This painting of a stylish young man, posed with one arm akimbo and the other gracefully resting on the table beside him, is one of Rembrandt's most sympathetic late portraits. The sitter’s handsome features and gentle expression, framed by the long locks of his hair, suggest warmth and sensitivity. At the same time, the understated simplicity of his dress, from the plain white collar, left open at the neck, to his black costume and hat, reinforces the sense of self-assurance so evident in the pose.
The name of the sitter is not known. The traditional designation that he is a “young man” seems based more on his elegant pose than on the nature of his face or hands. With his angular features and somewhat heavy eyes, the sitter seems more mature, probably in his early to mid-forties. Uncertainty has also surrounded the date of the painting, despite the fact that it is signed and dated in the middle right background. When the signature and date were first noticed at the end of the nineteenth century they were read as: “Rembrandt f. 1662”. By 1935 scholars interpreted the date as “1663”. Indeed, the signature and date are extremely difficult to decipher, and today the last digit of the date is no longer legible. Whether it was more legible in 1893 or in 1935 and whether the reading “1662” or “1663” was correct are impossible to determine. Although such dates are stylistically plausible, the face is more delicately modeled than one would expect after the boldly executed heads found in Rembrandt’s paintings Jacob Trip and Margaretha de Geer (National Gallery, London) of around 1661 and The Syndics of the Cloth Drapers’ Guild [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Rembrandt van Rijn, Syndics of the Cloth Drapers' Guild, 1662, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, which he executed in 1662. The impact of these works on his portrait style is evident in the impastos and rough execution of the face of the subject depicted in A Young Man, a portrait said to be dated 1663 (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London), or in Portrait of a Man in a Tall Hat, which must have been executed in the mid-1660s.
In Young Man Seated at a Table Rembrandt’s brushwork is relatively smooth, as is appropriate for the youthful appearance of the sitter. While he has used rapid strokes of the brush in the impastos on the forehead to suggest highlights and has painted the hair wet-into-wet, the features are not built up with striking juxtapositions of dense impastos and revealed underlying layers of paint. Instead, Rembrandt has modulated his forms with carefully nuanced strokes that capture the play of light on the sitter’s face. Subtle accents along the eyelids, in the lower portions of the whites of the eyes, and in the irises help bring the man’s face to life. Because the style falls somewhere between the more densely painted and carefully articulated portraits from the late 1650s and the roughly executed portraits of the early 1660s, it seems appropriate to propose, as others have done, a date of about 1660 for this work.
The attribution of this painting has never been questioned, and there is no reason to do so. Indeed, Horst Gerson considered it “one of the most beautiful of the late commissioned portraits.” Much of its beauty stems from the subtle fusion of Rembrandt’s vigorous brushwork with a graceful pose reminiscent of portraits by Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 - 1641). Unfortunately, as Gerson also mentioned, the work has suffered, most particularly in the thinly painted hands. The character of the left hand, however, is confusing, for brushstrokes belonging to an initial concept are visible through the fingers. This earlier hand, which is more fully visible in the X-radiographs [see X-radiographyA 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.], was lower and may have had a stronger accent of light upon it than does the current hand [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Detail of left hand, X-radiograph composite, Rembrandt van Rijn, A Young Man Seated at a Table (possibly Govaert Flinck), c. 1660, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.77. Another change evident in the X-radiographs is that the white collar originally jutted higher and covered a bit of the sitter’s face, just to the left of his chin.
Behind the figure a large rectangular form, read in the 1935 Rijksmuseum exhibition catalogue as a window opening with a beveled windowsill, can be vaguely discerned. A bluish black curtain was thought to be to the left of this window. Jeroen Giltaij also interprets this rectangular form as an open window. The right edge of the shape curves slightly outward near the bottom in such a way as to suggest that the form is not a window but a stretched canvas. With such a backdrop the painting could well depict a painter seated before a canvas. Indeed, the relaxed, informal pose of the sitter speaks to such an interpretation. Rembrandt had already depicted the artist Jan Asselijn (Dutch, c. 1610 - 1652) in such a manner, seated before one of his paintings in an etching of about 1647 [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Asselijn, c. 1647, etching, drypoint and burin, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.7137. Comparable as well is the Portrait of Paulus Potter, 1654 (Mauritshuis, The Hague), by Bartholomeus van der Helst (c. 1613–1670).
Should the Gallery’s portrait represent an artist, an unexpected but probable sitter is Govaert Flinck (Dutch, 1615 - 1660)—if one is to judge from the engraved portrait of him, here shown in reverse, included in Arnold Houbraken’s De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen of 1753 [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Arnold Houbraken, Govert Flinck, shown in reverse, from De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, The Hague, 1753. Although the source for Houbraken’s print is not known, the image he depicts resembles to a remarkable degree the sitter in Rembrandt’s portrait. Not only are the shapes of the eyes, nose, and mouth similar, Flinck had a similar mustache and also long, flowing hair. If the portrait does represent Flinck, Rembrandt would presumably have painted it before February 2, 1660, the date of Flinck’s unexpected death at the age of forty-four, unless it was a posthumous portrait.
Whether Govaert Flinck would have asked Rembrandt for a portrait at this stage of his career is, of course, a legitimate question. Flinck was at the height of his fame in 1660. He had long since left the orbit of Rembrandt, with whom he had studied in the mid-1630s, to become a successful portrait and history painter in a classicizing style admired by the important patrons he associated with in both Amsterdam and his native Germany. He was wealthy and well connected, and had a remarkable collection with a heavy concentration of sculpture and paintings by Italian and Flemish masters, including Anthony van Dyck. In 1659 Flinck had received the most prestigious commission of his life: he was asked by the burgomasters to create twelve large paintings for the gallery of the Town Hall of Amsterdam. The world in which he operated seems so different from the one in which Rembrandt moved.
Nevertheless, Rembrandt’s genius as a portrait painter was still widely acknowledged by certain segments of Amsterdam’s population, including artists and art collectors. A number of his late portraits, both etched and painted, were indeed of artists or art collectors, and Flinck could qualify on both accounts. More important, this portrait has an immediacy that suggests personal as well as professional contacts between the sitter and the painter. That the aging master, who had been overlooked for the enormous commission to decorate the town hall, produced such an affectionate portrait of his former protégé, either just prior to his unexpected death or in reaction to it, is perhaps too much to ask. Yet the evidence, such as it is, allows for this possibility.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014