In this imposing half-length portrait a bearded man wearing an elaborate, bejeweled turban stares out at the viewer, his features strongly modeled by light streaming in from the left. A fur-lined cape, loosely clasped at the neck with a gold chain, covers his shoulders. His right hand grasps the sash that wraps around his waist, while his other hand rests upon a wooden staff.
During the 1630s Rembrandt depicted in his paintings, drawings, and etchings numerous figures who wear Middle Eastern attire. While the commercial enterprises of the Dutch Republic had reached the Middle East by the early seventeenth century and Levantines were to be seen in the streets and marketplaces of Amsterdam, Rembrandt’s images are not portraits of these people. Rather, they are imaginative evocations of a distant culture that have as their basis Dutch models, including Rembrandt himself, dressed in exotic costumes.
The reasons for this fascination with the Middle East are many. There existed a great interest in exotica in the Netherlands during this period, which was also manifested in the collecting patterns of wealthy patricians. Objects from all parts of the world, including shells, swords, musical instruments, and costumes, were avidly sought by collectors. Rembrandt’s own collection was a kunstkamer of this type. Scheller has demonstrated that Rembrandt’s motivation for his encyclopedic collection of art and artifacts was that he wanted to be recognized as a member of this class of gentlemen-virtuosi.
Rembrandt’s interest in the East, however, had deeper significance than mere exoticism. His aspiration as an artist was to be a history painter—a painter of biblical and mythological subjects who would not only portray the stories that comprised his cultural heritage but would also evoke the essential character of those whose lives and actions had had such an impact upon mankind. The particular appeal of the Middle East to Rembrandt stemmed largely from the fact that the stories of the Bible had taken place in that distant region. The images of Levantine patriarchs that appear in his paintings, etchings, and drawings of the early 1630s evoke the character of those people, their inner strength and dignity.
The sitter in this painting has no attributes to indicate that he represents a specific person. It is not even possible to determine whether Rembrandt considered this mode of dress to be that of a contemporary or of a biblical figure. Given the presence of similarly dressed figures in his biblical scenes from the early to mid-1630s, the latter seems more probable. Particularly close to Man in Oriental Costume is the frontally posed oriental figure on horseback in The Raising of the Cross, 1632 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), which Rembrandt painted as one of a series of the Passion scenes for Prince Frederik Hendrik. The model for Man in Oriental Costume, dressed in a similar although more elaborate costume, is also seen as the main protagonist in Rembrandt’s dramatic Belshazzar’s Feast, c. 1635 [fig. 1]. Comparisons with this latter work, and with a number of etchings of similar oriental figures dated 1635, suggest an approximate date of 1635 for this painting.
As seen today, Man in Oriental Costume is not what Rembrandt originally intended: X-radiographs reveal that the canvas has been cut on all four sides. No evidence of thread distortions appears at either the right or bottom, and only traces of them appear along the left side and top. One may speculate that the original dimensions approached those of a comparable painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the three-quarter-length portrait Man in Oriental Costume, 1632 [fig. 2]. Just when the Gallery’s painting was cut down is unknown, although it occurred after the signature was applied (the R of Rembrandt has been cut off) and before G. F. Schmidt’s etching of the painting (in reverse) in 1756 [fig. 3].
The image seems never to have been completed. The lower half of the body has been blocked in, in thinly applied paints: gray for the cloak, maroon for the undergarment, and ochers for the hands. Only the chain attaching the cloak has some impasto. None of the final modeling tones, which would have given this portion of the torso volume and density, have been applied. The head, in contrast, is fully defined with densely applied paints that carefully delineate the features, the beard, the turban, and the wrinkles around the eyes. The contrast between the treatment of the head and turban and the lower torso is unique among Rembrandt’s paintings. Because it serves no logical stylistic or iconographic purpose, one can only conclude that the painting has been left in an unfinished state, and that the paint on the lower torso represents the underpainting, or, as it was known in the seventeenth century, dead-coloring, that was intended to serve as a basis for the final modeling of the form. Since the painting appears to be unfinished, it seems curious that it is signed. The signature may have been added somewhat later. The straight stem on the b, unusual for the early to mid-1630s, is similar to that on etchings later in the decade.
The extent to which the treatment of the torso and head differ had long been obscured by layers of discolored varnish. With the 1987 conservation treatment, this remarkable phenomenon, which can now be studied more precisely than was previously possible, provides much information about Rembrandt’s working procedure. The ground layer upon which he worked was light gray and seems to have been uniform across the whole surface. He then added a deeper gray color for the background, modeling it slightly to indicate the play of light against the backdrop. The area in which he intended to place the figure was left in reserve, although he extended the background color slightly beyond the proposed contour of the figure’s form. The extent of this layer, as it defined the general parameters of the figure, can be seen in the X-radiograph [see X-radiography] of the head [fig. 4].
