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.
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
Rembrandt used herringbone canvas in a number of paintings from the 1660s, including the Claudius Civilis (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), Family Portrait (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig), Man with a Magnifying Glass, and Woman Holding a Pink (both Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). See also discussion of the pendants
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
Wilhelm von Bode assisted by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, The Complete Work of Rembrandt, trans. Florence Simmonds, 8 vols. (Paris, 1897–1906), 7:3.
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,
A gradual loss of material on the surface. It can be caused by rubbing, wearing, or scraping against itself or another material. It may be a deteriorative process that occurs over time as a result of weathering or handling or it may be due to a deliberate attempt to smooth the material.
See Technical Summary.
A photographic or digital image analysis method which captures the absorption/emission characteristics of reflected infrared radiation. The absorption of infrared wavelengths varies for different pigments, so the resultant image can help distinguish the pigments that have been used in the painting or underdrawing.
The issue about the condition of the robe is of some consequence because the X-radiographs [see
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
An alteration made by the artist to an area that was already painted.
See the discussion of Rembrandt's
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.
No thread distortions are found along any edge, which is evidence that the painting was once larger on all sides. It is rather unusual for a portrait of this size to have a horizontal seam, a fact that may indicate that the painting was initially quite a bit larger. Syndics of the Cloth Drapers’ Guild has a similar construction (its dimensions are 191.5 x 279 cm).
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.
This area is so confusing that Bode thought that the sitter was holding a letter (Wilhelm von Bode assisted by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, The Complete Work of Rembrandt, trans. Florence Simmonds, 8 vols. [Paris, 1897–1906], 7:36, no. 487). He titled the painting Portrait of a Man in a High Hat Holding a Letter in His Right Hand. This same reading was continued in Cornelis Hofstede de Groot and Wilhelm Reinhold Valentiner, Pictures in the Collection of P. A. B. Widener at Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, vol. 1, Early German Dutch and Flemish Schools (Philadelphia, 1913); Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century, trans. Edward G. Hawke, 8 vols. (London, 1907–1927), 6:365, no. 781; and Bernard Berenson, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, William Roberts, and Wilhelm Reinhold Valentiner, Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall (Elkins Park, Penn., 1923).
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
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. (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.
- 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.
- Bode, Wilhelm von. Studien zur Geschichte der holländischen Malerei. Braunschweig, 1883: 530, 579-580, no. 148.
- Dutuit, Eugène. Tableaux et dessins de Rembrandt: catalogue historique et descriptif; supplément à l'Oeuvre complet de Rembrandt. Paris, 1885: no. 49.
- 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.
- Michel, Émile. Rembrandt: Sa vie, son oeuvre et son temps. Paris, 1893: 555.
- Michel, Émile. Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, and His Time. 2 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. New York, 1894: 2:237.
- 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.
- Bell, Malcolm. Rembrandt van Rijn and His Work. London, 1899: 140.
- Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart, 1904: 241, repro.
- Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1906: repro. 368.
- Bell, Malcolm. Rembrandt van Rijn. The great masters in painting and sculpture. London, 1907: 124.
- 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.
- 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.
- Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. New York, 1907: 368, repro.
- Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 3rd ed. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1908: repro. 500.
- Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: Des Meisters Gemälde. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1909: repro. 500.
- 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.
- 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.
- Valentiner, Wilhelm R. The Art of the Low Countries. Translated by Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer. Garden City, NY, 1914: 249, no. 88.
- Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Classics in Art 2. 3rd ed. New York, 1921: 500, repro.
- Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt: wiedergefundene Gemälde (1910-1922). Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 27. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1921: 500, repro.
- Meldrum, David S. Rembrandt’s Painting, with an Essay on His Life and Work. New York, 1923: 203, pl. 431.
- 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.
- Valentiner, Wilhelm R. "Important Rembrandts in American Collections." Art News 28, no. 30 (26 April 1930): 4, pl. 29.
- 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.
- Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt Paintings in America. New York, 1931: intro., no. 160, repro.
- Hind, Arthur M. Rembrandt: Being the Substance of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures Delivered before Harvard University 1930-1931. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1932: 89.
- Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Gemälde, 630 Abbildungen. Vienna, 1935: no. 313, repro.
- Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Schilderijen, 630 Afbeeldingen. Utrecht, 1935: no. 313, repro.
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- Tietze, Hans. Masterpieces of European Painting in America. New York, 1939: no. 167.
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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
- style of hair
- fashion and clothing
- palette knife
- herringbone weave
- portrait +burgher