised his dating to the first half of the 1660s in his 1931 publication. Bredius, however, returned to the c. 1667 dating in his 1935 edition of Rembrandt’s paintings, a dating that was followed by Bauch and Gerson.
One exception to the consistently late dates given the paintings since the 1930s occurred in the catalog of the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 1969. Here it is noted that neither the costumes nor the painting techniques indicate such a late date for the works. Although these observations are not elaborated upon, the suggestion for an earlier dating than traditionally suggested is a valid one. The woman’s hairstyle, costume, and use of ornate jewelry are all datable to the 1650s rather than to the late 1660s. The translucent lace collar that covers her shoulders and whose elaborate lower edge continues horizontally across her body is seen in a number of portraits from this period, including Abraham del Court and His Wife Maria de Kaersgieter, 1654, by Bartholomeus van der Helst (c. 1613–1670 [fig. 2], and Portrait of a Young Woman, 1656, by Isaak Luttichuys (1616–1673) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Finally, the plain white cuffs edged with lace are similar to those in Rembrandt’s A Woman Holding a Pink of 1656. Also similar in these examples is the manner in which the collar is fastened by an ornate bow and decorated with a circular pin or pendant.
The hairstyle and costume of the man are more difficult to date than are those of the woman, partly because the collar and cuffs have been altered (see Technical Summary). To judge from the X-radiographs ([fig. 3]) [see X-radiography], the simple rectangular shape of the collar the man originally wore was also comparable to styles in the mid-1650s. After the early 1660s, fashions changed, and men began to wear collars that extended farther down their chest (see, for example, Portrait of a Man in a Tall Hat). Just when Rembrandt provided the sitter with a more decorative lace collar is not known, but the alteration probably occurred in the late 1650s.
Costume styles are usually only a rough measurement of date because old styles were frequently worn after new ones were introduced, particularly by older and more conservative people. These sitters, however, appear to be in their late thirties or early forties, and, judging from the woman’s jewelry, wealthy. It seems unlikely that they would have had themselves portrayed in outmoded fashions, which, on the basis of costume analysis, would suggest a date for these portraits in the mid-to-late 1650s.
Stylistically, such a date for these paintings is also compatible with Rembrandt’s other works. In no painting of his from the mid-1660s does one find the careful modeling of the woman’s hands and face, the suggestions of texture as seen in her features, jewelry, and lace, or the broad planar way in which forms are illuminated by the light. No hint of the palette knife is to be found in either work. Similarities of style and technique, however, do exist in paintings from the late 1650s, in particular between the woman and Rembrandt’s portrait of Catherine Hooghsaet, signed and dated 1657 (Penrhyn Castle, Wales). The left hand of each sitter, for example, is depicted in a similar manner.
The portrait of the man is more boldly executed than that of the woman in that the modeling does not have the same restrained, planar quality. Brushstrokes on the man’s face are broken and roughly juxtaposed as Rembrandt modeled his sharply illuminated features with sure strokes of varying tones of pinks and ochers. The boldness of Rembrandt’s touch originally must have been even more pronounced, for X-radiographs demonstrate that both of the man’s cuffs and hands were more abstractly rendered than they now appear. The fact that the gloves held by the gentleman in his left hand are cut at the bottom edge of the composition suggests that the paintings were once slightly larger. One could imagine that the figures were initially situated in a more spacious setting, which suggests that they have been trimmed on all sides. The dimensions of the pendant portraits in the Hoet sale of 1760 loosely correspond to the paintings’ current sizes, so any reduction in size must have occurred at an earlier date.
The bold manner with which Portrait of a Gentleman with a Tall Hat and Gloves is executed is related to Rembrandt’s painting technique in male portraits of the late 1650s. In earlier portraits, such as Jan Six, 1654 [fig. 4], Rembrandt firmly modeled the face with similar short, bold strokes, but his approach in these two instances is slightly different. Whereas the short strokes in the face of the Six portrait join to form distinct planes of light and color, those in the Washington portrait are more roughly executed and loosely blended. In this respect they approach the technique he used in his A Young Man Seated at a Table (possibly Govaert Flinck), which dates to c. 1660. Particularly close in these two portraits are the techniques used to model the nose, where strokes from the flesh tones are drawn over a darker color that defines the shadowed edge of the nostril. Similar techniques occur in the shadowed areas around the eyes [fig. 5] and [fig. 6].
An unusual technical feature reinforces the probability that Rembrandt executed these two portraits in the late 1650s: they were both originally painted on a herringbone-weave canvas, a support Rembrandt is not known to have used earlier in his career. The paintings were removed from these supports and transferred onto finely woven canvases. Presumably, this transfer was made in Russia in the nineteenth century.
There seems little question that these works were conceived as companion portraits. Not only were they together in the Yusupov collection by the beginning of the nineteenth century, but the poses assumed by the figures are comparable to those in pendant paintings by other masters. Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 - 1641), for example, painted pendant portraits of Peeter Stevens and Anna Wake in 1627 and 1628 (Mauritshuis, The Hague), in which Stevens gestures to his bride, who holds an ostrich-feather fan in her hand. In 1641 Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck (Dutch, 1606/1609 - 1662) painted a standing couple in much the same way: he holding his gloves (Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede), she an ostrich-feather fan (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). In Rembrandt’s portraits the subtle interaction of the two, he gesturing toward her while looking at the viewer and she glancing in his direction and holding the fan so that it inclines toward him, is restrained yet poignant. Their expressions have qualities of warmth and trust that convey much about the nature of human relationships.
The question that remains unanswered is the identity of the sitters. The circle of wealthy friends and acquaintances at that period of Rembrandt’s life who might have ordered portraits was rather small. Valentiner’s hypothesis that they represented Rembrandt’s son Titus and his wife, Magdalena van Loo, has long since been rejected. A suggestion by Dr. I. H. van Eeghen that they represent Jacob Louysz Trip (1636–1664) and his wife, Margarita Hendricksdr Trip (1637–1711), is doubtful. Van Eeghen’s premise was primarily that the Trip family was one of the few rich families in Amsterdam that continued to give portrait commissions to Rembrandt during his later years. Nevertheless, these sitters appear to be in their late thirties or early forties and not in their twenties, as Jacob and Margarita would have been in the late 1650s. None of these possible identities can, however, be verified, which is particularly unfortunate because so little is known about Rembrandt’s patrons at this stage of his career.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014