After completing this process, Rembrandt blocked in the form in muted colors that related to his eventual color scheme. He modeled the right hand more completely than he did the left because it was illuminated by light and the other was not. He depicted the chain with a few rapid strokes of lead-tin yellow, but only sketchily indicated its form.
In its surety and similarity to other, more completed images by Rembrandt, this underpainted layer is totally convincing as being the work of the master. The right hand of Man in Oriental Costume, for example, is remarkably similar in structure to that of A Polish Nobleman. The relatively finished execution of the face and turban, however, is problematic. Although bold strokes around the eyes suggest the wrinkles and folds of the skin, the eyes lack that sense of life so characteristic of Rembrandt’s images. An excellent comparison is the 1633 painting in Munich, A Man in Oriental Costume [fig. 5], in which Rembrandt’s characterization of the face through the eyes is unmistakable. The treatment of the beards in these two paintings is also different: whereas the curls of the hair of the Gallery’s Man in Oriental Costume have a quite regular rhythm, a variety of waves animate the beard of the figure in the Munich painting. Finally, the yellow highlights in the colorful turban in the Gallery’s picture sit on the surface of the cloth and do not become part of its structure as they do in the Munich painting.
A similar comparison can be made with the head of Belshazzar in Rembrandt’s large-scale Belshazzar’s Feast (see [fig. 1]). In this instance the similarities in the brushwork on the face, particularly in the modeling around the left eye, are extremely close, so much so that it would seem to confirm an attribution to Rembrandt. Nevertheless, the comparison also points out the relative lack of vitality in the man’s face. The technique used to paint Belshazzar’s turban and crown, moreover, is much freer. Whereas dense paint seems to have been applied with broad and rapid strokes of the brush in Belshazzar’s Feast, in Man in Oriental Costume the paint is more carefully applied to distinguish the various colors and patterns of the turban.
The range of techniques Rembrandt used to execute his works during the mid-1630s is extremely broad. Since nothing is known about the circumstances of this painting—whether it was a commissioned piece or why it was left unfinished—one must be cautious in discussing attribution issues. Nevertheless, this work appears to be an instance where Rembrandt blocked in a composition to provide a foundation for a particularly talented assistant, one who had mastered the techniques Rembrandt had devised for painting such fanciful portraits. In this case that assistant worked up the turban, head, and shoulders before the final execution was abandoned for some reason. It may well be that at a final stage Rembrandt would have returned to the painting to add accents that would enliven the image. Such a process, which admittedly is not documented by contemporary sources, would help explain why it is so difficult to distinguish the hands of talented assistants such as Govaert Flinck (Dutch, 1615 - 1660) and Ferdinand Bol (Dutch, 1616 - 1680) while they were active in Rembrandt’s workshop. After they left the workshop and began to provide their own compositional foundations, the individualities of their styles became quite obvious.
Although the identity of the assistant who worked on Man in Oriental Costume is not known, it may well be the same artist who executed The Apostle Paul in Vienna [fig. 6]. This painting, which must date to about 1634, is executed with much the same bold modeling in the face, and the gentle flow of the rhythms of Paul’s beard and hair are comparable. Also similar in the two paintings are the simplified contour of the shoulders and the broad zigzag pattern of folds in the robe of the oriental figure and on Paul’s right sleeve. The Vienna painting has been convincingly attributed to Govaert Flinck; thus it may be hypothesized that he was also responsible for the finished portions of Man in Oriental Costume.
Flinck, who came to Rembrandt in 1633 after having studied with Lambert Jacobsz (c. 1598–1636) in Leeuwarden, must have been particularly suited for working as an assistant on such historicizing paintings, for he would have been trained in such works by his teacher. Indeed, Lambert Jacobsz painted the large Saint Paul in Prison in 1629 (Frisian Museum, Leeuwarden), which is quite close in concept to the Vienna painting.
Whether or not Flinck was the assistant on the Gallery’s painting, the type of involved collaboration between Rembrandt and an assistant that seems to be demonstrated in this piece serves as a reminder to those who would try to separate too narrowly Rembrandt’s work from paintings produced in the studio. The fundamental question that needs to be asked is whether Rembrandt perceived collaborative paintings such as Man in Oriental Costume, which were executed in the workshop, as fundamentally different from those executed totally by his own hand. Thus far there is no indication to that effect. Indeed, given the fact that the imagination had priority over execution in contemporary art theory, it seems virtually certain that he would have understood such works as forming an integral part of his artistic production.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014